Today, I’d like to share some knowledge about the best vegan probiotic foods for adults, children and babies.
When thinking about probiotics, many people automatically think of dairy or probiotic supplements. Yet, there are also plenty of plant-based probiotics options, which are perfect for families who wish to eat fewer or no animal products.
I recently summarized the latest research on probiotic supplements for babies. So if you’d like to first start with an overview of the benefits and possible risks of giving your baby probiotics, I suggest you start there.
In this article, I’ll discuss practical ways to introduce plant-based sources of probiotics into your family’s diet, including which ones to offer babies and young children.
What do vegans do for probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a health benefit when taken in adequate amounts (1).
By microorganisms, I mean mostly bacteria and yeasts.
Since they are not derived from animal products, probiotics are inherently vegan. However, this doesn’t mean that all probiotic-rich foods or supplements are plant-based.
For instance, yogurt, which is the main food most people think of when thinking of probiotics, is obviously not vegan.
The same can be said about supplements. Although the probiotics themselves are considered vegan, many brands package these with animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin, lactose or other milk sugars.
When it comes to probiotics, vegans can either choose probiotic-rich plant foods or probiotic supplements that are free of animal ingredients. Simply check their label to make sure they fit the bill.
IN SUM – Probiotics are inherently vegan but many foods and supplements containing them aren’t. Fermented plant foods and vegan probiotic supplements are good options.
What’s the difference between probiotic-rich foods and live foods?
“Probiotic-rich foods” and “live foods” are often used interchangeably. That’s because both terms can be used to describe foods that are rich in microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts.
However, if we wanted to be truly accurate, these two terms shouldn’t be used as interchangeably as they currently are.
Probiotics technically only refer to the microorganisms that have been shown, through research, to provide certain health benefits to the person consuming them.
Yet, foods contain many more different types of microorganisms than the ones that fall within this “probiotic” definition.
For instance, fermented vegetables contain plenty of microorganisms. However, these cannot technically be labelled as probiotics.
That’s because studies haven’t isolated these microorganisms to show that they provide specific health benefits to the person eating them.
Therefore, the microorganisms found in fermented vegetables should technically be labelled as “undefined microorganisms” rather than “probiotics” (1).
This doesn’t mean that undefined microorganisms don’t provide health benefits. It simply means that, so far, they haven’t been researched in the same way that other probiotics have.
Hence, why “live foods” is a more accurate term for many of the foods we currently label as “probiotic-rich”.
Now that you know this little interesting nutrition fact, you may notice that most articles and videos discussing probiotics don’t make this distinction.
Therefore, for simplicity purposes, I’ll group “live foods” together with probiotic-rich ones and simply refer to both as “probiotic-rich foods”.
IN SUM – Not all live foods contain probiotics. However, for simplicity purposes, live foods and probiotic-rich foods remain two terms used interchangeably.
What are the best vegan probiotic foods?
Like I said, there are plenty of plant foods that are considered natural sources of probiotics. These can be split into a few different categories (1, 2):
- Pickled fruit and vegetables: such as sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, – but you can of course pickle other fruits and vegetables, including carrots, radishes, green beans, red peppers, or even sweet potatoes and apple sauce, etc.
- Fermented soy products: such as tempeh, natto, miso.
- Grains: such as fermented oats or rice.
- Beverages, plant yogurts and plant-based cheeses: water kefir, coconut kefir, and kombucha and home-made fermented plant-based yogurts and cheeses.
- Condiments: such as fermented mustard, relish, or chutneys.
- Foods fortified with probiotics: such as some store-bought plant-based yogurts.
One thing to keep in mind is that these foods will only be a source of probiotics if they are unpasteurized.
So pickles and sauerkraut that you pick up on the shelf section of your supermarket are unlikely to contain any probiotics. The probiotic-rich ones are more likely to be found in the refrigerated section.
Also keep in mind that heat kills probiotics. This is why, despite what other articles on this topic may claim, sourdough bread isn’t actually a good source of probiotics (2).
As a general rule, try to serve probiotic-rich foods raw, whenever possible. Here are a few interesting vegan probiotic recipes to try out.
IN SUM – Fermented plant foods are a great source of probiotics. For best results, make sure to pick unpasteurized and unheated options.
Are vegan probiotic-rich foods actually good for babies and children?
The probiotic-rich plant-based foods above may not be the foods you typically think of including in a baby’s or child’s diet.
In our urbanized society, we tend to think of microorganisms as something to get rid, not something to eat.
As a result, babies and children (as well as many adults) tend to be less exposed to natural probiotics than they ought to be.
There are many advantages to introducing probiotic-rich foods in your child’s diet from early on. Probiotics have been linked to better digestion, a stronger immune system, as well as a possibly lower likelihood of certain diseases (3, 4, 5).
They are thought to protect preterm babies from serious health complications and may even help reduce baby colic, although more research is needed to confirm this (6, 7).
Another thing to consider is that probiotic-rich plant foods tend to have somewhat of a sour taste.
Babies are typically born with a preference for sweet and salty tasting foods. Consistently offering sour-tasting foods to your child can help them develop a liking to them.
This can help expand their palate, increasing the likelihood they’ll eat a wider variety of foods while growing up. In turn, eating a more diverse diet can help your child more easily meet their nutrient needs.
Despite these benefits, not all vegan probiotic-rich foods may be equally suitable for children and babies.
Some of these foods can be quite rich in salt. Others may contain significant amounts of caffeine or alcohol.
Do fermented foods contain alcohol?
All fermented foods can contain some alcohol. However, sugar- or starch-rich foods typically produce more alcohol, since yeasts convert these nutrients to alcohol during fermentation.
For instance, fizzy drinks like kombucha and water kefir may contain between 0.5-3% alcohol (1).
If you’re worried about the alcohol content of your ferments, make sure to select ferments made from low sugar- or low-starch foods. Also look into fermenting methods that help reduce the alcohol content of your creations.
Keep in mind that the fizzier the food or drink, the more alcohol it’s likely to contain. So although there are ways to reduce the amount of alcohol in water kefir or kombucha, I’d personally avoid giving these to babies or small children.
Aren’t fermented foods very rich in salt?
Many ferments contain significant amounts of salt.
Salt is rich in sodium, a nutrient that babies and children require in only very small amounts. So you want to remain mindful of not over-doing it.
That said, the benefits of including small amounts of fermented foods likely outweigh the risks caused by their sodium content – especially if the rest of your child’s diet doesn’t contain much salt.
So personally, fermented vegetables and other salt-rich fermented foods are something I feel comfortable adding to my child’s diet, in small amounts.
When it comes to babies, I’d recommend you start with probiotic-rich foods that are both low in sodium and alcohol. For example, by offering them tempeh or coconut kefir.
As your child gets older, you may start slowly integrating small amounts of the other foods on the list to their diet.
Try starting with small portions at first, gradually increasing their size and frequency over time. This can allow your child’s body the time to adjust, minimizing any gut upset.
IN SUM – Probiotic-rich foods offer health benefits and can help expand your child’s palate. However, be mindful of salt and alcohol content for babies and small children.
Being practical about adding probiotic-rich foods to your family’s diet
Here are a few practical ideas you can use when incorporating probiotic-rich plant-based foods into your family’s diet.
- Top oatmeal or other breakfast cereals with fermented oats.
- Add fermented oatmeal to smoothies.
- Top breakfast cereals or yogurt with fermented fruit.
- Offer fermented fruit purees for snacks.
- Swap regular plant-based yogurt with coconut kefir, a home-made fermented yogurt or a store-bought plant yogurt rich in probiotics.
- Add fermented vegetables to lunches and dinners.
Simply pick the option that seems most attainable for your family, and start there.
It may perhaps mean only adding a little sauerkraut to their dinner meals a few times per week. Slowly work your way up to including probiotic-rich foods into your family’s diet a few times each day.
If you wish for your children to accept these new foods, make sure to also include them to your own diet! Modelling is a great way to gently encourage them to give these probiotic-rich foods a try.
IN SUM – Adding vegan probiotic-rich foods to your family’s diet doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply pick the option that seems most feasible for you to start, and slowly work your way up.
To sum it all up
Vegan probiotic foods are well-worth adding to your family’s diet.
In addition to providing health benefits, they can help teach your child to enjoy sour-tasting foods. In turn, this can increase the variety of foods – and nutrients – they’re likely to enjoy while growing up.
For babies and children, try offering low-alcohol, low-sodium options like tempeh and coconut kefir first. Then slowly integrate small amounts of fermented grains, fruits and vegetables as well.
Older children and adults can enjoy probiotic-rich foods from all categories. However, It may be best to start with small, infrequent portions and work your way up to minimize the risk of digestive upset.
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