Friday, March 12, 2010

Vegan Yogurt, Probiotics, Fiber, and Digestive Enzymes

In a comment on a recent post I was asked the following:

What do you do to get the natural bacteria for your colon, the one that exists in yogurt? Cuz I noticed that as soon as I started eating yogurt again (after the year-long hiatus due to the quack naturopath and staying away from dairy didn't help allergies anyway) my digestion improved like 200%. I.e. I have clean dumps each morning as long as I eat yogurt. ~Felda, Seinfeld's Biggest Fan

This is an excellent question. But let me answer this in two ways. First, I want to address the possibilities of which ingredient in the yogurt might be helping you attain these 'clean dumps', and second, I'm going to try to list all of the possible yogurt substitutes currently available for vegans. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor, nutritionist, nor a scientist. This is just what I think I know, and don't just take my word for it, check with the experts too.

Normally, your body already has the natural bacteria you need. There are times, though, when you might need to supplement the healthy bacteria; when you are taking antibiotics, when you have an infection (ie. yeast infection), or when your body is having trouble regulating itself.

Generally, with a well-balanced vegan diet, one doesn't need to worry about the bacterial health in the colon. But our diets stray from perfect, our bodies often have food intolerances or challenges in digesting certain foods, and we occasionally get overrun with unhealthy bacteria. This of course happens to non-vegans as well.

There are several things that aid in our digestion and waste management processes; probiotics (healthy bacteria that battle gastro infections), digestive enzymes (aid in breaking down foods), and fiber (helps with regular and happy waste management).

Probiotics, or live bacterial cultures, are found in virtually all yogurts on the market. They are found to support peristalsis, which is the muscular contraction that moves food and waste through our digestive systems. I have also seen it suggested that they reduce inflammation and improve mineral absorption. But, primarily, probiotics are believed to fight off some infections and help with certain forms of diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Digestive enzymes help improve digestion by breaking down foods into smaller molecules. They reduce toxicity in the intestines and colon, improve elimination, and alleviate constipation. Enzymes also help prevent gas and bloating. Some yogurt brands now have digestive enzyme supplements in them. So, it's very possible that the digestive enzymes are working towards your colon health instead of or in addition to the probiotics.

It should also be noted that if you are making other dietary changes those changes could be playing a part in your situation. For example, simply reducing the amount of refined or processed foods (low fiber) you are consuming or increasing your water intake can both rehydrate the colon and make elimination easier. And if you are increasing your fiber intake, there is a good chance that the added fiber is helping create any 'clean dumps' you might be experiencing. As a vegetarian, I assume you are getting a decent amount of fiber in your diet already. But I have no way of measuring your fiber intake pre- and post- happy eliminations to be sure that any added fiber isn't what is doing the trick. The reason I mention this is that while yogurt is not generally known to be a fiber rich food, there are certain yogurt brands that have added fiber supplements. If you are choosing those brands it could easily be the added fiber helping you out.

The point is that any combination of these things (fiber, digestive enzymes, probiotics) that are now commonly found in yogurt could be helping you acheive regular and happy waste disposal. And just replacing the yogurt's probiotics may or may not do the trick without knowing what the actual trigger is.

The reason it is important to ascertain the trigger is also related to which products I refer you to. I'm going to assume that the probiotics are the crucial ingredient, and that a simple vegan probiotic source will do the trick. If it doesn't work, don't give up on the non-dairy products. Just try adding some digestive enzymes and/or bulking up on the fiber.

Dairy yogurt is just one vehicle for the healthy bacteria most manufacturers are calling probiotics. There are several ways to get probiotics if you need them, with varying costs, and with or without soy.

1) storebought non-dairy yogurt options (soy-based, coconut-milk-based, rice-based, nut-based)
2) homemade non-dairy yogurt
3) fermented foods
4) probiotic supplements

There are non-dairy yogurts on the market that are quite tasty. Yes, many brands are soy-based yogurts (Whole Soy, Silk, Nancy's, Wildwood, So Delicious, Trader Joe's), but there are also coconut-milk-based yogurts (So Delicious, NuLait), rice yogurts (Ricera), a nut-based yogurt (NuLait [almond]), and a mixed brand (Nogurt [sample ingredients: Cassava Syrup, Banana Puree, Oat Flour Flakes, Arrowroot Flour, DHA Algal Oil ].

Unfortunately, NuLait is not yet available here in Arizona. And I have yet to see Nogurt anywhere. I don't know about Ricera, as I tend to ignore the rice milk products, but it is likely you can find it at Whole Foods. At least I can attest that the So Delicious Coconut Milk Yogurts are very, very good. I personally like them better than the soygurts. And  the downside to these particular non-dairy products is the cost. They just aren't as cheap as dairy yogurts.

If avoiding soy is a concern, that is becoming less and less of an issue as the amount of soy-free products is growing considerably. Not just because people are worried about consuming mass amounts of soy, but because it is a common allergen. BTW, soy in moderation is totally fine for you. I suspect that the debate about soy will be a long-term one with 'evidence' from both camps. In the meantime, I simply look to the cultures who have used it for decades longer than we have and I see how they have remained healthier by far than we have with our typical American diet. The key thing is the less processed a product, the better it is for you. Junk food soy products are still junk food. [See the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine for more about soy.]

Homemade non-dairy yogurt is definitely cheaper, but depending on how you make it, could require an upfront investment in materials (soymilk maker machine, blender, yogurt maker machine, or alternatives). It's possible to make both non-dairy milks and yogurts without the fancy equipment, but I just don't have the experience to know how much of a hassle it can be either way. There are tons of recipes for non-dairy yogurt online (complete with live cultures), you just have to be willing to go through the effort of making it. If you are a yogurt lover and will eat it regularly, this might be a good option.

*Bryanna Clark Grogan has a yogurt recipe and an in-depth tutorial. She does a great job of explaining how to make soymilk and yogurt without having the fancy equipment that I mentioned above.

*Fat-free Vegan Kitchen also has a soy yogurt recipe.

* Small Footprint Family has a coconut milk yogurt recipe.

*Freckle-Faced Mama's Recipes also has a coconut milk yogurt recipe.

Fermented foods also have the healthy bacteria we are talking about. In order to get the bacteria and enzymes of fermented foods, the products must be unpasteurized. The pasteurizing process kills off all the healthy bacteria and enzymes. Some typically vegan, fermented food examples:

A. Sauerkraut – Sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented with lactic acid, also called pickling. Lactic acid does not necessarily come from dairy sources, but it can. Sauerkraut has a sour, tangy taste that comes from the fermented sugars.

B. Miso – A traditional Japanese seasoning, miso is a fermented product that's derived primarily from soy, rice and/or barley with fungus and salt. Less commonly, miso can also be made from buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, hemp seed, cycad, corn, azuki beans, amaranth, quinoa, and chick peas. Miso is a thick paste that is often used for sauces, spreads, and soups. It is very high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. There are several types of Miso (red, white, yellow, brown, etc) and each has a different flavor (salty, sweet, savory, etc)

C. Tempeh – Tempeh is a fermented soy cake, originally from Indonesia. Tempeh has a firm texture and is made from whole soybeans and retains a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, and a stronger flavor compared to tofu. Tempeh is a super awesome source of protein. The flavor of tempeh has been described as nutty, meaty, and mushroom-like. It also absorbs the flavor of seasonings, but tastes nothing like tofu.

D. Kombucha – Kombucha is a fermented tea used mostly for medicinal purposes. Kombucha contains both bacteria and yeasts in a symbiotic relationship. Kombucha is usually made with sugar and black tea, but can also be found as green tea. [Mayo Clinic's Caution]

E. Miscellanea- There are alot of other fermented foods out there. Some are vegan and some are not due to animal product flavoring, it just depends on how they are prepared, which can really vary. You'll want to research the food itself, how it is traditionally prepared and then you'll need to double-check the specific brand you are interested in. Often, fermented foods are regionally different ethnic foods, and some are acquired tastes.

More fermented food examples: natto (Japanese fermented soy beans), Douchi (Chinese fermented black beans), Doenjang (Korean fermented soy bean paste), barszcz (fermented beet beverage), kimchee (Korean pickled vegetables), tamari (similar to soy sauce but thicker), sourdough, beer, shoyu (aka soy sauce), pickles, rejuvelac (fermented liquid to aid in digestion), nut cheese, seed cheese, raw apple cider vinegar, and coconut milk kefir or almond milk kefir from water kefir grains. Many of the store-bought versions of these products are pasteurized, however, and therefore lacking in enzymes and healthy bacteria.

One way to ensure your fermented foods are vegan and unpasteurized, well, you can make your own. There is an entire cookbook devoted to fermenting foods, Wild Fermentation. Have fun with that!

Supplements are a great alternative. They can ensure you regularly consume probiotics without worrying about your day to day diet. Some of the supplements have soy products, you'll just have to decide if the amounts in the product are ok with you. I did not review the supplements to see which ones are soy-free.

There are vegan supplements for probiotics, as well as fiber and digestive enzymes. Just a couple of brands to look for that offer several vegan options: VegLife, Rainbow Light, and Now.

And a couple of places to shop and compare brands, prices, and products: Whole Foods, Sprouts, other local health food stores, Pangea, and Vegan Essentials.

VegLife Belly Flora
VegLife FOS-idophilus Probiotic Supplement
Rainbow Light ProbioActive 1B Probiotics
New Chapter All-Flora

Digestive Enzymes
VegLife Vegan Plantcreatin
Rainbow Light Advanced Enzyme System

Rainbow Light Everyday Fiber System

As you can see, I listed a fiber-specific supplement, but I really don't think you need this with a balanced vegan diet. Your food should be supplying plenty of fiber. Check out this chart of high fiber foods. If you still want additional fiber, I'd say get it from a combo product like those listed below.

Rainbow Light Advanced Enzyme Optima with Prebiotics & Probiotics
Now Tru-Food Vegan (Fiber, Digestive Enzymes, and Probiotics)
Olympian Labs Greens 8 in 1 Protein (Fiber, Digestive Enzymes, Probiotics, plus)
Vega Complete Whole Food Health Optimizer (Fiber, Digestive Enzymes, Probiotics, plus)

Originally, I was going to say that I don't supplement with probiotics or enzymes, because I don't consciously seek out those supplements, but after thinking about it I realized I was wrong. I occasionally use the Greens 8 in 1 Protein product which has fiber, enzymes, and probiotics. In addition to that, I just looked at my Rainbow Light Prenatal One Multivitamin, which I try to remember to take daily, and realized it has digestive enzymes and probiotic ingredients as well. Huh. Whaddya know. I bought it as a multivitamin and didn't pay much attention to all the other goodies in it. (I'm not pregnant or even trying, but the prenatal formulas have higher amounts of vitamins that are good for hair and nails, and higher amounts of folic acid.)

In addition to those supplements, I occasionally consume miso and tempeh products. I often have shoyu and tamari on things, but I'm pretty sure they are pasteurized versions because no bacteria are listed as ingredients. I'm not a big fan of pickled or vinegary tastes, so I usually stay away from those types of fermented foods.

So, there you have it. I covered the possible ingredients in yogurt that are giving you clean dumps, the non-dairy yogurt alternatives, sources of probiotics, fiber, and digestive enzymes, and the products I use for digestive health. Did I forget anything?


Felda, Jerry Seinfeld's Biggest Fan said...

thanks! I dont think I'll change my yogurt habit, but now at least it's an informed decision. My diet's always been rich in fiber; I want to steer away from so much soy that I'd been consuming and consuming yogurt made a big difference.

Felda, Jerry Seinfeld's Biggest Fan said...

and oh, regarding some of the other options:

-rice is much more highly glycemic than dairy and coconut is a saturated fat so I'm hesitant to switch to those kinds of products if low-fat yogurt is healthier, for me in particular.
-I'm wary of supplements unless they are FDA regulated. I prefer to have my nutrition come from natural sources that are tried and true. Not to mention the extra cost associated with buying the supplements.
-I've tried to find journal articles on if such products are FDA regulated or if my concerns with soy are valid. Haven't found anything yet and so until then, want to stick with something natural that I know works for me, especially when it's really the only non-vegan thing that I eat on a regular basis.

So anyway, that might give you an idea of where I'm coming from. THanks for providing all the info! Let me know if you have a different understanding than I do on these options...

Kenike said...

I guess my response was too big, so I had to make it into a post. :)

Felda, Jerry Seinfeld's Biggest Fan said...

Oh no, that's cool! I was expecting and wanting a detailed response, to see if there were options out there I might consider. I'm trying to be good about making informed decisions. It is a lot of info for a good post...

BE said...

Another option for digestive health: acupuncture! I just started not even a week ago, and my intestines are far, far happier...and that wasn't even my presenting issue! I never thought my digestion could be this peaceful. Not to negate the wealth of nutritional information you've supplied...but I just have to sing the praises of acupuncture. It's lower glycemic than any yogurt: dairy, soy, or otherwise; it doesn't have any additives; and, as far as I know, no animal testing!

BE said...

KENIKE!!! I need some GI help. I think you know me well enough to trust that I eat TONS of fiber (close to 100 grams daily last time I updated the food plan in excel) and strive to drink a gallon of water a day. I have been following Fuhrman's Eat To Live program nearly 100% except that most of my veggies have been cooked because a pound raw was just too hard to digest. But as I've transitioned back to 1 pound raw/1 pound cooked (and the cooked is all collard greens), I am once again gassy as can be. In fact, I'm considering trying to sell my farts as an alternative fuel source. Until then, though, I will need to make money in an environment featuring people, and I was hoping you had a good recommendation for which supplement(s) would help make me once again smell like the delicate flower I was meant to be.

Silently but fatally,
Farty McStinkypants

Kenike said...

I'm definitely not an expert in this area, but I can tell you what I would try.

Based on what I know about your food plan, I would try adding a digestive enzyme supplement. It wouldn't add calories and it would be simpler than trying to find the right foods to do the job. While a bottle of enzymes isn't super cheap, I think it would be cheaper than other options and worth it. I'd probably try the Rainbow Light one cause I use their multivitamins and I like those. I'm pretty sure you can focus the usage of these around the harder to digest meals, so you needn't take them all the time. Prolly with your greens would be fine.

Or, assuming a few extra calories weren't forbidden, I would also try replacing the use of Cliff bars or other protein bars with Vega Whole Food Optimizer which has the protein I would want but also the enzymes and some probiotics too to help with digestion. I believe the enzymes linger so you needn't feel like you have to consume this when you eat the greens or anything like that.

Let me know what you think and what you end up trying.