20 of the best plant-based probiotics and prebiotics
Popular dairy products like yoghurt are the most recognised sources of probiotics — but what about all the plant-based products like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh, which often get ignored?
Most people know all about probiotics, but what about prebiotics? The names are very similar, but they each play different roles for your gut health. Here’s a guide to what plant-based prebiotics and probiotics to look out for so you can eat healthily and love your gut while you’re at it.
Probiotics vs prebiotics
Probiotics are live “good” bacteria living in your gut. They help to break down and digest food, minimise gas and bloating, boost your immune system and support overall gut health.
The gut is sometimes called your “second brain” as it can play a key role in your mental health. Recent studies have found that probiotics have an effect on your mood since they produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Like everything, probiotics need to be fed in order to remain active and healthy.
Prebiotics are the food for the good bacteria. They are non-digestible plant fibres linked to the promotion of the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut. They are complementary to probiotics and work together synergistically to support your body, laying the groundwork so probiotics can thrive in your system. Without the “fuel” of prebiotics, probiotics would starve, so it’s usually recommended to combine foods that have probiotics with foods that have prebiotics in one meal.
A variety of plant-based foods, particularly sour and fermented foods, contain beneficial probiotic bacteria. Eating probiotics raw is best since cooking can reduce some of their benefits. Although probiotic supplements are helpful, you can’t beat the natural sources found in food, which are more available for absorption and digestion.
Move over, tofu; the new darling of plant-based diets is tempeh, a fermented soybean product rich in both protein and probiotics. It has a firm yet chewy texture with a mild nutty flavour so is a popular addition to a variety of dishes including salads, stir fries, burgers and sandwiches. It is known to have many health benefits including helping to increase bone density, reducing cholesterol, aiding in muscle recovery and improving immune function. It’s also packed full of vitamin C. Buy it at your local grocery store or, if you’re feeling game, try making it at home.
A staple in Japanese cuisine, miso (meaning “fermented beans”) is commonly used as a base for soups and stir-fries as well as for marinades and salad dressings. Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and grain and has a distinctive salty and umami (savoury) flavour. The fermentation process makes it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients it contains as well as enhancing the number of good bacteria and enzymes in your intestinal flora. Miso is also a great source of antioxidants, vitamins B, E and K and folic acid. Just be wary that miso is rich in sodium so is best consumed in moderation (no more than approximately six grams per day).
Sauerkraut has a lot more going for it than just a filling for a Reuben sandwich or a condiment for bratwurst. A form of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is full of probiotic goodness as well as potassium and vitamins C and K. Look for unpasteurised sauerkraut (the pasteurisation process destroys some of the good stuff) or, even better, make your own by finely cutting cabbage and fermenting it in a concentrated saltwater solution. Try to consume sauerkraut as freshly fermented as possible since it retains the most nutrient density this way.
A traditional Korean food, kimchi is spicy fermented cabbage packed full of health benefits. High in natural probiotics, vitamins and antioxidants, kimchi is made using a similar process to sauerkraut but usually fermented at a lower temperature for a shorter period of time, making it super easy to make at home. Try making a simple cabbage kimchi with garlic, salt, chili and vinegar as a side or add it to a piping hot bowl of bibimbap or stir-fry. Recent studies suggest that regularly eating kimchi can help lower blood cholesterol, reduce inflammation and improve memory.
Kombucha, a fermented tea, has enjoyed a trendy revival in recent years despite having been around for thousands of years. To make kombucha, sweetened black or green tea is fermented with a starter culture often called a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). The bacteria and yeast convert the sugar into ethanol and acetic acid, which results in a refreshing, slightly sour, fizzy drink that often has flavours added. If kept cooled, the actual level of ethanol (alcohol) in a kombucha drink is less than 0.5 per cent so it won’t be getting you drunk. Having said that, if you are making own, varying conditions can lead to varying ethanol concentrations. Kombucha is also full of antioxidants, which can kill harmful bacteria and fight free radicals. If you’re considering making kombucha at home, be wary of the fermentation process since food safety can be an issue.
This traditional Japanese food, usually consumed at breakfast, is another natural probiotic made from fermented soybeans. Unlike its big sister tempeh, it is made by soaking whole soybeans then steaming or boiling them and finally adding the bacterium Bacillus subtilis to the mixture and allowing it to ferment. This bacterium has been found to help digestive issues and protect your body against inflammation and disease. Natto is not everyone’s cup of tea due to its distinctly bitter flavour and gooey and sticky texture, but it’s definitely worth giving it a go to keep your gut happy.
While pickled cucumbers are one of the most popular fermented foods, pretty much any type of vegetable under the sun can be used for pickling in brine such as carrots, radishes, green beans and red bell peppers. Pickle them at home by immersing them in water, salt and a starter culture. If buying pickled vegetables at your local supermarket, just make sure they are unpasteurirsed so you can get the full benefit of the probiotic. It’s also advised to consume pickled vegetables in moderation due to their high salt content.
Bread as a probiotic? You may not have guessed it but sourdough that requires a sourdough starter (a combination of flour and water that has fermented for several days) is rich in gut-friendly probiotics.
Foods that are high in fibre are also often high in prebiotics. Here are some of the top foods richest in plant-based prebiotics that you can incorporate into your daily meal plan.
Raw garlic contains the prebiotics inulin and sweet, naturally occurring prebiotics called fructooligosaccharides (FOS) as well as nutrients including vitamins B6, C and selenium. It acts as a prebiotic by promoting the growth of gut-friendly bifidobacteria. Try adding raw garlic to your homemade hummus or guacamole or even your next stir-fry or pasta.
Raw onions are particularly beneficial as a prebiotic since they are rich in chromium, which helps boost inulin production; quercetin, which fights off free radicals; and vitamin C. Unfortunately, raw onions are not suitable for some people but the good news is cooked onions are a prebiotic food as well, though some of the prebiotic content is lost to sugars as the starch breaks down.
The root of chicory is one of the best prebiotic foods on the market. It is comprised of nearly 65 per cent fibre by weight and approximately 47 per cent of fibre from inulin, which has been proved to improve digestion, break down fat and help relieve constipation. It can be found in health stores and gourmet markets and is often used in cereals, yoghurt, breakfast bars and bread. It’s also popular as a coffee substitute because it has a deep, dark flavour when roasted.
These large green potato-like artichokes are hard to miss at your local market. They can be consumed raw, cooked or in powdered form. Since they have a low glycaemic index they are also a great substitute for potatoes.
As well as tasting delicious, bananas are great for soothing the gut and reducing bloating. Choose unripe bananas for the best prebiotic effect and consume before they are fully ripened as the fibre of the banana breaks down the riper it gets, eventually converting to sugar.
Raw dandelion greens
These abundant, backyard greens are 25 per cent prebiotic fibre and a great addition to salad, casserole or soup but best eaten raw to maximise their prebiotic benefits. Alternatively, just blanch them slightly in boiling water or swap your morning brew for a dandelion green tea. Dandelion greens are also known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Otherwise known as Mexican turnip or yam bean, jicama is a type of root vegetable that’s like a cross between an apple and a turnip. An extremely high-fibre food, it contains a beneficial type of prebiotic called oligofructose inulin. Often used in Mexican recipes, jicama is great in salsa and salads.
Raw wheat bran
Another food rich in prebiotics, raw wheat bran (the outer layer of the whole wheat grain) is an easy addition to your daily ritual. It’s packed full of a special fibre called arabinoxylan oligosaccharides (AXOS), which accounts for over 60 per cent of the bran’s fibre content. AXOS has been found to boost the level of healthy bifidobacteria in the gut. Try adding it to your morning muesli or blending it into a smoothie.
Increasingly popular in recently years, acacia gum (or fibre) is commonly used as a powder that can be served in a drink. It has an extremely high fibre content of 86 per cent, making it one of the best prebiotics out there.
As well as being one of nature’s superfoods, rich in antioxidants and fibre, berries also contain a high level of polyphenols which act in a similar way to prebiotics. They have been found to interact with the good bacteria in the gut and help them to multiply. All types of berries including fresh and frozen are considered gut-friendly foods.
Leeks are not only high in prebiotics but also vitamins K and C. They are also an incredibly versatile addition to many dishes including salads, quiches and vegetable bakes.
Eating asparagus raw is best to get its prebiotic benefits. However, if you find it too tough to eat, try blending it into a smoothie or lightly steaming it. It’s also super easy to make fermented asparagus at home by brining it in a mason jar.
In case you need another reason to eat them, studies have proven that leafy greens including kale, spinach and chard are also a good source of prebiotics. They are also full of vitamins including A and C as well as fibre and potassium.
Cooking with probiotics and prebiotics
Here are some of my favourite recipes using plant-based prebiotic and probiotic foods.
Banana and Coconut Yoghurt Breakfast Parfaits
Green Breakfast Bowls with Miso Dressing
Kimchi Fried Rice