7 Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods

Seven probiotic- and prebiotic-packed foods to nourish your gut, help prevent cancer, and more.

You already know yogurt, kimchi, and other fermented foods are great for gut health, and they’re also powerful allies in preventing cancer. But probiotics can’t do it alone; they need nourishment—and that’s where prebiotics come in. Foods such as burdock root, sunchokes, onions, and barley are rich in compounds that encourage the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. And there’s a big benefit to getting your prebiotics from food: Inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and other prebiotic compounds added to probiotic supplements are often chemically derived and can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea in their isolated form. Feed healthy bacteria, nourish your gut, and reduce your risk of cancer with these seven healing foods.

1. Onions 

Are high in inulin and FOS, naturally occurring prebiotics that feed beneficial gut bacteria and support immune function. Onions also contain antioxidants like quercetin, which further reduce the risk of colon cancer and other forms of cancer. Garlic contains many of the same compounds as onions, and has similar protective effects.

Recipe tips: Brush halved onions with olive oil, roast until tender, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar and minced rosemary; sauté onions, garlic, red peppers, and kale, then toss with cooked lentils.

2. Barley 

Is rich in beta-glucan, a prebiotic fiber that significantly impacts the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and enhances their effectiveness. Beta-glucans also improve immune function, reduce inflammation, and protect against colon cancer and other forms of cancer. Oats, shiitake mushrooms, reishi mushrooms, and seaweed are also high in beta-glucan.

Recipe tips: Combine cooked barley with cucumbers, red peppers, black olives, chickpeas, and feta cheese; toss diced, roasted root vegetables with cooked barley, olive oil, and thyme; simmer barley with cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans for a hearty breakfast bowl.

3. Sunchokes

Also called Jerusalem artichokes, are the root that’s a member of the sunflower family. They are loaded with fiber, most of which is in the form of inulin. Studies show that sunchokes enhance beneficial gut bacteria, and may be more effective than chicory root, the most commonly used source of prebiotics. Like other forms of inulin, sunchokes also support immune function, prevent inflammation, and protect against colon cancer, colorectal cancer, and other forms of cancer.

Recipe tips: Thinly slice sunchokes, toss with coconut oil, and roast until crispy; simmer sunchokes, potatoes, and cauliflower in broth, and purée into a creamy soup; cube sunchokes, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas, and sauté for breakfast hash.

4. Burdock Root

From a plant related to sunflowers, is traditionally used in Asian medicine and cuisine. It’s rich in inulin and FOS to nourish healthy intestinal bacteria, improve gut health, fight harmful bacteria, and improve immune function. Burdock also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and contains compounds that protect against colon, breast, pancreatic, and liver cancers.

Recipe tips: Cut burdock root and carrots into matchsticks, sauté in sesame oil, and sprinkle with tamari and black sesame seeds; drizzle shredded burdock root and sweet potatoes with olive oil and garlic, roast until tender, and top with shredded nori; simmer thinly sliced burdock root and ginger root in water, then strain for a healing tea.

5. Tempeh

Made from fermented soybeans, is high in probiotics to support gut health and improve immune function. It’s also loaded with compounds that protect against colon cancer and other forms of cancer. A high intake of soy is linked with a reduced risk for colorectal cancer, and in one study, soy consumption lowered colorectal cancer risk in women by 21 percent. Tempeh is generally considered a better source of soy protein than tofu. The fermentation process breaks down phytic acid—a compound that inhibits mineral absorption—and other antinutrients in soy, and creates vitamin B, typically found only in animal products.

Recipe tips: Make meat-free pasta sauce with crumbled tempeh, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, and oregano; toss thinly sliced tempeh with olive oil, and roast until crispy; thread tempeh cubes, onions, red peppers, and mushrooms on a skewer and grill.

6. Kimchi

A spicy Korean condiment made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables, is rich in lactic acid bacteria that support digestive health, suppress the growth and development of pathogenic bacteria, and improve immune function. Kimchi also has anti-inflammatory properties and protects against cancer. The lactic acid bacteria in kimchi appear to suppress enzymes that activate carcinogens. And because it’s made with cabbage, kimchi also contains glucosinolates, compounds found in cruciferous vegetables that
reduce the risk of colon cancer and other forms of cancer.

Recipe tips: Mix kimchi with mayonnaise for a zesty sandwich spread; add kimchi, baby spinach, and scallions to scrambled eggs; make Asian tacos with kimchi, cooked tempeh, and shredded red cabbage.

7. Yogurt 

Is a great source of probiotics that improve gut health. In one study, high yogurt intake was significantly associated with a decreased risk of colorectal cancers. Other studies suggest that yogurt also protects against bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, and other forms of cancer. And since the fermentation process converts lactose in yogurt into lactic acid, some people with lactose sensitivity can tolerate yogurt. Because commercial production methods may destroy probiotics, store-bought yogurts vary widely in their content of live probiotics. Look for brands that contain active or live cultures, or make your own.

Recipe tips: Purée yogurt with matcha green tea powder and minced ginger; whisk yogurt with mashed avocado, minced onion, cumin, and cilantro for gut-friendly guac; add pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachios, and honey
to yogurt and freeze in ice pop trays.

Make it: Barley & Chicken Bowls

More: Gut Health 101: Top Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods