by Beatrice Trum Hunter
sauerkraut, tamari, miso, and many other beneficial Fermented Foods
have been enjoyed for centuries and help keep our bodies healthy
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Many people seem to be obsessed with a desire to maintain a germ-free environment. It may come as a shock for them to learn that the human intestinal tract is home to an estimated 100 trillion bacteria. This staggering number includes many beneficial microbes that help keep the body healthy by fending off pathogenic ones that otherwise might colonize in the intestinal tract.
The state of good health or disease can be compared to the metaphor of warfare: a constant battle is waged between the forces of good (the beneficial microbes) and the forces of evil (the pathogenic microbes). Both armies engage in continuous skirmishes against each other: in living environments of soils; in and on plants, including food and food crops; and in animals, including livestock and ourselves. The beneficial microbes attempt to prevent the foodborne pathogens from establishing "beachheads" by adherence in our guts, where they thrive, proliferate, and inflict harm. If the beneficial microbes are overwhelmed, the pathogenic ones win battles by causing infections and diseases.
Within the context of living organisms, the beneficial microbes experience the ravages of war. Fortunately, the beneficial organisms have strategic "weapons" to rout, immobilize, and defeat the enemy. These weapons are probiotics.
Probiotics (meaning "for life") are foods that are cultured with live beneficial microorganisms. All too frequently, the concept of probiotics lately has been limited to probiotic dietary supplements, to the exclusion of the time-honored probiotic foods. Probiotic dietary supplements may offer benefits as medical adjuvants, but the day-by-day consumption of foods with probiotic benefits are the ones that deserve primary consideration. As with other dietary supplements, the probiotics should not replace foods, but serve as adjuncts for intestinal health.
For too many years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied the probiotic value of yogurt. In its 1965 yearbook, Consumers All, the USDA discussed yogurt in a section titled "Food Quackery." The agency assured consumers that "yogurt has no food or health values other than those present in the kind of milk from which it is made." This pronouncement was ludicrous, even at the time when it was made. The agency chose to ignore evidence of the additional values developed in fermented milk: its bactericidal activity against foodborne pathogens; its ability to synthesize certain vitamins; its role in alleviating many gastrointestinal distresses and other health disorders; its usefulness in relieving antibiotic-induced effects; and its beneficial role for lactose-intolerant individuals.
Over the years, research conducted by the USDA's own Agricultural Research Service, as well as research conducted elsewhere, established evidence that yogurt has food and health values beyond those present in the milk from which it is made. The additional benefits are due to the probiotics in the fermented milk. Similarly, sauerkraut has values beyond cabbage, and other fermented foods have values beyond their original state.
The world seems to be overrun by pathogens. Each of us, in a volunteer army, should recognize the microbial allies that have evolved with, and support, our wellbeing. Unfortunately, food processors have infiltrated our ranks and undermined our health by perverting the fermentation process. The food processors offer us yogurt-coated pretzels and frozen yogurts, chemically fermented alcoholic beverages, canned sauerkraut, and unfermented soy products, among others.
Fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and other foods, help to maintain and restore good health. As the results of many human experiences through the centuries, the benefits of fermented foods have been recognized. Currently, fermented foods continue to be valued and used in traditional diets, but unfortunately they have been largely discarded in the Western diet.
The Agricultural Research Service has found many benefits of lactic acid bacteria (the principle agent responsible for fermentation) in its various research projects, but the agency rarely has translated the findings into practical applications for human health.
The time is long overdue to recognize something known, but forgotten: the health benefits of fermented foods. The recognition should encourage us to add health-promoting fermented foods to our daily diet. At present, probiotics is not a familiar term to many people. It will become more familiar. Digested in sufficient amounts, probiotics can combat pathogenic microbes and bestow health benefits. Probiotic foods are fermented foods. Perhaps the best recognized ones are yogurt and sauerkraut. Many more exist.
In recent years, the sales of probiotic supplements as well as probiotic foods have risen meteorically in the United States. By 2003, sales were nearly $13 million annually, with a spectacular 14% increase in yearly sales. In terms of importance in food-product formulations, probiotics rose from 10th place in 2000 to 5th place by 2005.
The rising incidence of pathogenic contamination in the food supply results from many factors, including a radical transformation of agriculture and the misuse, overuse, and growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics. The issue is only part of a larger one, concerning pathogenic contamination of the environment.
Antimicrobials have been available for a long time. But the growing problem of environmental contamination has generated a new industry. The goal is to make the environment germ free, an impossible task and an unwise objective. In attempting to make the environment germ free, both the beneficial as well as the pathogenic microorganisms are destroyed. Probiotics are a wiser choice, in using beneficial microorganisms to suppress and kill the pathogens. The immune system can be kept healthy and strong by probiotics.
Excerpted with permission from Probiotic Foods for Good Health ©2008 by Beatrice Trum Hunter, published by Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach, CA. Available in stores or visit www.basichealthpub.com.
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