Q: John – I have a lactose problem, but I still want the probiotic help that comes in a good natural yogurt. Is there a soy yogurt that has similar probiotic benefit or do I have to stick with the real stuff?
A: Alisa – The short answer is yes, there are several non-dairy yogurts available that will offer probiotic benefits equivalent to dairy-based yogurt. In fact, for those who are lactose intolerant the non-dairy yogurts may have more noticeable benefits since you won’t be contending with lactose maldigestion symptoms from the yogurt too. I have included some recommended products below and will also go into a bit more detail on this topic and address what a “natural yogurt” could be.
It is not uncommon for someone with lactose intolerance to be tolerant of good quality dairy yogurt. This is because certain strains of probiotics have been found to aid in the digestion of lactose. Though L. acidophilus has long been recognized as the digestion hero, it was actually found in studies to have very little effect on the digestion of lactose.
But another member of the Lactobacillus family, L. bulgaricus showed improvements for the hydrogen breath test (a basic lactose intolerance test) and symptoms. (Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) For more information on lactose intolerance and the tests available, see Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook.
L. bulgaricus is commonly used as a starter for yogurts, both dairy and non-dairy, so it is fairly easy to find. Also, based on the studies I read, it looks like you will get the same benefits from this probiotic no matter the medium (whether in a cow’s milk yogurt or a soy yogurt). The benefits of probiotics are created in the process of fermentation, so the medium is not necessarily what is important. This is why Kimchi, a fermented vegetable Korean dish, has been used for centuries as a tummy-tamer at meals. What is important is the level of live active cultures in the finished product (those not destroyed in the production of the yogurt), and how well it is stored to avoid destruction of these cultures before they are able to reach your gut (chilled mediums are usually best for both supplements and foods).
Keep in mind, most commercial yogurts are pasteurized (killing off many of the live active cultures) and have probiotics added in after the fact. These may not have the same gut benefits as the cultures from the original fermentation. Check with the yogurt manufacturer to find out their processes and the live active cultures in their finished products.
Better yet, make your own yogurt at home! The definition of a “natural yogurt” can vary since it is not a regulated term – it may simply be one made with all natural ingredients, Greek-style yogurt, yogurt made from a prior batch of yogurt, or a plain unsweetened yogurt. The best way to qualify your non-dairy yogurt as “natural” by any of these standards is to make it yourself. You can easily prepare a batch of yogurt with your own makeshift apparatus or by using a relatively inexpensive yogurt maker.
Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook offers recipes for homemade Soy Yogurt, Coconut Yogurt, and Cashew Yogurt (the latter two also being soy-free options) and full instructions.
In terms of store-bought soy yogurt, one of the following my suit your tastes:
Whole Soy & Co. Soy Yogurt – This was the first soy yogurt I sampled, and it is still tops on my list for taste and consistency. The also offer a soy frozen yogurt that touts probiotic benefits. All varieties are sweetened. According to their customer service, each 6 oz serving has 17 to 20 billion cultures.
Wildwood Soyogurt – This is one of the few brands of soy yogurts with a plain unsweetened variety. Wildwood also offers probiotic hummus (it has a yogurt-like vibe to the taste), and a probiotic soymilk (flavored / sweetened). According to their customer service, each 6 oz serving has 700 billion cultures (4.1 billion per gram).
So Delicious Soy Yogurt from Turtle Mountain – This is a fairly new one to market, but it is competitive in terms of flavor and texture. Though their soy yogurt does not come in unsweetened, their probiotic-rich kefir does. Turtle Mountain also offers a soy-free coconut milk based yogurt, which is rather tasty.
All of the above mentioned products can be found at Whole Foods and other natural food stores. However, I have also seen each of these brands in the natural food aisles (refrigerated) of my local mega-grocer. They are each widely distributed in the United States.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.