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Our Little Buddies

 mike burns

by Mike Burns, Product Placement Manager

If you believe humans control and rule the planet, think smaller. Much smaller. The most successful organisms on Earth dominate nearly every surface of our planet, from deep within the Earth’s crust to the highest levels of our atmosphere to largely uninhabitable landscapes deep within our oceans. Bacteria were one of the first living organisms on the planet and most likely will be one of the last. They are deemed by most scientists as the most dominant life form on Earth, with population estimates far exceeding the number of stars in the universe. 

Although most common knowledge pits us against microbes (bacteria, viruses, and fungi mostly) as our mortal enemy, we have so much to be grateful for when it comes to our little buddies. Without them, we would certainly not exist as we know it. Estimates claim that there are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells that make up our body (keep in mind bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells). We share a mutualistic relationship with all of these bacteria that make our general well-being, health, and lifespan a priority for both of us. We give these friendly bacteria (and some viruses and fungi too) a warm, comfy place to live and reproduce, as well as to share our nutritional fuel and in turn, we are dependent on them. They help us digest our food, produce various vitamins, regulate our immune system and protect us from foreign, disease-causing microbes. Granted, it is a love/hate relationship. 

There are microbes, albeit a small percentage of the total population, that can take us down without warning. Because of those chosen few, we have become a society obsessively afraid of “germs.” Just look at the overuse of antibiotics (which indiscriminately kill even our bacterial allies) and “sanitizers,” and you can see how we have let our fear get the best of us. Don’t get me wrong, antibiotics save lives, but broadspectrum use not only disrupts our microbiome but also helps to create superbugs as well as many other potential health conditions. 

We Need Our Little Buddies

Truth is, we need microbes to survive and ultimately thrive! Our understanding of this symbiotic relationship with bacteria and other microbes has barely scratched the surface. There is so much we have yet to discover but one thing is certain, as friendly microbes disappear, so does our health. There are even theories regarding the increased prevalence of allergies, autoimmune diseases and other once rare conditions and their correlation to the dramatic increase in the use of antibiotics and general sterilization. While microbiologists and other scientists across the globe are working to map our microbiome and get a better understanding of its impact on us, ancient dietary traditions from around the globe have been impacting and contributing to our microbiome for thousands of years. 

Ferments, Probiotics and You

While curing cancer and destroying antibiotic-resistant bacteria without “friendly” microbes might be a long way off, humans have been influencing our digestive tract’s microbe population for quite some time already. For most of human history, we lived intimately with the natural world and its wide array of microbes. Food was picked straight from the tree or ground, unlikely washed, rarely cooked and often fermented and unpasteurized until the last century or so. This lifestyle helped to populate and build our mutualistic relationship with the friendly microbes that make life as we know it possible. In the last century, this has changed with the development of antibiotics, the movement out of nature and the overuse of a variety of sterilizing tools. In many ways, this has made life better and has saved countless lives. But what a lot of the recent research is showing is that we might be doing way more harm than we know. 

Recently there has been a resurgence in traditional probiotic foods and beverages. Probiotics are defined as “a substance that stimulates the growth of microorganisms, especially those with beneficial properties.” Most of the fermented drinks, foods, and supplements that have gained incredible popularity over the last few years have historically been long-standing probiotic foods and beverages from cultures around the world that have been around nearly as long as the cultures themselves. HA! Get it...cultures...like bacterial cultures for medical samples and human cultures...

While research is limited and has not definitively shown the effectiveness of all of these traditional foods in impacting our microbiome, history tells us a very different story. At the Co-op we offer a wide selection of traditional fermented products that are not just probiotic, but also quite nourishing and delicious. 

Delicious “Germs”

Most everyone is familiar with traditional fermented or soured dairy products. Throughout the world, milk from agricultural animals have played an important role in nutrition and sustenance. Up until about 100 years ago, it was unknown that most of these products, if not all to some degree, were fermented. Products such as yogurt, kefir, buttermilk (or unpasteurized milk in general), sour cream, cultured butter and all sorts of cheeses. 

Similar non-dairy fermented products are gaining popularity utilizing coconut, almond, soy, rice and cashew bases (among others) instead of cow’s milk. Yogurts, kefirs and cheeses from non-dairy sources are providing similar probiotic benefits as those of dairy products using bacterial cultures. 

Other beverages such as kombucha and kvass are becoming more and more mainstream. Kombucha is a fermented tea that at its most basic is tea, sugar and a bacterial culture, but have come to include a wide range of ingredients from ginger, turmeric, mango, and even spirulina. Check out my local favorite brands NessAlla (from Madison) and Tapuat (from Sister Bay). We carry kvass, an Eastern European drink traditionally using beets, from the local company Angelica’s Garden.

Some of my favorite vegetable ferments are made by a few local producers Angelica’s Garden, Fizzeology and Spirit Creek (available at all sites). They all offer a range of fermented veggies from traditional sauerkraut, variations on sauerkraut, curtido, kim chi, and others. Try them all since the variation in flavor and ferment make each unique.

One of my favorite fermented ingredients is miso. Miso is a traditional Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans, salt and koji. I think of miso as unique as the household that made it, much like Italian families have their own tomato sauce recipe that is imbued with unique flavor. This could be from the unique microbial make-up or from subtle additions like seaweed or rice malt. Miso Master and South River (both at all sites) are both great brands making miso paste. 

Of course, I would be doing an injustice if I failed to mention alcohol. Although not a probiotic, it is fermented and does have some fungi (in the form of yeast) to fuel the fermentation process. And let's face it, even my microbiome needs a party every now and again.

Supplemental Microbes 

(Contributed by Angie Pohlman)

Ideally we are all nourishing our microbiome through healthy food choices, but that is not always easy. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to supplement your microbiome. 

The most common way is to add probiotics to your day. You could go as simple as Floragen—just one strain of Acidophilus (locally made, and at all three stores). Lovely and simple, one of our better sellers! Or you could go as complex as Garden of Life’s Raw Probiotics 5-Day Max Care, with 34 Strains of healthy bacteria. Most folks will go for something in between, such as Floragen Digestion, our best seller at all three stores. 

You may also choose something that addresses a concern you have: mood, vaginal health, colon health, or your age (senior, kids), or your sex. Some of them will work to imitate food—such as Megafood and Dr. Ohhirra (only at West). You can also focus on feeding your bacteria with Prebiotics—like the Enzymedica Prebiotic Powder. We have a new product just at West called Restore. It’s a soil-derived supplement that supports cell communication within your digestive tract, clinically shown to heal damage done by environmental factors such as herbicides and pesticides. 

In the last decade, research into the microbiological relationship between humans and microbes has shown incredible potential. We have barely scratched the surface! Long before we even began to understand our relationship with microbes, cultures around the globe have lived in harmony with them (at least most of them) through traditional practices and cuisine. These food traditions began to fade from the mainstream until their recent resurgence into the public eye. I urge you to give some of the foods and beverages I've mentioned a try. Some are an acquired taste but one thing is for sure, you are guaranteed to make some friends in the process. Very, very small friends.