Probiotics are beneficial cultures of bacteria and yeasts that form of fermented and cultured foods, have been around for well over a millennia. Here at the Willy Street Co-op we offer several probiotic foods including kombucha, sauerkrauts, kim chi, kefir, miso, tempeh and, of course, yogurt. But, before we delve into these wonderful foods, a brief history and science lesson.

History and science

When we talk about probiotics we are generally referring to strains of lactic acid bacteria, most notably Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The theory of beneficial bacteria was first suggested by Russian scientist Ilya Ilyich Metjnikov in his studies of microbes and the immune system. He felt that the consumption of lactic acid would prolong life by combating toxic bacterium in the gut. With this theory in hand he began drinking sour milk daily and lived to the ripe age of 71, which in early twentieth century was well above the average life expectancy.

Science lesson aside; probiotics have been around for a long time and are currently enjoying the commercial advertising spotlight. Probiotic foods, namely yogurt, are recommended after a treatment of antibiotics and recently have been touted as digestive aids and immune system builders. Some of the larger companies are even going to the lengths of trademarking their own developed strains of lactic acid bacterium.

Yogurt

We’ll discuss everyone’s favorite probiotic food—yogurt—first. Here at Willy Street Co-op we offer more than a dozen different brands and, at last count, over 150 varieties, including cultured soy yogurts, and Fage Greek style yogurts. At even a quick glance down our dairy aisle, it’s easy to see most of us love yogurt. Yogurt is milk cultured typically with at least L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, Casei, and Streptococcus thermophilus. But, probiotically speaking, not all yogurts are made equally; nowadays we see commercial yogurts with upwards of six or eight different cultures.

The two biggest things to look for in beneficial yogurts are the number of cultures and that they are live or active cultures. All of the yogurts that we carry have live active cultures so let’s look at the number of cultures. It can take a little investigating to find out just how many cultures are in a gram (industry standard of measurement) of yogurt. Most will list the count to be in the millions, which is good, but we do offer a couple that are in the billions. According to studies, Nancy’s yogurt, both dairy and soy, contain over one billion cultures per gram just 11 days after production. Nancy’s yogurt is noticeably tangier than other yogurts because of this large number of cultures. Another heavy hitter in the number of probiotic cultures is Seven Stars Farm yogurt. This is from an organic and biodynamic dairy farm in northern Pennsylvania. Both of these brands are considered all natural containing only milk and cultures, and sweetened or flavored with only honey, vanilla, or maple syrup. They do not contain any thickeners, binders, or other additives. Another big hitter is Cascade Fresh, which has eight different probiotic strains in every cup.

Kefir

We also offer kefir, which is another cultured milk product. However, unlike yogurt, kefir is much thinner in consistency and can be used like a milk substitute for drinking or on cereal, granola or in smoothies. Kefir has been consumed for centuries and is believed to have originated around the Caucasus Mountains region near Turkey and Russia. The Co-op carries the Helios brand of organic kefir. This comes in five flavors and contains up to seven different live cultures. Helios kefir is sweetened with FOS (fructooligosaccharides), a plant extract, which is believed to have beneficial prebiotics and potential GI tract health benefits.

Kombucha

Another increasingly popular probiotic source is kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that can have a sweet apple cider to almost cider vinegar taste. It is made by adding a culture of symbiotic yeasts to a sweetened tea base and is allowed to ferment for a set period of time. During the fermenting process several compounds are created including many amino acids, some vitamins and probiotic strains (namely lactobacillus and s. boulardii). The Willy Street Co-op currently offers three different brands of kombucha, these are: GTs from Beverly Hills which is organic and raw; Kombucha Wonder Drink, a pasteurized brand out of Portland; and we are now proud to offer the new Nesalla brand that is locally made here in Madison. The Co-op also offers classes a couple times a year on making your own kombucha at home.

Miso, tempeh, sauerkraut

Moving on from here we are left with miso, tempeh and raw sauerkrauts. Miso is a traditional Japanese paste of fermented soybeans, rice or barley and is commonly used in soups. We offer several varieties and brands of miso, both in the refrigerated section and in packaged grocery. For a probiotic health benefit, miso is typically consumed daily in a simple miso-based soup. Tempeh is naturally fermented and cultured soybeans. It is cultured with the fungus spores of Rhizopus oligosporus, which helps bind the whole soybeans into a cake-like form. Our selection of tempehs range from the locally produced Simple Soyman and Bandung restaurant tempehs, to a couple of different varieties from Lightlife and West Soy. Another source of probiotics are pickled vegetables, namely sauerkraut. Our most popular raw sauerkraut is Powerkraut, which is made locally in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Powerkraut currently makes four different varieties including a Kim chi that packs quite a kick. All the varieties are organic and contain millions of Lactobacilli cultures.

Get some culture

So whether you’re an old hand at probiotic foods or new to the whole scene, stop by the dairy section the next time you’re in and think about adding some culture to your diet!