Insights by Goldie
Probiotics: Time to get cultured ... food, that is!

Sound Consumer | January 2010

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Today’s frantic, fast, food-fueled lifestyle is a sharp contrast to the deeply satisfying experience of making healthful foods in our own kitchens. I especially encourage you to discover the delicious simplicity of making a few home-fermented foods. It’s a sure-fire way to add culture(s) to your life — double entendre intended!

There are numerous foods created by fabulous food fermentation superheroes, adding delicious flavors, assisting digestion, and supporting our immune systems. Included are many variants of microorganisms in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families of cultures. Check these and other varieties of yogurts and other live foods, as well as in the numerous concentrates in many excellent supplements at PCC.

Fermented dairy (and non-dairy) live yogurts and live kefirs (a yogurt-like drink) are in the dairy case. In cold drinks, see the fizzy, live kombucha teas. In other cold cases look for tubs of Mellow Miso (Japanese fermented soy), and pungent cabbage pickles with chilis (Korean kimchi).

Also see jars of old world-style sauerkraut (fermented cabbage and salt), and jars of kosher-style cucumber pickles (fermented from cucumbers and salt, no added vinegar, not heat treated). All these foods are drawn from wide-ranging cultures and traditions, yet all are “live.”

The modern term, “probiotics” distinguishes fermented (cultured) foods that have not been heat-treated. “Prebiotics” refers to complex carbohydrates added to foods such as yogurts.

Some prebiotics, such as inulin, are fibers that abound in foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, garlic and onions, and which we don’t digest. But they provide energy for probiotic organisms. Finally, “synbiotics” describes the combined benefits of the pre-and probiotics working together when they enter our digestive tract.

Try making a simple cabbage sauerkraut or perhaps ferment a crunchy, colorful combination of cabbage or other brassicas, such as Brussels sprouts, with carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and turnips. Add some fresh herbs.

After less than a week of fermenting, start sampling! Remember: If vegetables such as brassicas normally are hard on your digestion, you’ll likely be amazed at the gentle difference when fermented!

I recommend that you browse “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods,” by Sandor Ellix Katz. It’s a very well-written, straightforward, friend-to-friend sort of how-to book with about 100 recipes and an excellent resources section.

To get started, the sauerkraut recipe with full instructions and discussion are free, online, at wildfermentation.com. The book will guide you on how to make kombucha at home. You also can make home-brewed beer, honey-based mead, or wine fermented from many types of fruits or blossoms.

Ever baked simple yeast-risen bread? You saw fermentation at work because of live yeast. Sourdough bread is even more dramatic, with no commercial yeast, only a pre-fermented starter. But remember — wonderful though it is — the yeasts do the work but no longer are living when baked.

Regular fermenters say that keeping small batches going every few days, at various stages, is like gardening — they check the progress as the microorganisms do the work, noting changes in appearance, fragrance and such. Like gardeners, who say they eat more fruits and vegetables when they grow some, the same is likely for those who begin fermenting. Augmenting their store-bought purchases with some home-fermented foods is helpful, to the budget and belly!

As we work with these unseen microorganisms — these astounding living beings that culture, improve and preserve our foods — we experience an exquisite alchemy. I’m in awe of the wild, wondrous work accomplished by these beneficial bacteria, yeasts and molds.

So, too, do I marvel at the collective knowledge and wisdom on fermentation that has grown and evolved over time, continually naming what was good, safe, healing “medicine” and (importantly!) what to strictly shun!

It’s a symbiotic relationship between humans and microorganisms. By extension, fermented foods truly are at the root of human culture and our food traditions.

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