What are Probiotics?
We use the term probiotics to refer to beneficial bacteria.We have billions of friendly bacteria living in our digestive tract. Friendly bacteria help us digest our food and absorb nutrients effectively. In a sense, we don’t actually digest many components of our food — the bacteria digest it!
Probiotics can be found in dairy, fruit or vegetable foods that are allowed to sour or ferment out of refrigeration deliberately. This ancient practice is called lacto-fermentation, and it not only makes food easier to digest, it also boosts their nutritional value. Yogurt and kefir, cultured vegetables, fermented beverages like kombucha are some of the probiotic foods eaten throughout the world today.
History of Probiotics
The ancient Greeks, Middle Eastern, Asian and American Indian cultures all understood the advantage of fermenting foods, including food preservation, enhanced taste as well as health benefits.
• Miso, a fermented soybean, rice, barley or wheat paste, and pickled ginger have been featured in Japanese cuisine for centuries due to their ability to optimize digestion (especially of raw sushi).
• Fermented cabbage has long been a staple in the cuisine of cultures around the world, including Russia, Germany- where it is known as sauerkraut, and Korea’s Kimchi. It’s renowned for its ability to aid digestion, especially diets rich in animal protein.
• Yogurt made with sheep’s milk has been enjoyed in Greek cuisine for centuries, and Middle Eastern cultures have included fermented cheese in their diets for thousands of years.
• Native American cultures fermented a specially prepared corn (maize) dough for use as bread. Berries and other plant foods were fermented, and these foods used a process known as to prepare fermented corn (maize) dough.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Healthy probiotic bacteria:
• Optimize digestion & support colon health, improving both constipation and diarrhea
• Enhance the immune system
• Decrease allergic reactions
• Synthesize B Vitamins (needed for energy)
Continual Replenishment is Necessary
Many things can deplete our stores of beneficial bacteria:
- Not enough fiber-rich foods
- Taking antiobiotics
- Drinking or bathing or swimming in chlorinated water
- Eating too much processed meats with high levels of nitrites/nitrates
- High-sugar diet which encourages growth of bad bacteria
- Metal fillings (mercury is antibacterial)
Supporting Healthy Probiotics
Make sure you also include Pre-biotic foods in your diet. Prebiotics are fibers and starches that allow probiotics to thrive. Prebiotic-rich foods include: asparagus, bananas, chickory, eggplant, fruit, garlic, green tea, honey, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, peas, yogurt, cottage cheese, and kefir.
Introducing Various Probiotic Foods
Kombucha is an effervescent, tangy beverage available in different flavors at Health Food stores or you can easily make yourself with very basic ingredients: black or green tea, sugar (1 gallon to 1 cup), and a Kombucha culture, called a “SCOBY” – a Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. The ingredients are combined and fermented at room temperature for about 1-2 weeks.
The resulting beverage contains dozens of healthful elements including natural probiotics, B vitamins, amino acids.
Cultured vegetables are raw veggies that are allowed to ferment for about a week at room temperature so lactobacilli can grow, and then refrigerated until eaten.Veggies such as cabbage, carrots, beets, and onions can be fermented into delicious “live” foods that maintain their probiotics for about 6 months after preparation. Veggies can be cultured with whey or sea salt, and taste like pickles or sauerkraut.
Some of the health benefits associated with cultured veggies include reducing symptoms of conditions such as colic (give baby a bit of the reserved veggie juice), peptic ulcers, food allergies, constipation and other digestive tract disorders.
One of the most well known and most readily available probiotic foods, many varieties of store-bought yogurt are high in sugar and not very potent in probiotic content unless you read labels carefully. Stoneyfield Farm Organic is widely available at grocery stores; health foods stores contain many more brands. To cut down on sugar, buy the whole milk plain yogurt and stir in your own vanilla, sweeten it with stevia or honey, and add berries if you like.
If you wish to make it at home, all it takes to make it is your choice of milk (preferably organic and raw), a starter yogurt culture or plain yogurt for the first batch and some basic kitchen supplies. Your own homemade yogurt will be a great source of calcium, protein, magnesium and other essential vitamins as well as beneficial digestive tract bacteria without unnecessary additives.
Kefir is a tangy, pourable-yogurt-consistency drink, called the “champagne” of yogurts. It tastes like yogurt and comes in a variety of flavors, from berry to vanilla to strawberry banana. Most kefir commercially sold is made from milk, although it is possible to make water kefir also. Kefir is superior to yogurt because it contains 10+ strains of bacteria as opposed to 2-5, and easily repopulates the gut flora. Both water and milk kefir are also usually easily digested by those who are lactose-intolerant.
An easy way to ensure that your body is populated with good strains of bacteria is to take a high quality probiotic. Probiotics come in different forms, from fruity chewables for kids to enteric-coated capsules for adults. When choosing a probiotic supplement, you want a high potency (usually in the 10′s of billions) and at least 7-8 strains. There are several we carry in the office which are high-quality with 10-15 strains yet not nearly as expensive as health food store versions that average $40-50.
Store-Bought Cultured Foods
It’s perfectly acceptable to add to your diet cultured foods bought from the store! If you are time-pressed and it’s either “storebought or nothing” then by all means buy it!
1. Kefir. Most grocery stores carry Lifetime Kefir (10+ strains) in different flavors. My personal favorite is the Strawberry Banana. A few TBS poured over a whole-grain cereal or ½ a cup as a snack is a great way to incorporate this probiotic-rich drink.
2. Raw-Milk Cheeses. Found at Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, the Harrisonburg Farmer's Market, and other health food stores.
3. Kimchi (found at Asian/Oriental Markets)
4. Stoneyfield or other Organic Yogurt (available at nearly every grocery store)
5. Kombucha (many varieties at a health food store)
6. Fermented veggies. Health food stores (Friendly City Food Co-op is one) carry jars of naturally fermented veggies (found in the refrigerated section). 1-2 TBS make a great meat condiment or—my favorite—topping a fried egg on whole wheat toast.
Homemade Cultured Foods
Or, you can save money and improve taste by making cultured veggies at home! Another huge benefit is that you can make a great big batch and they last for ages and ages in the fridge (the good bacteria are a natural inhibitor of bad organisms). I found when making them that I craved the tangy crunch in the winter, and in the summer the juice from cultured pickles tasted better than Gatorade. :)
These are not nearly as complicated or time consuming as you may think. They require very little equipment, and will save you load of money as compared to the other two options. Here are links to methods of preparing each one:
• Cultured Veggies (Here's a link to my favorite recipe)
• Homemade yogurt in a crockpot: http://practical-stewardship.com/2012/01/14/homemade-crock-pot-yogurt-recipe/
• Homemade kefir: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2013/02/01/whats-the-easiest-fermented-food-to-make/
• Cultured condiments such as Ketchup: http://holisticsquid.com/?s=ketchup
• Kombucha: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/make-kombucha