Thursday, September 4, 2014

Probiotics for Pennies

My homebrewed kombucha in 3 flavours: strawberry, pineapple and grape (the bottles are from IKEA)

It's back to school this week, and that means it's a perfect time for...probiotics.

Wait, WHAT?!?! You thought I was going to say a good stiff drink, right? :)

I'll admit the (alcoholic) drink sounds tempting, but there's another type of drink that will definitely have more long-term benefits than that bottle of wine you're eying. Better yet, it's one you can easily make at home for just pennies: a delicious homemade probiotic beverage.

Increasing your family's probiotic consumption at this time of year is particularly advantageous as probiotics are beneficial to both the digestive and immune systems. With the stress of the new school year (not to mention the exposure to a round of new germs in the classroom), probiotics can be a great support to help maintain optimal health for all your family members.

There are definitely some pretty extreme health claims for probiotics on the internet; research *does* support that there are a variety of health benefits to consuming probiotic foods on a regular basis - the exact benefits depend on which particular organisms you're ingesting. I have personally noticed that since I started brewing kombucha and drinking it nearly every day (starting early this spring), my seasonal allergies have improved dramatically this year - I've been using my homemade nettle tincture FAR less than I did last year to treat allergy symptoms. Your own experience may be completely different depending on which types of probiotics you consume and your body's own personal affinity for particular organisms over others.

While you can certainly purchase both probiotic supplements and prepared fermented foods, it can be a big investment (it can easily cost you $1-2 or more per day for supplements per person!) and you really have no way of knowing how active the supplement is when you take it (even if it came from a very reputable company, the way it's been stored and handled since production can adversely affect quality). The same goes for many fermented foods produced on an industrial scale. While there are certainly some quality products out there, they are going to be the pricier ones, and even paying a higher price is no guarantee of quality with so many companies jumping on the probiotic bandwagon just to make a quick buck.

The obvious solution is (as usual) to do it yourself! Making your own probiotic foods might sound intimidating, but keep in mind that people have been fermenting foods for thousands of years! Some fermented foods are quite familiar to most of us (e.g. yogurt) and some might sound just plain weird, but there's plenty of opportunity to discover some tasty, interesting and probiotic-packed foods in the middle.

A (not at all comprehensive) list of fermented foods would include:

Dairy-based:
Yogurt
Kefir

Non-dairy based:
Kombucha
Water kefir
Ginger beer
Lacto-fermented lemonade

Fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi)

Fermented condiments (ketchup, mustard, salsa, barbecue sauce, chutneys, etc)

Getting started with fermenting:
Based on my own personal experiences, the two foods I've found the easiest to start with are yogurt and kombucha. You don't need any special equipment to make either of them. You can find my basic yogurt making method HERE. I've since switched from putting the cultured milk in a Thermos to putting it directly into Mason jars and wrapping them with towels; that way I just pull them straight out of the cooler and put them in the fridge.

To start making kombucha, you will need a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) - as home brewing of kombucha has gotten very popular, you shouldn't have too much trouble tracking one down if you start asking around. A new SCOBY forms with each fermentation, so most people who make kombucha regularly are more than happy to give some away :) Kombucha brewing has a nice rhythm to it, as it takes about a week to ferment, which is a nice manageable time frame to be switching out batches.

One of the reasons I love kombucha is that you can have a ton of fun experimenting with different flavours - our favourite so far is definitely pineapple (which gets *very* fizzy); we've done strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, grape, peach and lemon as well and I'm looking forward to experimenting with apples and pears now that they've come into season!

My family also loves lemon-ginger water kefir, which I wrote about earlier this year. I was initially very excited about it, but over time I found out that the 2 day fermentation cycle was burning me out, plus the water kefir grains are a lot more temperamental than kombucha SCOBYs so I ended up passing my grains along to a friend who wanted to give them a shot. I plan to give lacto-fermented lemonade and gingerale a whirl to see how they compare taste and ease-of-making wise.

The nice thing about fermenting foods is there are SO many options, so you can pick what works best for your family. Ideally, it's a good idea to eat a number of different types of fermented foods on a regular basis so you get exposed to a wider variety of beneficial organisms.

I'm going to be fiddling around with my fermented ketchup recipe this week, so I'll share that soon. It's super easy if you have some kombucha on hand! The first batch I made met with huge approval from my family so it disappeared fast; I have some ideas of how to make it even better, though :)

And since the jalapeno peppers are one of the few things that we got a bumper crop of this season, I'm going to be trying out this recipe very soon, too.

 Intrigued enough to give it a go? Some helpful resources to get you started:





The Cultures for Health website (great articles and instructional videos, plus you can order cultures from them if you can't find anyone to donate some to your cause!)

Kombucha Kamp - a great resource for all things kombucha-related.

(Yes, the usual disclaimers apply: Those are Amazon affiliate links for the books, and I am hardly an expert on fermented foods or gut health. I'm simply sharing my own experiences. You need to do your own research and make your own decisions about what is right for you and your family, and consult with a health professional if you have any concerns about why fermented foods might not be right for you.)

Are you already a seasoned fermenter, or just getting started? I'd love to hear your experiences with making your own fermented foods.

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