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.

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What people are saying

  1. Pamelap says

    So much to take in here. Thank you for this great posting. All need to jot down notes and add to my ever growing Nourishing Traditions list.

  2. Pamela says

    Oops!…Should be Pamela….not an added p to the end. Again thank you so much. I think I’ll just print out and add into my notebook. ReTweeted this.

  3. says

    Great list! A couple of these had fallen off my radar, like the ginger beer & preserved lemons. I know my kids would LOVE these.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  4. Anna M says

    Great list of delicious fermented foods! I really like kimchi as well, a Korean fermented vegetable side dish and I still have yet to try kefir. Kombucha is an acquired taste, but so full of healthy probiotics and enzymes. I find that a dairy free probiotic supplement is also an easy way to to get your daily beneficial bacteria dose. You can sprinkle in on room temperature food, or take the capsule with a little bit of food.
    – Anna M

  5. says

    Hey ,
    Gr8 list for those people who are allergic to dairy in general ..
    I like the pickles for sure …
    How about boiled and then stored in vinegar .. I do not know the dish .. but I think so it would be the same right

  6. EleanorGreen says

    I was glad to see you mention coconut milk yogurt, as I’m one of those people who doesn’t have time to crack a fresh coconut. The company that makes the coconut milk yogurt also makes a cultured coconut milk kefir. It’s called So Delicious, and it’s really very good!

  7. says

    Fabulous resource–thanks! I just adore sour pickles. My grandfather used to make homemade ones, along with sour green tomatoes, which I love even more! I am going to try your recipe and see if I can reproduce the love. :)

  8. Marci says

    I currently make and enjoy milk & water kefir and kombucha. I plan to make sauerkraut soon too. Great article by the way.

    Why is it that we are always ‘warned’ to ‘avoid fermented products’ if we have candida overgrowth? Wouldn’t these fermented products, full of beneficial bacteria, overpower the candida overgrowth, candida bacteria gone bad and out of control, and bring it under control and re-balance the intestinal flora?

    Seems to me taking these wonderful fermented products would be helpful to restore homeostasis of the body’s gut flora!

    • Rachel says

      Marci: I know your comment was posted quite some time ago, but for those who have the same question, my alternative medicine doctor told me that candida is a sign of a leaky gut. (I had candida overgrowth up until recently.) That leaky gut is almost always a result of eating foods for which your body has antibodies—the worst culprit being gluten, with dairy products and other grains also being among the most common foods that trigger this immune response. (By the way, it makes NO difference whether the grains are soaked or sprouted, or whether the dairy products are raw because it’s the proteins in those foods that are causing the problem.) You begin to heal and seal your gut by eliminating those foods that are causing an immune response. Then you get rid of the bad bacteria (Candida overgrowth) by discontinuing to “feed” it with sugars, starches, etc. Taking specific supplements, such as prebiotics, also helps a great deal. THEN you begin to repopulate your intestines with the friendly bacteria by consuming probiotic foods. Eating probiotic foods when you have a leaky gut can actually be counterproductive. Ideally, it’s best to work with a qualified medical practitioner who understands this process.

  9. PB says

    So excited to see that coconut keifer was listed here. I just bought a small bottle of it at Whole Foods for $14. When I saw the ingredient listing on the label I knew I could make it myself. I’m a novice- so I’m guessing- as the exact directions are not posted above-
    How much keifer culture to how much coconut water? Closed glass jar or open? Warm temp like in a closed oven? How long do you ferment? Can you always keep it on the counter or do you have to refridgerate it?
    Any reply would be appreciated.

  10. says

    Great post! A number of years ago my daughters were gluten free and dairy free. I used regular kefir grains to ferment rice and almond milk. The almond milk would make like a curd like soy and a whey like substance. I would filter & use some of the whey in their fruit juices. They LOVED it!

  11. Oksana says

    One very important probiotic drink is forgotten to list here, is milk kefir, which is cultivated alike tibicos but milk kefir grains are used, also called Tibetian grains (some people call them mushrooms). This is very popular milk fermented drink in Russia (they have a patent for it), Poland, it is also known in Japan, Italy and few more countries. Look for on e-bay, people sell it and also you find short description about its benefits. It is as healthy and useful as tibicos, maybe even more.

  12. says

    Me and my Husband was looking for dairy-free probiotic foods
    since my gyno suggested that I eat more probiotics and I am very thankful
    that I found your site & will bookmark it and share w/ others.

  13. Kelly says

    Great article! I just wanted to mention tha most miso has gluten. I’ve found white miso paste (Eden brand) that is gluten free but it’s not as flavorful as the red.

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