These are our five priorities with every meal, in their order of priority. In the second post of this series, I’ll address our funky, feisty friends: microorganisms. The ones our guts like, deep down, at the very pit of their being. Not the ones they might pretend to like because others think they’re cool.
The term “probiotics” pertains to a diverse array of bacteria, and even some yeasts, which help develop, repair, and protect the vital layer of flora which colonizes our intestinal walls. As I’ve said before, without a healthy layer of flora, the delicate walls of our guts can easily become injured and develop holes, leading to hosts of health problems.
I always had assumed that by consuming probiotics, I was helping to recolonize the flora layer with the bacteria/yeasts which I was consuming. However, I recently learned that, at least in part, it’s not actually the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria jumpin’ around having a party in my kefir that are filling all those little crevices and cavities surrounding my intestinal villi. Actually, the probiotics we consume help foster a friendly environment for the growth of the thousands of species of bacteria that already reside in the gut. They often don’t replace them or recolonize their territories. Most of the probiotics we consume are passed on down the digestive tract a relatively short period of time after they are consumed, within a week or two. They go in, do their job, their souls move on to bacteria/yeast heaven, and their bodies go down the … well, you know where they go. On their journey, though, they produce acidity, attack pathogens, and provide a variety of beneficial materials to foster the procreative activities of the decimated colonies of native friendlies struggling to hold down their forts. If I understand it correctly, tho, there’s not a whole lot of probiotic procreation happening in our guts, not, at least, in comparison to their orgiastic activities that happen in the foods I’m about to talk about.
Probiotic foods can be found in all the traditional cuisines of the world. Introducing, or cultivating, beneficial microorganisms in food stuffs is not only good for the gut — it helps food last longer. In the absence of refrigeration or freezing temperatures, fermentation is one of the best methods of preservation. And it just so happens that the same microorganisms which best preserve raw, fresh foods (and make them taste delicious!), also happen to be the best ones for our guts. On the other hand, those bacteria which make food rot are generally not so great for our systems. One rule I have for all fermentation is that if it smells foul, tastes bad, or has an unusual or unpleasant texture, I don’t eat any more of it. Now, of course, my perception of these qualities is pretty generous, since I really hate throwing out food. But a batch of badly pickled cauliflower last fall, and a very unhappy husband, tightened my standards a bit!
I’m going to divide up probiotic foods–foods fermented with live, active cultures–into a few categories, to make things a little simpler. Sandor Katz has a much more extensive taxonomy of fermentation in his indispensable book on fermentation (which, by the way, was our “gateway” book into nourishing foods, thanks to a Christmas present from my cousins), but a number of them don’t apply to our current diet, so these should suffice for now.
- Fermented vegetables: These include sauerkraut, kimchi, and various pickles (re: link: this store is AWESOME). It can also extend to certain condiments like ketchup, which can be lacto-fermented. J loves cuke pickles and giardiniera mix–cauliflower, celery, carrots, and peppers–like his stomach is a bottomless pit. He literally can go through a jar of pickles in a meal. It’s kind of obscene. On a different note, sauerkraut juice (the liquid that accumulates during fermentation of sauerkraut) is an important part of the intro stages of the GAPS diet, and supposedly taking small sips of sauerkraut juice can help stimulate stomach acid. Tho I haven’t had this experience.
- Fermented dairy: Kefir, yogurt, villi, sour cream, soft (and hard) cheeses made from raw milk (cottage cheese, ricotta, chevre…) (all made with live active cultures — very little yogurt and sour cream at the grocery store is probiotic). The possibilities for this category are virtually endless, and every culture in which the milking of animals is traditional has its own unique tastes and techniques. In fact, fermented dairy may have been the key to the rise of European civilization. It is a really good thing that both J and I tolerate dairy so well, because we’re big fans.
- Fermented meats: There’s a lot going on in this area in the blogosphere right now, but we’re still taking pretty much baby steps. The only fermented meat product we’re regularly consuming presently is homemade gravlox with wild Alaskan salmon. Homemade only, because everything you can buy at the store is made with sugar; we make ours either with honey or no sweetener at all. We’re still working on perfecting the technique. The probiotics come from the raw salmon itself; you can also innoculate it with homemade whey from strained yogurt or kefir, tho I think we’ve decided not to do this in the future, because it just creates too much liquid in the process.
- Fermented (non-dairy) drinks: For our present purposes, this category is dominated by kombucha and beet kvass. Both of these drinks have substantial health benefits, not only via their probiotics, but also in the various nutritional compounds and components–acids, vitamins, minerals–which result from the fermentation process. According to Fallon and Enig, “… it has extraordinary healing powers. We’ve had more positive testimonials about beet kvass than about any other beverage in our book Nourishing Traditions.” Kombucha is also credited with extraordinary healing powers, but is usually marked as “illegal” on GAPS, due to its being made typically with sugar; the caffeine in the relatively strong tea that kombucha is made from can also be an issue for GAPS. However, I make kombucha with raw honey (something I’ll have to write a post about later), and green tea, which has much lower caffeine. I also find that although caffeine affects me dramatically (even with fresh, lightly-brewed white tea), the fermentation process of the kombucha seems to alter the caffeine in such a way that it does not affect me at all.
Kombucha and beet kvass are produced by fermentation processes dominated largely by various bacteria, with only a little, or no, yeast involvement. Yeast fermentation produces alcohol. Too much yeast or too much alcohol obviously isn’t good for health and gut flora. However, I’m not entirely convinced that traditional wild-yeast-brewed libations–meads, ciders, lambics, etc.–aren’t beneficial for gut flora. But I need to do more research on that.
Also, a note on therapeutic probiotics: These pills and powders can be very helpful in recolonizing microorganism populations, but in my mind they belong in the category of supplements — which is also a post for another day!
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