Probiotics: Superfoods of the Mediterranean Diet

Probiotics Feta

Listen to Yiayia! It’s good for you! Lifestyle & Health Columnist Roula Marinos Papamihail, CHHC talks about probiotics in the Mediterranean Diet, and why they’re so good for us.


Mediterranean Diet and Probiotics

We know the Mediterranean Diet is the healthiest way to eat. Last time, we talked about some of the prebiotic superfoods in this way of eating. There’s been much discussion lately about probiotics. Read on to learn why probiotics are so important, and some examples in our traditional Mediterranean/Greek Diet.


Greek yogurt with walnuts and honey
Greek yogurt is chock-full of healthy probiotics. COURTESY: Fliker


Why probiotics?

The research surrounding probiotics, probiotic supplements, and fermented foods continue to grow. The fact that the addition of probiotics into one’s diet is a must for optimal health has gone mainstream. Not only have probiotics been linked to brain health andimmune support, but we’ve now learned that the lack of probiotics is being attributed to a number of neurodegenerative and/or psychiatric disorders as well.


What are probiotics?

The word probiotic comes from the Latin word pro (“for”) and the Greek  word bios (“life”).

 “Probiotics are live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. These microorganisms can be bacterial, viral, or yeast, and can generally only be seen under a microscope.”  ~ World Health Organization, 2001


Best sources of probiotics

Since our society has an overall “quick fix” mentality, many individuals try to supplement with over-the-counter probiotics rather than ingesting them from more traditional sources. While there are many probiotics supplements on the market today — both effective and ineffective — research continuous to demonstrate that probiotics found in naturally fermented foods are the most potent.

Fermented foods (also referred to as cultured foods) have abundant amounts of microorganisms (probiotics) along with the added benefit of being the most efficient and stable vehicle for administration. In other words, the chances of the probiotics reaching your inner gut, are a lot higher when eaten from food, rather a supplement.


 Related: Mediterranean Diet is Loaded with Prebiotic Superfoods


Benefits of probiotics

Let’s examine some of the benefits.


Fermented foods in the Mediterranean/Greek Diet are loaded with probiotics

Some parts of the world are well known for their variety of traditionally fermented dishes. Greece also encompasses a few traditional fermented foods that have been consumed for hundreds of years.

Prior to refrigeration and chemical processing methods, fermentation was the main method of food preservation. The wonderful byproduct of this ancient technique is the formulation of hundreds, if not thousands, of various healthy probiotic strains.

Let’s look at some:


Greek Olives

Olives are considered to be one of the very first processed foods through fermentation (and/or curing). Olives are cured prior to eating due to their extremely bitter taste.

Their health benefits are many. So many in fact that there is currently an active effort to have olives classified as a functional food: afood that improves health or well-being by providing benefit beyond that of the traditional nutrients it contains.

The frequent consumption of olives has multiple health benefits, including:

Olives are also anti-inflammatory and are considered one of nature’s most potent mucus dissolvers in the body. In addition, the antioxidant-rich phytonutrients in olives help us to avoid “oxidative stress” and protects against the damaging effects of cellular oxidation; key factors in the development of cancer.


Probiotics Olives
Who knew olives were a Superfood? COURTESY:


Pickling vs. Fermenting  

Keep in mind that pickling is not the same as fermenting. Foods that are pickled are those that have been preserved in some type of acidic medium (i.e. lemon, wine, vinegar). In the case of various types of supermarket olives, the pickling often comes from vinegar and/or wine. These olives are not fermented (even though vinegar and wine itself are a product of fermentation) and hence, do not offer the probiotic value that traditionally fermented olives do.


Buyer beware

Preparation processes for olives vary between regions, types of olives and culture. Try to source olives that have been naturally fermented in salt water brine, without the addition of chemical curing agents and/or vinegar is key if trying to consume olives for their probiotic benefits. While the research seems conflicting as to how potent olives are when trying to measure probiotic levels, recent studies continue to support their existence.

TIP: Look for olives preserved in filtered water and salt, and that form their own acidic liquid called lactic acid. These are the most beneficial, as they are a fermented food with a bio-film of probiotics.



Made from sheep’s milk or sometimes combined with goat milk, feta cheese is typically easy to digest. It’s much less allergenic and inflammatory than cheeses made from cow’s milk, making it much easier to tolerate for many that suffer from cow’s milk allergies and/or intolerances.

Interestingly, feta has been a source of legal disputes in recent decades. Some countries have tried labeling cow’s milk cheese as feta and the EU was forced to deem the term feta as a PPO “a protected product of origin,” of Greece. Other manufacturers are now required to label their similar products as “feta-style” cheeses rather than “feta”.

It’s no wonder the battle has ensued, since feta is considered one of the healthiest cheeses.

Some of “real” feta’s benefits:


Probiotics Feta
Listen to Yiayia! It’s good for you! Feta is loaded with probiotics. COURTESY:

Feta and digestion

In terms of digestion, feta is high in mineral chloride, which is needed by the human body to produce hydrochloric acid (HCL)in the stomach. Efficient HCL levels are needed to effectively break down and digest food.

HCL is the primary gastric acid secreted by our stomachs and its regulation is critical for the maintenance of overall digestive health. Functions include: sterilizing the food we eat to prevent harmful bacteria from entering our GI tract. It triggers the release of enzymes, such as pepsin, which is essential for the digestion of protein. Finally, many minerals are dependent on HCL for optimal assimilation such as magnesium, chromium, copper, iron, and manganese (just to name a few).

Note that feta is a perfectly balanced traditional Greek food. Its high levels of the mineral chloride allow for the optimal digestion of its high levels of protein by triggering the release of the enzyme pepsin, needed for optimal protein digestion.

TIP: Avoid pasteurized feta and purchase raw feta. While pasteurization is promoted as a benefit to help kill possible pathogenic bacteria in our food, unfortunately it kills the good bacteria (probiotics) as well.


Greek Yogurt

No list of traditional Greek probiotic food would be complete without Greek yogurt. This cultured (fermented) superfood packs a powerhouse.

Among its benefits:


Related: Greek Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts Does a Body Good


It’s no surprise that research about bacteria on our skin and the use of topical probiotics is also expanding. Considering that humans have two microbiomes, one in our gut and one on our skin, it’s only a matter of time before applying yogurt to our faces (just like Yiayia used to recommend!) becomes the norm for optimal skin health.



Made from yogurt, tzatziki has roots in ancient Greece, where it was called “myttiko.”  It offers all of the benefits associated with cultured yogurt, along with the many benefits of cucumbers and garlic.


Traditionally-fermented Greek wines

While probiotic counts in fermented wines have not been measured as extensively as they have in fermented foods, some studies have been done. They reveal that probiotics are indeed found in fermented wine! Just one more benefit to think about the next time you drink some of your Greek uncle’s (or your own!) homemade Greek wine.


Histamine intolerance

IMPORTANT: Histamine intolerance is the intolerance towards “normal” levels of histamine in food caused by a decreased activity of the histamine-degrading enzymes diamine oxidase (DAO) or histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT). Individuals that have a histamine intolerance may not be able to tolerate fermented foods. As always, check in with your body during and after consuming a new food.


Mediterranean Diet for optimal health

The Mediterranean (a.k.a. Greek diet) continues to prove, time and again that its synergistic combinations, along with traditional preservation methods, make it the optimal way to eat.


Looking for additional ways to optimize your Greek food? Download my FREE guide! Optimal Greek: A Handful of Traditional Greek Recipes Prepared In Ways That Provide Optimal Nutrition.

More from Roula Marinos Papamihail, CHHC

Greek Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts Does a Body Good

Mediterranean Diet is Loaded with Prebiotic Superfoods

3 Reasons Why You Should Add Beets to Your Mediterranean Diet

Thanks for reading! You’re part of a growing audience around the globe that relies on WindyCity Greek to discover the Best of the Greek World. It’s becoming more and more expensive to produce this publication and maintain the site. We want to keep our publication and website free, so people across the globe may find out about the innovative and exciting endeavors of Greeks around the world. If you’re enjoying this magazine and site, we humbly ask you for your support, so we may continue to bring you the Best of the Greek World. We appreciate it! Sponsor us today!
Tagged with: