A Complete Guide to Vegan Probiotic Sources
The thought of bacteria in your gut probably makes you uneasy, but the reality is your digestive tract is home to millions of these organisms, and many are critical for health.
These “good” bacteria, which help you digest food and keep you feeling healthy, light, and energized, are called probiotics.
Beyond digestive health, probiotics have also been shown to play a role in strengthening the immune system and supporting mental health. These friendly flora are found naturally in your body, but you can also get probiotics from food.
Dairy products usually get all the glory when it comes to probiotics - nearly every dairy-based yogurt advertisement touts the high probiotic content of the product and its positive effect on digestion.
If you abstain from animal-based milk products because you’re vegan, or because you’re lactose intolerant (nearly 75% of adults are), it may seem like you’re doomed to suffer through poor digestive health.
Luckily, however, there are plenty of plant-based sources of probiotics that are vegan- and allergen-friendly, with none of the cruelty of the dairy industry or irritation that can be caused by the lactose in milk.
Let’s take a high-level look at some of the foods in the plant kingdom that are rich in belly-healing probiotics.
An Overview of Dairy-Free Probiotic Sources
Most probiotic supplements will tell you the strength of the supplement regarding the number of bacteria in each capsule - usually somewhere in the millions.
However, the information is much more difficult to come by when it comes to whole food sources, as a number of bacteria can change drastically depending on the fermentation time, storage method, and amount of heat the food was exposed to.
Instead of giving the exact probiotic counts for each food, we’ve provided the agreed upon servings that deliver a punch of probiotics.
Probiotic Food Source
8 fluid ounces
8 fluid ounces
Yes, believe it or not, the humble fermented cabbage is the top of the chart when it comes to plant-based probiotics, blowing the competition out of the water with some recipes packing nearly ten trillion bacteria in just 4-6 ounces of the stuff - that’s more than a bottle of 100-count probiotic capsules.
Can you believe people write this stuff off as a condiment for hot dogs?
To get the full panel of benefits from sauerkraut, the homemade stuff is a must - luckily, sauerkraut is incredibly easy to make at home, and this will allow you to control the amount of sodium that goes in (which can be high in store-bought brands), as well as flavor your kraut with carrots, beets, and even strong ingredients like ginger and chilis.
Alternatively, you can keep it simple - all you need for homemade sauerkraut is a head of cabbage, some salt, and a jar to keep it in.
The extra effort of homemade sauerkraut is worth it - with every mouthful, you’re consuming billions of helpful organisms that kill off the “bad” bacteria in your gut and help replenish and restore the right bacteria in your digestive tract.
Sauerkraut is an especially good addition to the diet for people who have autoimmune diseases or are coming off a round of antibiotics - anything that has created an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
Here's how to make sauerkraut at home:
If you enjoyed yogurt with your breakfast or as a snack in your dairy-eating days, there’s no need to go without that tasty tang – plant-based yogurts have come a long, long way since their inception.
Usually made from soy, almond, and coconut milk, non-dairy yogurts come in a variety of textures and flavors and offer probiotic benefits equivalent to yogurt made from cow’s milk.
While probiotics occur in food after fermentation, such as in the fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut, non-dairy yogurts often have probiotics added in after they have finished processing, as the pasteurization process kills off any good bacteria present during the fermentation process.
The quality of storage of the yogurt will also affect the amount of organisms that make it to your gut.
While delicious, and delivering a good dose of probiotics along with your breakfast, smoothie, or snack, non-dairy yogurts tend to be runnier and less tangy than their cows-milk-based counterparts.
If you’re particular about the taste and texture of your yogurt, you can make your own plant-based yogurt (no-gurt?) at home using an inexpensive yogurt maker, like the Euro Cuisine YM100, and a starter from a store-bought product.
Remember always to look for a non-dairy yogurt that has “live cultures” on the label – this means there are happy, healthy probiotics ready to help heal your gut inside!
8 fluid ounces
Though it has taken off in North America within the last few years, Kombucha has been consumed for thousands of years.
A fermented probiotic drink made from tea, sugar, starter (usually from a previous or store-bought batch), and a SCOBY (a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), the brew, originated in China but is sometimes credited to have first popped up in Russia.
The ingredients are added together and fermented over the course of 7-31 days. This fermentation process results in a naturally carbonated, tangy, and delicious drink that is brimming with healthy probiotics.
In addition to improving digestion by keeping things moving, kombucha has been touted as a health tonic for almost as long as it has been around - it has been said to do everything from detoxifying the liver to increase metabolism to reduce blood pressure.
A “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” may not be the most appetizing selling point, but rest assured - store-bought kombuchas are just as tasty as they are nutritious.
Companies produce kombucha in every flavor, including fun blends like pineapple-peach, lavender-melon, and tart cherry.
If you’re more the DIY type, kombucha is easy and cheap to make at home, and you can keep using your batches to “feed” your next recipe.
If you’re looking to get all the benefits of probiotics, but you’re not into the distinct tanginess that can come with many fermented foods, look no further than tempeh.
The fermentation of the soybeans means this food is an excellent source of probiotics, but it has a mild, almost nutty taste, and no detectable trace of sourness or tang.
Because it is fermented, the protein and other nutrients in the soybean not only become more digestible, but it also means the food will not cause gas, indigestion, and intestinal discomfort that can be associated with eating beans.
It’s a double-win for your digestive system!
Tempeh lends itself well to a wide variety of dishes - cubed for stir-fries, crumbled into spaghetti sauce, or sliced thinly for vegan “bacon,” tempeh is a toothsome, savory stand-in for meat.
Some people, like myself, enjoy the taste of tempeh fresh out of the package, but if the taste is too strong for you, boil the block briefly in hot water and serve with a light sauce.
What you thought was a light appetizer at your favorite Japanese restaurant is also a powerhouse for plant-based probiotics.
Another fermented soy product, miso is usually found as a paste, which offers flavor and umami to soups, stews, and stir-fries.
Miso can be made from the fermentation of plain soybeans or can involve other grains like barley and brown rice. A good-quality miso can take up to three years to produce - the longer it ferments, the more smooth and complex the flavor becomes.
Miso paste is available in several varieties: white miso, which has a light, subtly sweet flavor; yellow miso, which is moderately intense; and red miso, which is the most strongly flavored miso available.
Miso is a delicate source of probiotics, so it’s important to purchase unpasteurized miso, as the heat from pasteurization can destroy the helpful flora in the paste. You’ll also want to take special care not to heat the miso too much during cooking - if adding to soup or stir-fry, add the miso at the last possible moment to keep the probiotics intact.
8 fluid ounces
While there are some types of kefir made from milk or yogurt, vegans and those who are lactose intolerant can enjoy water kefir, a probiotic beverage that uses water kefir grains to culture sugar water, juice, or coconut water.
Like kombucha, kefir grains are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast - the term “grains” describes only the look of the cultures, as they contain no actual grains such as wheat, rye, or others.
While water kefir can be fermented using powdered kefir starter or kefir grains, you should consume the grain-fermented version whenever possible, as they have a larger number of probiotics than the powdered starter.
Additionally, you can use them indefinitely to keep feeding your next batch of water kefir.
Water kefir contains fewer strains of probiotics than milk kefir, but surprisingly, it packs more of the helpful bacteria in than other dairy-based products like yogurt or buttermilk.
Water kefir is easy to make at home, and it’s simple to adapt the basic recipe to fit your own tastes - watch the video below for detailed (yet simple) instructions.
Not everyone has time to ferment their own cabbage or make their own water kefir, but this doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the power of probiotics.
While plant-based foods pack in more of a probiotic punch than supplements - just look at sauerkraut - some is better than none, so a probiotic supplement is a good thing to turn to if you really can’t stand the taste of fermented foods, are pressed for time, or are traveling.
When searching for a good vegan-friendly probiotic, make sure to read the back of the label, as many soft-gel capsules use gelatin to create the pills themselves.
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that your probiotic supplement doesn’t contain any dairy products - look for dairy or milk listed under the allergen section.
If you're serious about going the supplementation route, you're going to want to read our in-depth guide to finding a vegan probiotic supplement.
Bacteria and You
We’re taught from a young age that bacteria are bad, but the reality is that probiotics are not only good, but they're also essential for our digestive health, keeping us regular, and keeping us feeling good.
While milk-based foods get a lot of the limelight when it comes to probiotics, in many cases, this is overshadowed by the havoc dairy products can wreak on our digestive tracts - nearly 75% of adults are lactose intolerant, and even more people experience uncomfortable bloating and cramping from the sugars in milk.
Luckily, the plant-based foods on this list are vegan-friendly, lactose-free ways to consume probiotics - in many cases, like sauerkraut and water kefir, they provide even more probiotics than foods like yogurt made from cow’s milk.
By incorporating relatively small amounts of these foods into your diet, you’re doing a solid favor for your digestive tract - and the rest of your body - by delivering the much-needed, super-friendly good bacteria your gut needs to keep things moving.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that these foods are delicious and nutritious as well.