What do you think about when you hear the words ‘friendly bacteria’? Is it those tiny bottles of fermented milk, promising to beat the bloat? It’s true that dairy products like yoghurt or kefir are a common source of friendly bacteria — but, as a vegan, they don’t look so friendly after all. In this article, we take an in-depth look at probiotics and how vegans can introduce them into their diets.

Non-vegan dairy-based probiotics

"Probiotic Drinks"by Jepster is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What are probiotics?

Most of us aim to avoid bacteria, so the idea of eating millions of them in one go might put you off your breakfast. However, these are friendly bacteria — the type that have health benefits.

Interesting fact: The word probiotic comes from the Latin ‘pro' meaning 'for' and the Greek 'biota’ which means ‘life’.

There are many probiotic strains, each with different associated benefits. The use of bacteria through controlled fermentation can be found spanning a myriad of cultures throughout history for both preservation of food and for health.

Why consume probiotics?

Probiotics are used around the world to improve gut health, prevent diarrhoea and relieve symptoms of IBS. 'Friendly bacteria' even have the potential to improve the absorption of micronutrients like calcium and iron.

Probiotics also help to promote urogenital health in women, treat eczema, and boost overall immunity.

Video on the relation between probiotics, intestinal health and mood by nutritionfacts.org

Evidence suggests that probiotics could also provide mild benefits for people with anxiety or depression as they produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, AKA the ‘happy chemical’. In fact, some scientists believe that the brain and gut may actually communicate with each other.

Although there’s plenty of research into probiotics, the results aren’t conclusive. That being said, probiotics shouldn’t have any side effects if you’re in good health. So, if you’re thinking of eating more probiotics, how do you go about this as a vegan?

Where to find vegan-friendly probiotics

If yoghurt was your probiotic go-to before turning vegan, there’s good news; some vegan yoghurts are actually cultured with 'friendly bacteria', so you don’t have to miss out.

Home-made red and white cabbage sauerkraut mixed in a jar

"Two Tone Kraut"by My Mom is Wolves is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 — image edited

Did you know that fermented vegetables are also a major source of gut friendly bacteria? Sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables are all good options.

Just be sure to use the unpasteurized versions (find them in the fridge section at wholefoods stores) to make sure the good stuff hasn’t been killed off. Alternatively, you can try making them at home!

Miso is a vegan favourite, since it’s packed with B vitamins as well as good bacteria. Miso lends a rich, umami flavour and is great as a soup, a salad dressing, or a delicious marinade.

Miso and mushroom soup

Your new favourite drink might even have probiotic qualities. Kombucha is a tangy, slightly fizzy cold drink that’s made by fermenting tea. It’s centuries old and originated in Asia but has recently surged in popularity in the UK. Find it in health food shops and cafes, or brew it yourself!

Perhaps even better news is that bread can be a source of probiotics, too. Sourdough is made using a live culture (fermented flour and water) although it’s worth checking that yoghurt wasn’t used to speed up the fermentation process.

Tempeh and sourdough sandwich

"arugula & tempeh on sourdough"by carbonated is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 — cropped

Try making your own at home, it’s great fun and the ‘starter’ can live for such a long time it’s possible to pass it down as an heirloom!

Taking a probiotic supplement

Some people choose to take a supplement and there’s a whole world of probiotic strains to explore, depending on what benefits you’re seeking. It’s worth noting that these supplements don’t go through the same rigorous testing as medicine.

Vegan-friendly probiotic supplements

You can’t always be sure the product contains the amount of bacteria stated on the label or that the bacteria are able to survive long enough to have any benefit in the gut, so it’s worth looking into which to buy.

Check the label to make sure it’s suitable for vegans. As with any dietary supplement, you might need to consult your GP before taking them, particularly if you are pregnant or have an underlying health condition.

Make your own vegan probiotics

Probiotic supplements aren't exactly cheap. However, home-made ferments are a low-cost alternative that are, arguably, far more potent.

To make home-made vegan probiotics, you will need some equipment, although this is easy to source and you may unknowingly have some tools already.

There are many useful books on the topic; here are a couple we recommend:

Fiery Ferments by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey

If you like spicy foods, you will love “Fiery Ferments”. It is packed full of simple and easy to follow recipes; throughout the book, the pictures are mouth-watering and the final ferments are delicious.

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

For a detailed look at the methods and history of fermentation over the years, you may enjoy reading The Art of Fermentation. This is more of a reference book than a recipe book, but well worth a read.

Stay healthy!

Vegans are often criticised for their dietary and lifestyle choices. It is, therefore, important for us to maintain our health.

While supermarkets are beginning to show an interest in veganism and are stocking more products, many of them are processed and, though they may be convenient and tasty, they could potentially damage your health over time.

Fermented (probiotic) foods offer the best of both worlds, as they appeal to both our taste buds and our immune systems.

What are your favourite vegan probiotic foods? Let us know in the comments.

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