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We’ve all heard about the benefits of probiotics for re-establishing and maintaining gut integrity and optimal health. What is the purpose of probiotics, who should consume them and for how long, and what about people on a plant-based diet?
Who and for how long?
Unless you’ve never been on a dose of antibiotics in your life, never eaten an animal product injected with steroids, hormones or antibiotics, never travel and are able to shield your body from environmental toxins via air, water and food – then you can stand to benefit from daily probiotic consumption.
Benefits of probiotics
Our bodies require a healthy dose of good bacteria in order to maintain wellness. Meanwhile probiotics perform many daily functions:
- break down and digest food
- produce vitamins
- suppress other microbes that threaten to take over, such as yeast
- replenish good bacteria destroyed by antibiotics and environmental insults
- manage diarrhea and urinary tract infections
- potentially alleviate medical conditions such as:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Diarrhea, especially when associated with antibiotic use
- Chronic yeast infections
- Autoimmune Illnesses
- display minimal side effects, mainly gas initially as gut integrity is re-established
Lactobacillus doesn’t mean lactose
Many people associate lactobacillus (a strain of bacteria) with lactose (a milk sugar). In reality, lactobacillus is present everywhere. It exists in nature and colonizes the digestive tract, even in those who do NOT eat dairy. Lactobacillus is not just from fermented dairy, although it is used to ferment dairy to make yogurt and cheeses.
Often the lactobacillus is grown on a dairy medium, but the dairy is removed in processing. That means only the most severely allergic would need to avoid a trace amount of dairy from a physiological standpoint. For vegans and those dealing with an extreme dairy allergy (which is very rare), there are vegan versions of probiotics.
However, many “vegan” probiotics DO contain lactobacillus.
The question for people on a plant-based diet then is this: knowing that most lactobacillus is initially grown on a dairy medium, yet ubiquitous in nature, is a product containing lactobacillus truly plant-based?
ProbioActive is a great example since it is labeled as “suitable for vegans” yet contains lactobacillus. From a health standpoint, there is essentially no difference. From an ethical standpoint, it becomes a personal choice.
What’s your other option?
If you refuse to consume a supplement with lactobacillus and can not find a vegan probiotic that doesn’t contain it, then you can enjoy fermented plant foods (cultured vegetables, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, coconut kefir, kimchi, kombucha, etc…). Keep in mind that these foods may or may not have been cultured with lactobacillus.
Fermented foods are cheaper than supplements, tastier, and usually more effective. Adding these delights to your daily intake is quite feasible and in many ways preferred, but it will require additional education, planning and incorporation of new foods. The book Cultured by Kevin Gianni is a great resource for getting started with a variety of delicious recipes like applekraut.
The casein protein
Unlike lactobacillus, casein is a mammalian milk protein that is non-vegan. In some cases, casein invokes a severe food allergen. A toddler who is so allergic to dairy (or specifically casein) that they react just by being near it, should obviously avoid a probiotic with casein but doesn’t necessarily have to avoid lactobacillus.
The ProbioActive (mentioned above) doesn’t contain casein, but does contain lactobacillus and would be a reasonable option when avoiding casein. For a vegan child (with or without a milk allergy), one might choose to incorporate the fermented food option instead of a probiotic capsule.
What to look out for in a “vegan” probiotic
- Read “vegan” labels – make sure you can view all the ingredients prior to purchasing online
- Magnesium Stearate – look for “vegetable magnesium stearate” instead
- Casein = milk protein
- Capsules made with gelatin = horse, cow, sheep hoof remnants
- Honey, Bee Pollon, Royal Jelly, Propolis, Beeswax = bee related
- Lac Resin/Shellac = bug juice, think M&M’s coating
- Cholecalciferol = animal version of vitamin D
- Vitamin A – from fish or animal livers
One of my favorite product lines is Renew Life since they offer unique formulas for various conditions such as yeast, antibiotics, children, etc… Although plant-based, dairy-free and gluten-free with ingredients such as “vegetable capsules” and “cellulose,” these do contain lactobacillus.
To find more vegan probiotics, visit your local health food store (where you can read the labels) or look for animal-friendly probiotics online.
Vegan (and Non-Vegan) Recommendations
Overall my recommendation for anyone, especially the true vegan (avoiding lactobacillus), is to consume probiotics from cultured and fermented foods. This is a delectable option because it provides nourishment while enjoying the probiotic benefits within real, whole vegan foods rich in water, fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals!
The good news is that there are plenty of convenient options for getting started such as a daily dose of fermented veggies (cultured veggies, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles) soy products (1-2 servings of soy or coconut based yogurt, tempeh, miso) or beverages (like Kombucha and Kevita).
In fact, learning the art of fermenting vegetables in your own kitchen may be that next challenge you’ve been seeking as a veteran vegan looking to take your health to the next level!
Please note, I don’t have any affiliate ties to any of the products mentioned above.
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Image Source: Veganbaking.net/Flickr