10 Ways to Get More Probiotics (without Dairy)


We hear it all the time (and I say it plenty!): eat your yogurt for probiotics.   But if you choose not to eat dairy foods or cannot tolerate them, finding dairy-free probiotic foods can pose more of a challenge; however, that doesn’t have to be the case.   Indeed, there are many, many dairy-free foods rich in probiotics and beneficial bacteria.   As with anything, it’s just a matter of identifying them.

Beneficial bacteria are essential for good health – indeed, they’re essential to life itself as beneficial bacteria are so intertwined with our body’s ability to function that you’d actually die without them.   Life isn’t aseptic.   Beneficial bacteria interact with your immune system.   In an interesting theory called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers have discovered that an overly sanitary home, birth and environment (i.e. lack of exposure to microbiota) may contribute to autoimmune disease and healthy children eat dirt. In effect, beneficial bacteria actually train your immune system to recognize true threats, but their benefits venture beyond interacting with your immune system to your benefit.

Beneficial bacteria also play a critical role in your body’s ability to fully absorb the nutrients you eat.   They break down potentially negative components of your diet like oxalic acid, manufacture natural vitamins and perform a slew of other duties that keep you well and healthy. Learn more about the benefits of fermented food and lactic acid fermentation.

Of course, if you’re a dairy lover you can use these suggestions but also check out this post on 10 Cultured Dairy Foods and how to use them.

1. Sauerkraut

A much loved and much loathed fermented cabbage dish hailing from northern Europe, naturally prepared sauerkraut is both tart and salty.   Decidedly fresher than the canned version you’ll find on grocery store shelves, real sauerkraut has a crispy, not mushy, texture and is loaded with vitamin C and B vitamins.   Furthermore, the process of fermenting cabbage actually creates isothiocyanate – a substance thought to inhibit the formation of cancer and tumors.

Sauerkraut isn’t the only form of probiotic-rich fermented cabbage.   Latin America brings us cortido a dish in which cabbage combines with carrots, onion and red pepper while Korea brings us kimchi in which cabbage combines with radish, ginger, chilies, garlic and other goodies.   To make your own sauerkraut, check out my no-measure real sauerkraut recipe.

2. Kombucha

Kombucha is another great source of beneficial bacteria that is also dairy-free.     A fermented tea thought to originate in Russia or China, kombucha has long been considered a health tonic. Kombucha, like other fermented foods and beverages, has a sour flavor with a taste reminsicent of apple cider vinegar combined with club soda, though home-brewed kombucha is often less acidic than storebought.

A starter culture sometimes called a kombucha mushroom, mother or scoby(symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) is necessary to prepare kombucha.   The kombucha scoby has an odd appearance: it’s both solid and gelatinous with a beige coloring.   From time to time, strands of viscous strings appear on the bottom of the scoby and these are normal and a good source of B vitamins.   This starter culture thrives in the combination of brewed tea and sugar.   The kombucha scoby metabolizes the sugar converting it to various acids which provide kombucha with its characteristically tart flavor.

Kombucha, like other fermented foods and beverages, is rich in beneficial bacteria and vitamin B12.   It also contains a substance called glucaric acid.   Glucaric acid is deeply detoxifying and recent research indicates great promise that glucaric acid is effective in the treatment and prevention of cancer.

You can purchase raw kombucha at most health food stores, but it’s expensive.   A 12-oz bottle may set you back as much as $4.59, but you can brew your own kombucha at home with minimal effort provided you have a starter culture.

If you don’t mind a short wait, check out the cultures and starters exchange here at Nourished Kitchen where you can find kombucha mothers free for shipping.   Alternatively, check out the Nourished Kitchen Resources page which lists sources for kombucha mothers under Fermented Food Starters.

3. Sauerrüben

Sauerrüben, like sauerkraut, is a fermented vegetable from northern Europe where fermentation offered an opportunity to preserve the harvest throughout the tough, cold winters.   The ingredients are simple: turnips and unrefined salt.   Tender, sweet turnips are shredded or, if you like them like we do, julienned and mixed with unrefined sea salt before they’re pounded down to release their juice.   The turnip juice combines with the sea salt to create a brine that fosters the growth of beneficial bacteria – provided it’s not too salty.   Turnips and sauerrüben are a great source of vitamin C.   To make your own sauerrüben, check out this post on the sauerrüben by the Slow Cook .

4. Miso

Composed of soybeans in combination with barley or rice, miso is a traditional Japanese condiment used primarily in soups or as a seasoning for vegetables, meats and fish (check out my misoyaki salmon recipe). Miso is primarily fermented by aspergillus oryzae, a mold, that is also responsible for the transformation of soybeans into shoyu or tamari.

Miso is widely touted as a wholesome, nourishing food.   Miso is high in vitamin K (learn about vitamin K and other fat soluble vitamins) as well as vitamin B6.     It’s also a good source of phosphorus, manganese and zinc. Zinc, in particular, is essential for proper immune system function.

In preparing miso, take care not to overheat it.   While you may use it to season cooked foods, doing so destroys heat-sensitive microbiota.   When making a good miso soup, wait to add the miso paste until the stock has cooled to blood temperature and then allow it to slowly disolve into the liquid.   By preparing miso soup in this fashion, the miso retains food enzymes and other characteristics of living foods.

5. Water Kefir

Water kefir, alternatively known as tibicos and Japanese water crystals, is a probiotic beverage similar to Kombucha and Ginger Beer.   Water kefir grains are translucent and gelatinous with a crystal-like appearance.   Like kombucha mothers, water kefir grains are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts including lactobacillus hilgardii – the species that gives water kefir grains their characteristic appearance.

Water kefir is simple in its preparation.   First, disolve sugar into clean, chlorine-free water and add the water kefir grains along with 1/2 a lemon and a few tablespoons of unsulphured dried fruit.   I’ve used cherries, raisins, ginger and figs with success.   Next, simply allow the water kefir to ferment over the course of a day or two, bottle and store in the fridge.

If you don’t mind a short wait, check out the cultures and starters exchange here at Nourished Kitchen where you can find water kefir grains free for shipping.   Alternatively, check out the Nourished Kitchen Resources page which lists sources for water kefir under Fermented Food Starters.

6. Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Moroccan preserved lemons are naturally fermented without the use of a starter – just benign bacteria and yeasts naturally present in the air, on our skin and on the fruits themselves. Just as with sauerkraut, sauerrüben and other fermented vegetables and fruit, preserved lemons are rich in beneficial bacteria and their acidity is sufficient enough to keep pathogenic bacteria at bay.

Lemons, like all citrus, are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C in particular.   Much of the vitamin C is concenctrated in the lemon’s rind which is customarily discarded due to its astringent, bitter flavor.   Culturing lemons naturally with unrefined salt and brine renders the lemon rind not only edible, but also delicious.

They’re remarkably well-suited to a variety of dishes including classic Moroccan cuisine like lemon and olive roasted chicken and tagines, but I like to serve preserved lemons as a condiment in combination with fresh parsley and fresh garlic.   Check out my recipe for Preserved Lemon & Parsley Tapenade, and don’t forget to learn to make Moroccan Preserved Lemons – especially when meyer lemons are in season.

7. Coconut Kefir

Coconut kefir is a probiotic beverage prepared from young coconut water and a starter culture.   Best championed by the Body Ecology Diet, coconut kefir combines many of the benefits of coconut with the benefits of probiotics.   Coconut water is rich in minerals like calcium and potassium, but it is relatively sweet.   By introducing beneficial bacteria into the fresh coconut water, the bactertia metabolize its sugars and produce lactic and acetic acids which lower the overall glycemic index of the beverage.   Furthermore, all those beneficial bacteria are good for your belly.

8. Ginger Beer

There are two forms of probiotic ginger beer.   Both are rich in beneficial bacteria. Traditional ginger beer is cultured using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts similar to water kefir grains, indeed, there’s some evidence that water kefir grains and the ginger beer plant are substantially the same in that both ginger beer plants and water kefir grains share many of the same characteristic bacteria.   There is also a second, more accessible form, of ginger beer.   Readers of Sally Fallon’s landmark book, Nourishing Traditions, will be familiar with this method of preparing ginger beer.   In this version, powdered ginger and sugar mixed together to encourage the growth of wild bacteria and yeasts and this ginger bug is introduced into sugar water to and allowed to continue to brew.

Ginger beer, much like water kefir, offers a healthy, wholesome alternative to super-sweet sodas.   Properly prepared, ginger beer will even be naturally fizzy and is often loved by children most of all.

9. Sour Pickles

Most pickles on your grocery store shelves are pickled using vinegar, but as tasty as this method might be, it is not optimal.   Sour pickles are the traditional alternative to vinegar pickles and are prepared using a simple solution of unrefined sea salt and clean, chlorine-free water.   This solution encourages the growth of lactic-acid producing beneficial bacteria which customarily outcompete pathogenic bacteria.   Moreover, traditional sour pickles are raw after culturing unlike vinegar-based cucumber pickles which are cooked durieng the canning process thus killing food enzymes, bacteria and destroying heat sensitive vitamins.   I make sour pickles every year, check out last year’s post (Real Pickles) and 2007’s post (The Great Pickle).   Sometime this week I’ll post a tutorial showing you how you can prepare traditional sour pickles at home.

10. Store-bought Condiments and Dressings

Not everyone has the time or energy to pound cabbage and salt into sauerkraut or crack a fresh coconut to prepare coconut kefir; so, for those of you with limited time you can still find wholesome, naturally fermented dairy-free foods that can enliven your belly with beneficial bacteria.   Coconut milk yogurts, sour pickles, traditional sauerkraut and even sour beets can be found on the shelves of well-stocked health food stores while even many grocery stores will stock raw kimchi.

If you still can’t find what you need, check out the Nourished Kitchen Resources page which categorizes companies offering fermented foods.