Most people think of yogurt when they hear the word “probiotic.” But the world of probiotic-rich foods has many plant-derived alternatives that can be made fresh at home and are a perfect complement to a vegan diet.
Probiotics are live microorganisms or bacteria (yes bacteria, the good kind) that exist in various fermented foods. When consumed regularly and in adequate amounts, they can improve health.
We benefit from probiotics because our bodies are host to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, according to Harvard Medical School. These represent 500 or so types of beneficial bacteria, most of which are found in the bowel.
Benefits of probiotics
Make probiotic-rich foods a regular part of your diet and they can help with:
- Improving digestion
- Serious gastrointestinal problems like chronic diarrhea (under medical supervision)
- Reducing the side effects of taking antibiotics
- Increasing the immune system’s ability to fight against various pathogens
- Improving mental health and helping with anxiety, depression and autism
- Managing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes
- Reducing the risk of colorectal cancer and irritable bowel disease (IBD)
- Improving various metabolic diseases including obesity, diabetes and liver disease
Before you grab the next mouthful of fermented food, here’s something you need to know. Different strains of bacteria help with different health conditions. Ask your doctor to guide you towards the best combination, depending on your health needs. One way of making sure you get a variety of probiotics is to consume a combination of the foods listed here.
You can also get probiotics in supplements. Since these are unregulated by the U.S. Department of Food Administration (FDA), some sources may not deliver the promised supply of probiotics.
5 vegan food sources of probiotics
Many cultures around the world have been consuming fermented foods to improve their health for centuries. The majority of these foods are plant-based. If you’re a vegan, you’re in luck! There’s even better news: you can make these foods at home without a lot of effort.
An old-time favorite that you don’t have to buy. You can make it year-round in the comfort of your home. Though most people think of it as a German culinary creation, sauerkraut has been consumed in China since around 200 BCE. Sauerkraut is made through a process called lacto-fermentation. It’s fermented in brine, in the absence of oxygen. Lactobacillus bacteria present on cabbage will transform the sugars into lactic acid, which will make the leaves crunchy and sour. The result is a yummy food that can add a lot of health value to your sandwiches, wraps or salads, including:
- good bacteria
- vitamin C
- vitamin K
To make sauerkraut, all you need is:
- a mason jar
Few things can go wrong, even if you’re a beginner. Give this sauerkraut recipe a try.
Pickles and other veggies, too
The process of lacto-fermentation will ensure there’s a decent amount of probiotics in foods that you ferment in brine. Pickles are easy to make by using:
- pickling cucumbers
Warm temperatures will speed up the fermentation process. Have you ever tried summer pickles?
Note on pickled foods: Because they are fermented in brine, pickled vegetables can add quite a bit of salt to your diet, which can make you retain water and can raise your blood pressure. Eat in moderation and pair up with other salt-free, probiotic-rich foods.
If you’ve ever been in a Korean restaurant you’re familiar with this fermented, spicy food made from cabbage and various spices. You can make your own kimchi (highly worth it), or you can buy it from health food stores. As long as you don’t mind the heat, you’ll benefit from a traditional food that has been around for thousands of years.
Fermented soy products
If you’re cautious around soy foods because of their content of phytoestrogens, you can feel at ease consuming fermented foods such as miso and tempeh. You can find both in the cold section of your health food store and use as directed. Make sure you use warm but not hot water to make miso soup, as high temperatures can kill the beneficial bacteria.
If you have never heard of it, here’s the short version: kombucha is a fermented tea drink which is made using a special fermentation colony called SCOBY (symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeasts). Its history is centuries long and its health benefits are confirmed in a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food. You can buy the SCOBY starter online or in health food stores or get it from a friend.
Notes on kombucha tea:
- This fermented tea drink has a low amount of alcohol (1 percent) as well as many beneficial organic acids along with live bacteria
- It is best to start your own culture at home using a pathogen-free SCOBY, unless you get one from a good source (it should look like a white, gelatinous pancake without any patches of mold).
Probiotic bacteria are beneficial for health, and they can be found in various fermented plant-based foods. The health effects of probiotics are many and diverse. They can help with:
- weight management
- improving your mood
- easing anxiety and depression
- regulating your blood sugar levels
Not bad for some organisms that are not even visible without a microscope.
If you’re considering taking a probiotic supplement, look for a product that contains more than 6 strains of live bacteria and contains at least 20 billion microorganisms per dose.
Coconut, soy and almond milk-based yogurts containing probiotics are becoming more available in the marketplace. Buying ready-made foods containing probiotics fits a busy lifestyle, but making them fresh is not very time-consuming. It’s definitely worth your time. Fresh probiotic-rich foods contain more beneficial bacteria, and you’ll get better results sooner.