Even the most casual observer of the history of mankind eventually recognizes the many healthy habits and food related practices of our forebears that were almost universal, but which certainly were not fully understood from a scientific perspective. Was it just lucky coincidence, for instance, that our ancestors practiced a regimen of eating foods with high levels of probiotics (healthy bacteria)? Well, that’s a different path than the one I wish to go down today, but a damned interesting one, for sure – I’ll tuck that idea away for another post.
No, it’s the subject of probiotics themselves that interests me today, as it must millions of other folks, for it has captured the interest of the masses such, that almost everyone has something to contribute to the discussion. Why is this?
My daughter, Melissa, has spent the last four or five years working with old folks, as she was working on her doctorate – and she jokingly shares with me the curious fact that old people seem to have a fascination with their own digestive system, and a desire to discuss it to the exclusion of any other personal issues! She says this is practically a universal trait of the elderly, and one she quickly tired of. But as a member of the generation of those whose behaviors she critiques, I don’t think of this as a perverse fascination, as much as a result of a life-long intimate knowledge and emerging awareness of what is arguably our most important bodily system – and one, I should add, whose secrets science is only now beginning to unlock.
Sure, some may think that our brain and central nervous system is man’s key functional system, but I think science is hard at work changing that opinion – do you know that our digestive system is the home of the body’s immune system? Strange, but interesting, huh? But I think the most fascinating thing about the digestive system is that it is home to literally billions, maybe trillions, of “friendly” bacteria which do so many beneficial things for us each day, that we still don’t know about them all. What we do know is that collectively, there is from 2-4 pounds of bacteria in the intestines at any given time – some bad, some good. And while the ideal ratio of good bacteria to bad should be, 85%/15%, as a result of the American diet, that ratio is almost exactly in reverse for the majority of Americans! Disease anyone?
And this, my friends, is why we currently see such an interest in probiotics (live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host). Sadly, we have done a such a good job of developing life-saving medications that we -and medical science- have ignored the downside of this effort, ie, the destruction of our own body’s good bacteria, while at the same time allowing the bad bacteria to develop immunity to those same wonder drugs.
Ah, what a wonderful segue to the demanding question, “Why is it we suffer from so many diseases that our ancestors didn’t?”. Have we learned nothing over time? Apparently not.
Several years ago, at the conclusion of a hospital visit, my surgeon suggested that since I was leaving the hospital with no beneficial bacteria present in my body, that building up those good microbes would be the most critical part of my rehab. He told me to get a good probiotic from a Health Food Store, and to learn about the many beneficial foods that contain significant amounts of beneficial bacteria. I have done that, and in the process, I have developed a fascination for the world of microbes, yeasts and bacteria, which in a fascinating coincidence built on my then growing interest in sourdough baking.
There is one particular bacteria, lactobacillus, which plays an especially important symbiotic role in our bodies – it is essential for our good health, and luckily is present in many of man’s favorite foods: sauerkraut, pickles, wine, beer, cheese, yogurt, chocolate, and my own personal favorite, sourdough bread. All of these share a unique characteristic – they are fermented! And by the process of fermenting foods and beverages, we not create lactic acid, which our bodies need, but we have preserved those foods and vegetables, as well as having given them increased flavor. And by eating and drinking these foods with live cultures, we introduce them into our digestive systems, where they do their friendly magic.
So, down to our grocery stores we go, to find those natural probiotic foods – and what do we find? Well, not a whole lot, sadly. Yogurt is probably the prime subject here, but we are disappointed to learn that more and more producers are making their yogurt by destroying the live cultures before they hit the stores. It’s the same story with sauerkraut and pickles, which at the turn of the century were primarily made by fermenting – but today, you’ll have to be both savy and lucky to find the fermented variety. Clue- any fermented veggie must be refrigerated, so look there. BTW, that’s precisely why fermented pickles cost more, and are not favored by the producers.
You can’t find any natural fermented vegetables in your grocery? Not a problem folks – you can make your own. And the beauty of making your own is that it’s easy. Really! It’s a matter of making a mild salt brine (2-3 Tbs of salt per quart of water), covering your chosen vegetables (my favorites are cucumbers, cabbage and bok choy), waiting for 3-6 days, and then putting them in the fridge to stop/slow fermentation. That’s it guys.
The fermentation is natural and automatic – whenever you place a plant/fruit/vegetable into water, the lactobacillus bacteria begin to change the sugars and carbohydrates into lactic acid – this is fermentation – alcohol is a byproduct, and the sweet taste of the sugars is eventually changed to a sour taste – if the fermentation is not cut short, the result in a liquid ferment is vinegar.
And here’s a short gallery of pics of my most recent lacto fermenting exercise with some of my many cukes from this summer’s garden (Yes, they are still coming – we have not yet had our first frost.).