I must have been around four when I first sensed magic. There was no rabbit, top-hat or tuxedoed magician. There was instead a small kitchen, a yogurt maker and a mother. Mum would fill the glass jars with milk and a dollop of culture, place them in their incubator, cover them with a tea cloth blanket, plug them in, shut the lights and let them sleep. This metamorphosis fascinated me. And it was this magic concoction (to which we’d add jam) that was the usual answer to dessert. My mother was uncompromising in her belief that if you ate well, there was little need for medicine. Yogurt, teeming with probiotics*, was her penicillin.
What is a probiotic
Probiotic means “pro life”, as apposed to antibiotic which means “against life”. They’re live microorganisms that take up residency in us and are also used to ferment foods such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso and kim chee.
There are over a hundred strains, that all do different things to different foods and have varying degrees of impact on our health. And to make it even more confusing, they’ve all chosen to keep their Latin names, (lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus, lactobacillicus acidophilus, bifodobacterium) which is why when you try to read the list of them on the side of a yogurt container, you feel like you’re reading Greek (even though you’re reading Latin).
Tempeh**, kefir, miso and kimchee. (Top left and clockwise.)
Why are these foods good for us
We have good and bad bacteria in our gut that (when all’s going well) cohabitate quite nicely. It’s like a terrarium with layers of moss and bugs. A few worms are fine, but too many and the plants can’t regenerate fast enough. Same with the gut. The role of the good bacteria is to digest food, absorb nutrients, rid the body of toxins, clean the digestive system, boost immunity and keep colon cancer at bay. Probiotics are the good bacteria.
How does the system get disrupted: if too much bad bacteria enters, or sugar or stress throws off the pH balance (which allows the bad to thrive) or if good bacteria is killed by antibiotics (which, though intended to kill only the bad bacteria, is indiscriminate, creating “collateral damage” amongst the good bacteria who are trying to do their job) – then the balance tips, leaving the ranks of good bacteria thin, resulting in the digestive roads just not getting cleaned.
Our entire immune system in fact, resides largely in our gut and the more balanced our gut is, the easier it is for our body to fight illness.
Even serotonin (the feel-good chemical) is largely produced in the gut. The better shape we keep our digestive system in, the happier we will be (literally.)
But keep in mind
- Many “enriched” probiotic foods have low levels of probiotics. Enriched juices, chocolate, granola, and yogurts may have low probiotic levels. Eat foods whose probiotics are the result of natural fermentation – yogurt (with probiotic strains) and kefir for example. The more strains of probiotics listed the better*, and beware of this-sounds-too-good-to-be-true health claims.***
- You need billions to get the benefit. In a cup of plain yogurt, you’re likely to get 10-20 billion CFUs (though you will not find this on a label because of the huge variance). The less processed the yogurt, the more strains listed and the less fruit-on-the-bottom, the higher the probiotics. If you are getting them via a pill (which I would only recommend if you’re needing a strong hit over a short period of time), look for at least 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units).
- Consuming probiotic foods with high levels of sugar (eg. highly sweetened yogurt or kefir) is like pouring kerosene onto a fire at the same time as spraying it with water. One of the benefits of probiotics is that they help eliminate the sugar that enters your gut, so to add more, along with the probiotics is only making the good bacteria’s job harder.
- They have to be alive. Don’t buy any probiotic food or supplements off the shelf unless it specifically states that it’s shelf stable. To remain active, most require refrigeration even before being opened.
- If you go on antibiotics, dump a wheelbarrow’s equivalent of fresh compost (probiotics) on your gut before, during and after****.
If something becomes “good for you” it, unfortunately, finds its way into a pill.
Cheapest way to get the benefits and not have to worry about any of this? Get a yogurt maker†.
What’s your take on probiotics and fermented foods?
*Yogurt must contain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to be officially labeled “yogurt”, but often contains additional probiotic strains. There is some debate as to whether streptococcus thermophilus (and to some extent L. Bulgaricus), though, are technically probiotic, since there is not consensus about their survival in the gut. My mother always made yogurt that contained strong probiotic strains; look for brands labeled “probiotic” that contain more than the two basic yogurt strains.
**Though tempeh, is made with probiotic bacteria and is an outstandingly nutritious food, if you eat it cooked (as most do!) it is much less “probiotic”, since the cooking kills (most/all) of the bacteria.
***Dannon was recently charged by the FTC with false advertising on their Activia brand.
****Excellent article on antibiotics and probiotics
† Be sure to check that your yogurt maker does NOT heat above 110 degrees. Many do which kills the bacteria. It’s best to let it culture for 24 hours, at low heat, in order to allow the bacteria to fully grow. Most store-bought yogurts are rapidly cultured for a couple hours at high heat.
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