There is increasing research and interest in the role that gut health plays in our overall wellbeing, including both mental and physical. We will look at this in more detail shortly but to set the scene, in simple terms, probiotics are “good” bacteria that are claimed to improve the condition of the gut and, as a corollary, our health in general.
Probiotics are often dairy-based products, which rules them out for vegans; so, in this article, we will look at the best probiotics vegans can consume. We’ll also explain how the whole process is thought to work and indeed attempt to assess whether it really does work in the ways that are claimed. In other words, we will look at the scientific evidence for the use of probiotics, vegan or otherwise.
Oh, and before all that, a quick note to anyone concerned about eating live bacteria, given they are, well, alive. It should be remembered that carrots, for example, were also alive and veganism is about not eating, harming or exploiting animals, not all living things. As such, all the various bacteria we eat, whether naturally occurring or added, and all those within us, do not represent any issues for vegans.
The Role of Bacteria
Before we look at whether probiotics work and what the best vegan probiotics are, it is wise to look at the role of bacteria within the human body. Many people have negative connotations when they think of the word bacteria but these tiny microorganisms are vital to our health and play a key role in a huge number of bodily functions. Reliable sources have promoted the idea that bacteria outnumber human cells by 10 to one in the body, in one sense meaning we are more non-human than human!
More recently some scientists have said the ratio is more like one to one, but even that means our bodies are 50% non-human! It is certainly a strange thought but whatever the exact ratio, what nobody doubts is that without the various bacteria inside us, we would not live very long.
According to the more modern research in Canada and Israel linked to above, a typical man “contains on average about 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion bacteria”. All the microbes found in and on the body, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, taken together are the human microbiome (microbiome and microbiota are subtly different but used interchangeably by many, which is how we will use them here). Most of the bacteria inside us reside in the gut, by which we typically mean the small and large intestines, though they are found in great numbers in many other parts of the body too.
“Each person has an entirely unique network of microbiota”
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Each person has an entirely unique network of microbiota” that is affected by a range of factors and the “microbiome consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Most are symbiotic (where both the human body and microbiota benefit) and some, in smaller numbers, are pathogenic (promoting disease)”. They go on to add that in a healthy body the pathogenic (bad) bacteria and the symbiotic (good) bacteria happily co-exist in balance.
Illness, medication and what we eat and drink can disrupt that balance though. This can lead to a whole host of problems through incredibly complex mechanisms that are not fully understood at this stage. However, the key point to note is that almost all scientists agree that a healthy microbiome, containing lots and lots of different types of good bacteria in good numbers, is hugely beneficial.
What Are Probiotics?
The NHS describe probiotics as “live bacteria and yeasts promoted as having various health benefits”. In very simple terms, probiotics are so-called good bacteria and are typically added to food or drink, often yoghurt, with the aim of improving our overall gut health.
Probiotics can be consumed as food but many instead take probiotic supplements. There are many vegan supplements, vitamins and minerals, as well as vegan protein powders and these can be useful if you are struggling to obtain the correct nutrition through your diet. However, many people, vegan or not, prefer to try to get their nutrients in a more natural way, through their diet. Given most probiotic foods are yoghurt-based, what is a vegan to do?
Whilst some may wish to eat foods naturally rich in probiotics, such as kimchi and sauerkraut as discussed below in the next section, others may wish to take a supplement out of ease. Because, let’s be honest, how often is one going to want to eat sauerkraut on a regular basis? Symprove is a wonderful solution for vegans because it is gluten and dairy free and thus suitable for vegans!
Symprove is a water based food supplement with live and active bacteria, which are delivered to the gut to support the microbiome. Whilst there is a lot of speculation as to whether or not probiotics survive the journey through the stomach as we discuss more below, University College London conducted a review and found that Symprove arrived in a live state, survived stomach acid transit and thrived in the target area of the gut.
As someone who has personally taken Symprove for the past year, stopped, and then restarted, I can say for certain that Symprove has improved the overall health of my gut and resolved various issues I was having. Unfortunately for me though, when I stopped taking it, those former issues returned, so perhaps a worry for some is the dependency you may gain on this product or other supplements. This is ultimately why many people turn to natural foods for their probiotics.
Natural Vegan Probiotics
Aside from the vegan-friendly Symprove option mentioned above, many probiotic adverts that you might see or hear are for yoghurts or related drinks. But, thankfully, there are some excellent, naturally vegan, options for those on a plant-based diet. Here are some of our favourites.
Kimchi is normally vegan but read our article to find out what to look out for. Assuming you make your own, which is really easy, or check it is vegan with the shop or restaurant where you buy it, kimchi is an excellent plant-based probiotic.
This Korean staple is something of a hipster cliché but it is a great accompaniment to many dishes, including stews, salads, roast veg, rice and noodle dishes and any of the many vegan alternatives to meat. Essentially spiced, fermented cabbage, it is similar to sauerkraut though with some clear flavour and preparation differences.
Talking of the German and Eastern European classic, perhaps unsurprisingly, sauerkraut is also a good call for vegans looking to include more probiotics in their diet. Cabbage is naturally highly nutritious, but the fermentation process actually makes it easier for the body to access the various vitamins and minerals.
As well as a good range of micronutrients, sauerkraut delivers a significant dose of good lactobacilli bacteria. If you buy it from a shop though be sure to make sure it is unpasteurised as the high temperature of that process will destroy all the good bacteria.
Tempeh is just one of the many wondrous things that can be made from the soy bean. As with most soy-derived items, this fermented food, originally from Java, is an excellent vegan source of protein and it is also a perfect plant-based probiotic. Tempeh isn’t for everyone, with its strong flavour, but it certainly provides a range of good bacteria and also plenty of minerals, plus vitamin B10.
Miso is another fermented product and is again made from soy. Typically sold as a paste, it has a pungent flavour and can be used in a range of ways, including in soups (a classic), in stir frys, as a dressing, or even as a seasoning, in place of salt, on roast veg dishes.
Using it with little or no heat, for example added at the end of cooking, is likely to preserve more of the beneficial bacteria, which include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Tetragenococcus halophilus (for those who are familiar with such things!). Miso is also high in protein and offers a good range of micronutrients, including vitamin K and manganese, as well as zinc.
Non-Dairy Yoghurts & Milks
As most vegans, and probably non-vegans, know, there are a huge number of vegan milk alternatives out there. There are products made from almonds, soy, oats, coconuts, rice and more, with new methods of producing non-dairy milk being developed all the time. Indeed, many industry experts are now predicting that the dairy industry as we know it may well be dead within a decade.
Non-dairy milks are fortified with a range of nutrients, typically those that vegans may find hard to get in their diet. These include vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron; but some milks – and yoghurts made from them – also add healthy bacteria in the same way that dairy ones do. Lactobacillus is the most common one and if this, or another culture has been added, it will usually be mentioned on the label.
Sourdough is much loved by hipsters, bread traditionalists, Michelin standard restaurants and, well, just about everyone. In more interesting news, sourdough is vegan friendly and it is a decent source of probiotics to boot. Traditionally produced sourdoughs use a starter dough, essentially a fermentation of flour and water. This process is what creates the good bacteria and so you should note that many cheaper, mass-produced loaves may not contain probiotics.
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink with Chinese roots that made its way to Europe at the start of the 20th century. It is believed by many to offer a range of health benefits, though it does contain alcohol, typically around 0.5% by volume which is similar to low and no alcohol beers.
You can make your own kombucha using a starter culture that combines yeast and bacteria but the finished drink is increasingly available to buy in vegan shops, health food shops and even mainstream supermarkets.
Do Probiotic Supplements Work?
We know what they are and we know how vegans can consume them but after all that, is it even worth it? Do probiotics work and are they beneficial to health? As we have said, this is an incredibly complex area and one that scientists are still trying to understand. Increasingly, research indicates that what goes on in the gut has a huge impact on our overall health.
Experts believe the gut can even be viewed as a second brain, given how important it is. The alimentary canal, running from the oesophagus to the anus, “contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system” and this immense neurological firepower is why it has earned this label.
Keeping it happy and healthy is undeniably of massive importance but there are lots of unanswered questions, both in general and, more crucially, with regards to the issue of whether eating probiotics can help a person’s health. What’s more, on this latter point, the doubts are clearer and more striking.
Once again the NHS is a very clear, simple and succinct source of advice on the matter and they state that whilst probiotics are widely “promoted as having various health benefits,” when it comes to the science “there’s little evidence to support many health claims made about them.”
According to the National Library of Medicine in the US, the highly regarded Cochrane organisation feels much the same way. Based on analysis of all studies on the issue that meet their very high standards, they stated that:
Despite the marketing and the benefits associated with probiotics, there is little scientific evidence supporting the use of probiotics. None of the reviews provided any high-quality evidence for prevention of illnesses through use of probiotics. More trials are needed to gain better knowledge of probiotics and to confirm when their use is beneficial and cost-effective.
Reverting back to the NHS’s take on the issue, there are a number of problems with consuming probiotics. In summary, these are:
- Lack of Regulation – Probiotics are classed as foods not medicines so testing is far less rigorous.
- Do the Foods Contain the Bacteria Claimed? – There is no way to be sure that anything you consume includes the stated bacteria.
- How Much Bacteria Reaches the Gut? – There are major concerns about whether bacteria can survive cooking, where relevant, and more pertinently the harsh acidic, gastric environment of the stomach.
- How Much is Enough? – We do not know how much bacteria is in any of the probiotics out there, let alone how much survives and we don’t even know how much is needed to have a positive impact anyway.
- Research Versus Reality – Whilst some research and clinical trials can look promising, they use pharmaceutical-grade probiotics in huge volumes, sometimes in a scientific environment rather than the real-world human body.
Of these issues, perhaps the biggest is how much of the good bacteria actually make it to the gut. In order to have the claimed benefits, the bacteria need to colonise the gut and there are major doubts that this can happen.
All that said, both the NHS and Cochrane fall short of stating that probiotics do not work. Both agree that more research is needed. What’s more, because there are many probiotic foods available cheaply, that are also healthy in the wider context, there is little reason not to give them a try if you are interested in the subject. Many of the vegan probiotic foods we have listed are also backed by anecdotal evidence and their longevity.
Prebiotics & the Vegan Diet
In confusing but positive news, whilst probiotics might not be all they are cracked up to be, prebiotics are certainly well worth consuming. Prebiotics are foods that feed and assist the beneficial bacteria in our gut. Eating a wide range of these gives your microbiota the fuel to flourish and might be a large part of the reason why consuming these foods is so beneficial.
In truth, again the science could be a little firmer but there are certainly lots and lots of reliable studies that show a link between eating certain foods and having a healthier and more varied microbiota. They even show a mechanism for how this happens, which lends further weight to the argument.
Many “Prebiotics” Are Naturally Vegan
As far as vegans are concerned the best bit about all of this is that just about all the foods that are considered to be especially good as prebiotics are naturally vegan. Many, in fact, are vegan staples that anybody eating a balanced and healthy plant-based diet will automatically be consuming.
Harvard School of Public Health explain that there are a number of prebiotic substances. These are found in differing amounts in various foods and include “inulin, resistant starches, gums, pectins, and fructooligosaccharides”. Most prebiotic molecules are some form of fibre or other indigestible carbohydrates. Any form of fibre will have a positive impact but according to Harvard the following are especially effective as prebiotics:
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes
They also note that “In general, fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains like wheat, oats, and barley” are all positive. In addition to all of these great vegan foods, chicory is a good source of inulin, whole rye grain is especially excellent, savoy cabbage, chickpeas, lentils, beans (especially kidney beans and soybeans), grapefruit, berries and watermelon are all good. As if that wasn’t enough, almonds, pistachios and flax seeds are all excellent sources of prebiotic substances.
Diets High in Fibre
In simple terms, a diet that is high in fibre is likely to aid your microbiome but it is also the case that the opposite is true and one low in fibre is especially bad. Various large-scale studies have demonstrated that in general vegans consume considerably more fibre in their diet. This isn’t the case per se, because as we have said many times before in a range of ways, you could be vegan but live off a diet of vegan chocolate, crisps and vegan Champagne.
However, for fairly obvious reasons, in general, vegans tend to eat more fruit and veg, and other plants, than omnivores. All plants contain at least some fibre, whilst in contrast food from animals never does.
Given the growing emphasis nutritional experts and other scientists are putting on gut health, it is clear that a vegan diet is highly likely to be beneficial. So, whilst you are probably eating many of the foods we have mentioned already, why not try adding one or two of the ones you are not and give your gut flora even more of a helping hand?
In conclusion, it is clear that we cannot say with any real certainty that consuming probiotics is a quick fix to any health issues, gut-related or otherwise. Many questions remain and there are good reasons to doubt that the many supplements and fortified probiotic drinks and yoghurts, both dairy and vegan, actually deliver beneficial bacteria to the gut.
That said, there are many naturally vegan fermented probiotic foods that are cheap, nutritious and often very tasty. We cannot be sure how much good these will do as probiotics but they certainly will not do any harm, are affordable, contain lots of worthwhile micronutrients and might help your gut flora.
Perhaps more important are prebiotic foods which, in simple terms, can be viewed as food and fertiliser for the microorganisms of the gut. Robust research links foods such as asparagus, berries, garlic, onions, legumes, wholegrain cereals and green veg to improved gut health. In addition, many of these foods are vegan staples and all are widely considered to be very healthy and nutritious in general too.
In short, ditch the probiotic supplements, for now at least, and just keep doing what we hope you are already doing: eating a varied, healthy vegan diet packed with legumes, greens, berries and all the other good stuff. And, if you want to throw in some kimchi or kombucha too, why not?