Thanks to successful marketing campaigns, when most people hear you talk about probiotics, they think of yogurt. Fortunately, the options go way beyond dairy yogurt. You can find many foods and beverages at your local grocer containing probiotics—some naturally, while others are fortified. You can find probiotic supplements as well. A vegan diet does not limit your access to helpful probiotics in any way.
Probiotics are helpful bacteria that live in the body. Consuming probiotics, and helping them to thrive in your gut, has many benefits. Probiotics can contribute to improved digestion, reduced risk of disease, and better physical and mental health in general.
Most people know that probiotic intake can be helpful to rebalance your body after a round of antibiotics, which kills off both harmful and beneficial bacteria. Adding a healthy amount of probiotics to your diet can help keep the balance of the bacteria in your body at any time. Probiotics in the diet are beneficial for digestive health, but they may also help with skin issues; boost your immune system; and promote urinary, vaginal, and oral health.
Here are some natural sources of vegan probiotics to explore:
Sauerkraut is made by fermenting cabbage in brine; the bacteria that live naturally on cabbage leaves convert the vegetable’s sugars into lactic acid. Once the process progresses, the environment in the jar becomes too acidic for most bacteria to survive—the ones that make it through to the final product are the beneficial probiotics you’re looking for, like Lactobacillus. If you’re buying sauerkraut, look for unpasteurized—the pasteurization process kills bacteria. You can find sauerkraut at almost any grocery store (usually in the same aisle as pickles and olives), but it’s pretty simple to make at home. The best part is that you can play around with flavours, adding herbs, spices, citrus, and other shredded vegetables into the mix.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish. The base of kimchi is fermented Napa cabbage and sometimes Korean radish, with punches of lots of delicious flavours, like red chilli pepper powder, green onions, ginger, and garlic. You can buy kimchi anywhere, but why not experiment by making some at home? Once you have a batch, you can enjoy it on its own or use it to add an amazing kick to almost any dish.
As long as vegetables (and fruits!) are pickled in saltwater brine rather than vinegar, they are a tasty source of probiotics. Be mindful of your sodium intake when enjoying pickled vegetables; in moderation, they are a delicious, healthy addition to any meal. Pickling your own vegetables is another fun way to experiment in your home kitchen. The classic cucumber is always a good option, but what about beans or cauliflower, lemons or watermelon rind? Once you add in the options of spices and herbs, you’ll realize the possibilities are endless. Having pickled vegetables on hand to add some extra wow to your favourite recipes is a game-changer.
Originating in Indonesia, tempeh is now widely available. It is a pressed soy product, like tofu, but the difference is that the soybeans have been fermented. Tempeh has a nice, firm texture, making it a perfect protein for plant-based meals. For the best flavour, try steaming your tempeh before using it in your favourite recipes—it can have a bitter taste, but the steaming will take care of that. Once steamed, you can do almost anything with it: marinade, grill, crumble, fry, or roast, and add to nearly anything.
Miso is a Japanese fermented soybean paste. There are many different types with varying flavours, but they all add the perfect umami flavour to a dish. It’s hard to beat the comfort factor in a bowl of simple miso soup, but miso has many other uses, including adding it to different kinds of soup. Try using miso in marinades, glazes, salad dressings, or sandwich spreads, or enhance your favourite stir-frys, noodle dishes, sauces, or pestos.
Sourdough bread is made using a starter—made up of microbes—to leaven it rather than baker’s yeast; this gives sourdough products a distinctive flavour and texture. It also gives them their probiotic content. Not all sourdough breads are created equal; you’ll only get probiotics from versions that have been made using a fermented starter culture. Check labels. Your best bet is a local bakery, or you can try your hand at baking your own. Many people experiment with nurturing their own starter and using it at home. Once you have your starter, you don’t have to stop at bread; how about sourdough waffles, pancakes, muffins, or pizza?
Kombucha is a beverage made with fermented black or green tea, and it is widely available in a myriad of flavours. Like a sourdough starter, you can keep a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) at home and brew your kombucha with tea and sugar. Kombucha is slightly carbonated and has a unique, tangy flavour; it also contains low levels of alcohol, so it may not be the best option for everyone.
Kefir is another probiotic beverage; its bacteria and yeast starter culture is made from kefir grains. There are milk versions of kefir, but it can also be made using sugar water, juice, or coconut water, making it dairy-free. Coconut milk kefir is super thick and has a fermented tartness that works as a wonderful sour cream or yogurt replacement.
When shopping for probiotic foods, look for “naturally fermented” on labels, and make sure products aren’t pasteurized if you have probiotics in mind. If cooking with probiotic-rich foods, add them in at the end of the cooking process to avoid killing off any beneficial bacteria with high heat.
In addition to these naturally probiotic options, you can find lots of fortified dairy alternatives containing Lactobacillus acidophilus or other added probiotic strains. Probiotic supplements are also available in pill or liquid form. Some supplements are synbiotic (like SEED probiotics), which means they contain both probiotics and prebiotics.
Prebiotics are another step toward keeping your gut flora happy; they are things that feed probiotic bacteria and keep them thriving in your GI tract. One of the benefits of a plant-based diet is that vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are naturally full of these prebiotic fibres, and they help to feed the flora in your digestive tract. Garlic and dark chocolate, flavour favourites, also contain prebiotics.
Experiment with different ways of adding probiotic-rich foods into your diet, and don’t forget to match it with eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The world of good bacteria is just another reason why plant-based eating is so beneficial.