Why Fermented Foods for Wellness

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Finished raw milk kefir, ready for the fridge.

You may or may not have heard all the fuss about fermented foods. And you may or may not have starting fermenting at your house. But either way, it’s something which you may want to follow.

Why? Because unlike many of the health fads, fermenting is…well, not a fad. It’s been around from the beginning of time, not just to break down waste into compost, but to break down FOOD into more absorbable, nutritious, and tasty eats. In every culture, you have mums intentionally fermenting foods and feeding it to young and old alike. Some may not call it fermenting, or may not know a thing about lactic acid or good bacteria, but they are doing it none-the-less: kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, salami, pickles, kombucha, yogurt, cheese, wine, tamari, miso, tempeh, natto, sourdough.

So you probably HAVE heard of probiotics. Good bacteria, normally found in the gut of every living mammal, which keep the immune system healthy but not over-reacting, stabilize mood, keep us regular, create vitamins like folate and B12, speak to the brain in many chemical ways to keep us thinking clearly, and detoxify a lot of nasty stuff, including some of the pesticides and chemicals and heavy metals we eat (oops). This is not an exhaustive list. There’s a TON of research done on these good little microbes. Like, upwards of 29,000 studies come up on PubMed just by searching “lactobacillus.”

We know that:

You can buy probiotics in many different combinations of strains, quantities, and delivery methods. Which I have done regularly for over a decade, and I’m grateful for the availability of these specific strains (because sometimes, it’s good to troubleshoot with specifics). But, I’ve found the most help over the years by the foods that are packed with good bacteria, so I’m cranking up my ferments. Raw milk kefir is an every-week staple here, but this week I’m excited to try a watermelon juice, a Daikon radish ferment, and a Jun variety of kombucha.

I’m following a fermenting expert I’m lucky enough to know as a friend: Jane Casey of Jane Casey’s Kitchen. She’s amazing, fun, and has an amazing true story of twin sons who were profoundly autistic, but now aren’t. At all. Because of ferments.

I’m learning a ton (like: using ingestable essential oils to promote fermentation…wha??). Best tip of the week: use folded fresh grape leaves to keep the veggies all submerged (this is like the main rule of fermenting veggies: keep them under the brine so they don’t mold). I will keep you posted, because we have a special project coming for these classes, live and local.

Do you ferment? What’s on your counter now?

And for those who want to geek out with me, here are a few interesting studies on the benefits of probiotics which I stumbled across on PubMed. Not that the other 29,000 aren’t interesting too…

This study links good gut bacteria (L. Reuteri in this case), with immune regulation and folate metabolism. So all you MTHFR people (I’m one too) can go crazy about that. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27353144

This study notes the protective effect of friendly bacteria against bladder infections in pre-and-post-menopausal women (different strains are more effective for pre- or post- menopausal). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27092529

Probiotics in critically ill children: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27081478

This study showed that stressed mice had changes to their gut microflora, specifically reduced L. Reuteri. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028050

 

Organic Diet Step 2: Dairy

Not everyone can tolerate dairy products, but for those who can, it is a rich source of minerals, protein, and healthy saturated fats IF sourced from healthy animals. Some people groups in Africa thrive on a diet made up nearly entirely of raw milk from their herds.

Clean Starts

  • Change from conventional milk to organic milk. Skim, 1% and 2% milks have thickeners added to them; opt out by choosing whole milk. Homogenization has been linked to arterial plaque; opt out by choosing unhomogenized. Your choice to skim the cream for your coffee, or shake the whole jug before pouring. Raw milk (unpasteurized) from pastured (grassfed) animals is the BEST milk, as it is richest in minerals, enzymes and probiotics. Dungeness Valley Creamery supplies this delicious cow milk to WA state; if you prefer goat milk, search for a local source.
  • Change from conventional yogurt, cottage cheese, and kefir, to organic products, or make your own from raw/organic/pastured milk.
  • Change from conventional butter, sour cream, and cream to organic butter, sour cream, and cream. Conventional butter was listed on a recent “top ten most toxic foods” list, which is not surprising since so many of todays petrochemical toxins settle in the fats of animals. Yet organic butters and cream have been highly revered by healthy indigenous people groups for their health giving properties.
  • Change from conventional cheese to raw, organic cheese, if you can find it (see notes about raw milk below).
  • Change from “soy dairy” products (soy milk, soy protein) to almond, hemp, hazelnut, or rice milks (hemp having the best nutrition, and it’s delicious) if cow/goat dairy is not tolerated. Organic coconut oil can be used in place of butter for those with a dairy allergy. See note below on why I avoid soy.
  • If lactose intolerance is the reason you avoid dairy products, try culturing your own yogurt from organic milk. When you use a 24 hours process to culture the yogurt (or kefir if desired), nearly no lactose is present at the end of the process. Making yogurt and kefir is not difficult; find directions here. The long culturing process yields a very sour “European” flavor, which can be sweetened if you desire with jams, maple syrup, or honey. I have found that fresh goat milk loses its “goaty” aftertaste when cultured this long. The same process for 24 hour yogurt can be done with whipping cream for amazingly delicious Creme Fraiche.

Some people find that they can tolerate goat and sheep milk products if cow products bother them. Others find that raw milk (unpasturized) is tolerated as it has all the enzymes and probiotics intact to aid in digestion. In addition, high heat pasteurization appears to damage the protein molecule in milk. (The stable saturated fats in cream/butter seem to hold up better to heat than the protein in the milk, making pasteurized butter/cream still a great choice.)

Worried about contamination? Studies which purposefully introduced pathogenic bacteria into raw milk (still “living” with enzymes, probiotics, and immune factors) show that the milk protects itself by destroying pathogenic bacteria. Conversely, pasturized (“dead”) milk no longer carries this protection; hundreds are made sick on pasturized milk annually in the US. Once milk is cultured (into cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.) this risk is lowered by the competing bacteria of the culture. Certified Raw dairies undergo far stricter testing of products than conventional dairies.

Buying Tips

Trader Joes has the best prices around (by far) for a full range of organic dairy products. I buy butter, cream, sour cream, and cottage cheese there. They also have a stunning selection of cheeses, most at fabulous prices. I sometimes buy the Grassfed Cheddar (New Zealand), and sometimes the Raw Cheddar. We also love the Cotswold cheese from England (which is neither organic, or raw, but you can taste the richness of the milk which makes me confident the cows are grazing grass). The Shredded Parmesan cheese (in a bag) is a raw cheese (and high in absorbable calcium); and excellent choice.

I make my own kefir from Dungeness Valley raw milk, which we drink on occasion as well, when I’m not making it into pudding, ice cream, etc.

Goat milk is best fresh (for flavor), so I don’t really recommend buying it from Trader Joes, although if that is your only option (say for a toddler who can’t tolerate cow milk) I would certainly recommend it over any “milk substitute”. Best to find a local dairy for raw milk (as I have), or if you are inclined, buy a goat as a pet which actually contributes to the family table!

If you have to use dairy substitutes, hemp milk is cheaper when you buy a case through a co-op; this option may be available at your health food store. You can make your own rice milk really cheap (and pretty easy) using this Rice Milk Recipe.

The Why

Conventional dairy products in the US come from “factory farmed” cows, which may or may not ever see a pasture, but most certainly dine on soy and corn based feed laced with pesticides, antibiotics, and by-products from slaughter houses. In some states, farms are allowed to inject the cows with growth hormones with cause them to produce more milk, which wears out the cow and results in fewer productive years (but at heavier production) before going to the slaughterhouse herself. (This is not allowed in OR or WA.) Since the food she receives (grain based) is such a poor diet for her, she is likely to be sick often, and treated with antibiotics. You can bet that all the toxins going into her make their way into her milk, and the butter, cheese, yogurt, and other products made from it.

Conventional soy is one of the most pesticide laden crops in the US, and even organic soy can hardly boast a health claim as soy is an endocrine disruptor (mimics estrogen in the body). There are tons of “studies” done to show the “health benefits” of soy. Guess who pays for these studies, and their publicity? The Soy Industry. Lesser known studies link soy formulas to early puberty in girls, delayed or decreased fertility in boys, and doubling of diabetes risk for all children. I avoid it like the plague (except fermented soy products used in traditionally small amounts, such as Tamari).

Is Organic Certification Necessary?

Although USDA Organic certification brings with it peace of mind for the consumer, there is a cost to the farmer (passed on to the consumer) for this rubber stamp. You may be able to find a local dairy which can demonstrate to you the health and humane treatment of their animals, and quality of their product so that you don’t need the label to feel good about using their products. Especially important is to inquire about the feed of their animals; even a cow fed 100% organic grain but kept in the feedlot will not be as healthy as the cow allowed to graze on green grasses.

Experiment Kitchen: Making Raw Milk Yogurt and Kefir

I feel like my kitchen has become something between a test kitchen and a science lab.

Not that what I’m doing hasn’t been done by thousands, likely millions, of people over centuries; it’s just never been done by me, in  my kitchen, for consumption by my loved ones.

I’m culturing raw milk. Yes, I now have a weekly source for raw cow milk . . . unpasteurized means it hasn’t had the protein damaged by the high heat (researchers now believe that the damaged milk cells left in pasteurized milk are a top reason for allergies to it) plus all the immune boosting enzymes are left alive and intact to boost our immune systems. AND, there is quite a quantity of probiotics in the milk, which has been proven by the easy time I’ve had culturing it.

I have made yogurt and kefir in the past with pasteurized milk, but it was a bit of an exact science with heating the milk properly, adding just the right amount of starter culture, blending it in, trying(!) to keep it at the right temperature for 12 hours or so (I don’t have a yogurt maker). My results were less than satisfying: the flavor was there, but the texture was always too liquid, and if I left it any longer then I had cheese at the bottom and whey on top.

Well, with raw milk from a pasture fed cow (read: healthy cow with healthy stomach flora = healthy milk with lots of probiotics) yogurt making is as simple as setting the fresh milk on the counter. No joke.

And it worked: the first week I cultured 2 qts of raw milk by placing it, covered, on the counter for 48 hours. However, I wanted to know what would happen if I introduced some of the cultures I had previously used for culturing. So the second week I did 3.5 qts with 4 different cultures.

From left to right: European, Natural Culture, Kefir, Yogourmet

In the first culture (left), I added a heaping Tablespoon of plain European Style yogurt (from Trader Joes). I love this yogurt as a protein snack, and would love to be able to make it from raw milk.

In the second culture, I added nothing, allowing the natural probiotics to be the only culture.

Kefir grains

In the third culture, I added kefir grains I have on hand. These are squishy tapioca-like curds which are actually both yeast and bacteria that can be reused again and again to make kefir. At right is a picture of about half of the grains after I removed them from the finished kefir and rinsed them in filtered water.

In the fourth culture (which was a pint rather than a quart) I added the commercially available Yogourmet yogurt culture. This culture is a powder, sold in boxes with individual packets. I had to use half a packet, as a whole is meant for 1 quart.

Velvet texture of cultured top cream

Of course each culture retained the original natural probiotics which actively culture the milk along with the added culture. I did not heat the milk or warm it at all: it came directly from being refrigerated for 12 hours after coming from the cow. I also did not skim the milk, so the cream rose to the top and was cultured with the milk. You can see the velvety texture of the top cream in the photo at right.

And here are the results (drumroll, please!):

European: more distinct yogurt flavor than the others, texture resembles starter (creamier, and less slippery solid than others) but still some of the slippery curd texture; will try 2 Tbs. starter next week.

Natural Culture: solid slippery curd, with whey separating distinctly (see photo with yellow whey separated), has a slight fermentation “sparkle” on the tongue

Kefir: sourest in flavor, but with a true kefir texture—smooth and thick

Yogourmet: yeasty, fermented flavor with sparkle, yet not too sour with hints of fennel (Hints of fennel? I know . . . this is getting as ridiculous as wine reviews . . . but I tasted them all again, and sure enough, there were hints of fennel.)

My raw dairy shelf

All of these cultures were a success! Now I have plenty of cultured milk products for smoothies and soaking grains all week long. I decided to devote the top shelf of my refrigerator to my raw dairy; gallon of goat milk on the left with its pouring pitcher in front, gallon of cow milk on the right with its pouring pitcher in front, cultured cow milk in quart jars as they fit.

To recap, here is my procedure:

  1. Pour raw milk into freshly clean quart jars (straight from the dishwasher is best, don’t use a dish-towel to dry, as this could introduce a negative bacteria)
  2. Add new culture to milk, if desired. Try 2 Tbs. of a plain live active yogurt, 3-6 kefir grains, or commercial powder to instructions.
  3. Set open jars, covered completely with a clean dish-towel, on counter in an out-of-the-way area, protected from drafts is best. They don’t need to be in the kitchen, but should not be in an area where they could absorb fumes, such as a laundry room (detergent fumes) or garage (gasoline, etc.).
  4. Wait 48 hours. You can check the culture and stir it during this time: this may be beneficial for the kefir to move the grains around.
  5. Straining kefir grains from finished kefir

    When yogurt is finished, cap with the jar lids and return to refrigerator. For kefir, straining will be necessary to remove the grains. This can be done with a funnel fitted with a filter, or with a sieve held over an open funnel. Rinse the grains in filtered water and store in a small jar of filtered water in the refrigerator.