Probiotics are microorganisms that support a healthy gut flora. Available in foods or supplements, probiotics can boost the immune system, support digestive health, and relieve gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. If you follow a vegan, vegetarian, or dairy-free diet, there are plenty of delicious probiotic-rich options to add to your daily menu.
Top Dairy-Free Sources of Probiotics
- Coconut milk yogurt
- Non-dairy kefir drink
- Tempeh meat substitute
- Kimchi fermented cabbage
- Kombucha probiotic tea drink
- Miso paste
- Vegan probiotic supplements
- Natto fermented soybeans
- Fermented pickles
- Umeboshi plums
- Apple cider vinegar
What are Dairy-Free Probiotics?
Dairy-free probiotics are probiotic foods and supplements that do not contain milk or other products from cows or other livestock. Dairy-free probiotics are thus lactose-free. Many people around the world have an intolerance to lactose – the sugar in milk – and, according to a 2013 report, 75 percent of people with lactose-intolerance or milk allergies either reduce their dairy consumption or go dairy-free altogether as a way to manage symptoms. Other people may want to avoid dairy for health reasons or because they live a vegan lifestyle, avoiding dairy, meat and animal products.
What is Lactose-Intolerance?
According to the NIH, 65% of people around the world – that’s 30 to 50 million people in the United States alone – have a hard time digesting lactose beyond infancy.[2, 3] Some people also have a true allergy to the proteins in milk, including the protein casein. While some people will use the terms allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance interchangeably, allergy and lactose intolerance are quite different. An allergy is when the body’s immune system sees a substance – milk protein in this case – as a foreign invader, or allergen, and then the body produces antibodies in response. The allergic reaction can range from mild — itching, red skin — to severe, causing an inability to breathe due to swelling in the throat, or even anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, there are far fewer milk allergies compared with lactose-intolerance – 2-3% of the population in the developed world, though that still makes it the most common food allergy among kids.
In contrast, people with lactose-intolerance do not produce adequate lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, which is the sugar in milk. People who are lactose-intolerant experience different symptoms from people with a milk allergy. Lactose-intolerance causes digestive symptoms, including stomach pain, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
What are the Benefits of Dairy-Free Probiotics?
Whether you have been formally diagnosed with lactose-intolerance or you follow a plant-based lifestyle, choosing dairy-free probiotic foods is an effective way to encourage a healthy balance of bacteria for overall gut health.
Your microbiota is made up of countless microbes, or microorganisms, that live in and on your body. Most of these microbes are found in the gastrointestinal tract, or gut, and consist of bacteria and yeast. Your body naturally contains a host of healthy bacteria that are part of its defenses that keep you healthy. Some bacteria, however, are harmful and lead to illness.
Many factors contribute to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, including the use of antibiotics, food additives, diet, and genetics.[4, 5, 6, 7, 8] Scientists are actively studying the many ways a person’s gut microbiota affects health, including mental health, immune system health, weight loss and metabolism, and reactions to seasonal allergies.[8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18] Probiotics also:
- Improve digestion
- Relieve gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort
- Reduce diarrhea from the uses of antibiotics
- Strengthen the immune system
- Manage blood glucose levels
- Normalize blood pressure and heart health
- Improve overall health and wellness
How can You Tell Dairy From Non-Dairy Probiotics?
If you’re considering buying a probiotic that is not specifically identified as dairy-free, make sure to scan the label. Although food-labeling has improved, when it comes to finding non-dairy probiotics and lactose-free probiotics, the word “dairy” isn’t always written on a product label. To make sure your probiotic doesn’t have dairy, avoid these ingredients:
- Dairy product solids
- Protein hydrolysate
- Lactic acid
- Lactalbumin (whey protein)
- Milk powder
- Milk protein
- Nonfat milk solids
- Zinc caseinate
If any of these ingredients are present, it’s best to walk away from the product. Probiotic supplements that include natural or artificial flavoring might also contain dairy and should be avoided.
Dairy-Free Food Sources of Probiotics
When it comes to eating non-dairy foods rich in probiotics, there is an impressive list of dairy-free probiotic sources. If you are lactose intolerant or are following a dairy-free diet, you can still reap the benefits of probiotics by consuming dairy-free fermented foods or taking dairy-free probiotic supplements. These products can be found at your local store or ordered online. The following are a few sources of probiotics that don’t contain dairy.
Coconut Milk Yogurt
Coconut milk yogurt is a delicious, dairy-free probiotic. This food can contain varying levels of sugar, so be sure to check the label. Avoid yogurt with too much sugar, or opt for an unsweetened version. Adding berries to coconut milk yogurt is a great way to enjoy the added benefits of a healthier and tastier meal. For a non-dairy yogurt that packs a big serving of probiotics, try this easy, do-it-yourself vegan probiotic yogurt recipe.
Non-Dairy Kefir Drink
A lightly fermented drink, kefir contains up to 30 microorganism strains, which gives it a higher level of probiotics than yogurt. Although dairy Kefir exists, any milk can be used to create it, including coconut milk, almond milk, and others. Kefir and the associated probiotics have been shown to fight against harmful bacteria and Candida yeast, and normalize gut function.
Tempeh Meat Substitute
Tempeh is made from cooked and fermented soybeans and has a firm texture and nutty flavor Not only is it dairy-free, but it’s also high in protein and calcium, and an excellent source of probiotics. It is used as a meat substitute in many types of dishes such as tacos, chili, or a vegetarian stir-fry. Some brands of tempeh are also a good source of gluten-free probiotics.
Kimchi Spicy Fermented Cabbage
Kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage, is a popular Korean side dish that’s dairy-free and rich in probiotics. This food also contains healthy servings of iron, folate, and vitamins A, C, K, and B6. A bit sour and a bit spicy at the same time, adding a scoop of Kimchi to meals will liven up almost any dish.
Sauerkraut is another version of fermented cabbage and is a great way to get non-dairy probiotics and digestive enzymes into your diet. Sauerkraut is also low in calories and a good source of fiber, manganese, folate, iron, potassium, and vitamins B6, C, and K.
Kombucha Probiotic Tea Drink
Kombucha is a dairy-free probiotic drink in the form of black tea. This delicious beverage is fermented by a combination of bacteria and yeast and it contains several types of probiotics including Gluconacetobacter, Lactobacillus, Acetobacter, and Enterococcus faecium bacterial strains as well as probiotic yeasts like Zygosaccharomyces. Kombucha is a refreshing and healthy replacement for soda or carbonated beverages.
Miso is a traditional Japanese condiment made from either fermented rye, soybeans, rice, or barley. It is a lovely source of probiotics that includes Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. Commonly enjoyed as miso soup, it can also be used to make a delicious salad dressing.
Natto Fermented Soybeans
Much like tempeh, natto is made of fermented soybeans and contains bacillus, a healthy bacteria. It’s also an excellent source of protein and provides several vitamins and minerals including iron, copper, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamins C and K. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast food, natto can be consumed by itself, or it can be added it to virtually any dish.
Pickles are an excellent source of good-for-you probiotics, but not any pickle will do. In fact, most pickles you find on store shelves don’t make the cut because they are cooked and preserved in acidifying vinegar, which kills any probiotics. Look for brands that are labeled “naturally fermented,” or ferment them yourself at home.
Widely heralded in Japan for their healing and therapeutic properties, umeboshi plums – also called Japanese salty plums or ume plums – are a source of probiotics but are less known in the Western world. Famously used by Samurai warriors to provide strength for battle, the plums have an alkalizing effect on the body. The ume fruit is pickled in brine along with shiso leaf. You can buy these plums pickled, as an umeboshi paste, or even as umeboshi vinegar – which is actually not vinegar, but the brine the plums are pickled in.
Can Probiotics Be Vegan?
Many probiotic supplements contain different species of Lactobacillus, which is a type of healthy bacteria. Although Lactobacillus sounds a bit like lactose, it is dairy-free and does not contain lactose. Its name derives from the fact that it is often grown on a dairy medium, although all dairy is removed during processing. Lactobacillus actually occurs naturally in your gastrointestinal tract regardless of whether or not you consume products containing dairy. If you prefer a supplement that does not grow on a dairy medium, consider a vegan probiotic. I recommend Floratrex™, our vegan, non-dairy probiotic, which contains 50 billion CFU (colony-forming units) of over two dozen of the best probiotic strains, and it includes prebiotics for the perfect balance.