Yogurt Power

My interest in fermented food started in January, at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where I had a theoretical idea: The pleasure we get from sour, umami, and complex flavors had the effect,  when it evolved, of increasing bacteria intake. This suggests we need to consume plenty of bacteria to be healthy. Three things happened at that convention that supported these ideas: (a) Someone trying to make a high-end non-alcoholic drink said he found it impossible to get enough complexity without fermentation. (b) I remembered that after a trip to Japan, I had started eating lots of miso soup. Miso (fermented soy beans) is an unusually effective flavoring agent. (c) A Stonyfield Farms employee told me that her health improved a lot when she started eating yogurt every day two years ago. (Stonyfield Farms makes yogurt.)

Recently I learned more about the health improvement. She started eating more yogurt about two years ago because she changed jobs — from an architecture firm in Boston to Stonyfield, in New Hampshire, where the employee kitchen has a refrigerator full of free yogurt. In Boston, she ate yogurt about once/week; at Stonyfield, she eats it once/day (for breakfast).

When she moved to New Hampshire, she also changed her diet in other ways. She now eats more foods that are “natural and organic” and less fast food. She doesn’t eat anything with aspartame any more; she also avoids caffeine. She eats more fruits and vegetables. Maybe the biggest change is that she eats three good meals every day instead of one meal on the run. Other changes in her life include less stress, a different atmosphere, and more exposure to nature.

In Boston, she had lots of colds and sinus infections, maybe 3-4/year. When she got sick it took a long time — 2 weeks — to get better. She also felt sick to her stomach a lot. In Boston she got mononucleosis; it took six months to completely recover. In New Hampshire, she’s had only 1 cold in the past year and it only lasted 3-4 days. No other illnesses. Another change she’s happy about is that she gained weight. In Boston she weighed about 90 pounds; now she weighs about 110. (She’s 5′ 4″ and 30 years old.)

She’s noticed that Stonyfield employees are healthier than other places she’s worked (as this study suggests). Fewer people are sick and when they’re sick they aren’t sick as long. Everyone eats the free yogurt, except the lactose-intolerant. Stonyfield yogurt contains less than half the lactose of milk; for some lactose-intolerant people that’s low enough, for others it isn’t low enough. (Stonyfield makes a soy yogurt without lactose.)

12 Replies to “Yogurt Power”

  1. Fermented foods usually have lower pH, which tends to retard spoilage bacterial growth. It explains a lot of things, including why drinking weak beer was favored to drinking plain water before the advent of municipal water treatment. Wine, beer, cheese, yogurt, summer sausage, lots of foods are all fermented partially.

    And they may persist because when people of long ago ate them, they did not get sick.

    Maybe.

  2. “Tends to retard bacterial growth”? Maybe I’m missing something. Fermented foods have lots of bacteria. I think the preservation argument needs to be more subtle.

  3. Based on this series of posts, I’ve been making kefir at home. After two weeks of drinking it daily, some long-standing stomach problems have gone away, and I just feel better all around. From some of what I read, kefir seems even more powerful than yogurt, but that may be due to personal differences.

  4. Thanks, Charles. I always like to hear these stories… Yeah, kefir may be more powerful than yogurt. The kefir I make is a lot sourer than the yogurt I make and it takes much longer to make. More sour may mean more bacteria (more lactose turned into lactic acid).

  5. I’ve been having lots of difficulty with dairy as of late so I’ started taking Lactaid but it didn’t help whatsoever. I’m not sure if I’m lactose intolerant but right now I’m avoiding all dairy – except for yogurt, which doesn’t bother me whatsoever. I’ve read in other forums that lots of lactose intolerant folks find yogurt similar stomachable.

  6. In re: preservation, that rings true to me. If bacteria are human pathogens, they probably like human pH. If you ferment with acidifying bacteria, voila, you have an environment more acidic than human, and pathogens probably like it less. Similarly, if you ferment with yeast that produces ethanol, you have an environment with an organic toxin, and pathogens probably like it less.

    My relatives who farm in old Europe habitually drink watered hard cider (‘Most’, probably 5% ABV before dilution) with lunch. It’s both acidic and alcoholic. I don’t worry about anything infecting it.

  7. I’ve had a similar experience with yogurt. I had a bad flu last winter and had lingering stomach problems from it. I started having Strauss whole milk yogurt for breakfast, and it completely went away. But I kept eating the yogurt and have lost 20 lbs since then, with very little effort.

    I also started keeping kefir in the fridge at work. My excema, which I had for 15 years has disappeared also. I used have daily heartburn, for which I took Pepcid. I no longer have to take it at all. I’ve had my 14 year old son drinking it for the past month and his acne has gone away. I’m sold on it!

    Also, I think an important part of the secret is that these sour flavors make a lot of other things taste too sweet, like soft drinks. I’ve completely stopped adding sugar to my coffee as well.

  8. I’ve been following your blog for a while now (I came here via Freakonomics),
    and after reading this and other posts on the possible value of kefir in preventing both pathogen-caused and auto-immune illness (ie eczema), I started keeping an eye out for it.

    A local supermarket sells a product called “Babushka Probiotic Kefir yoghurt”
    which claims to contain “more than 12 billion live probiotic bacteria per 62ml serve”. Is this likely to be a worthwhile product from a fermented foods / health benefits perspective?

    What qualities should I look for when purchasing commercially-produced kefir products?

    (I have no connections, financial or otherwise, with any manufacturer of dairy products, I’m just feeling a little confused about which kefir/yoghurt products are worthwhile and which are a waste of time. The variety of Kefir yoghurt I mention above tastes okay, but not great – it’s a question of steeling oneself a little and saying “Well, it’s *good for me*” – so it is only worth drinking if it is likely to have a health payoff.)

  9. I know little about kefir although I make it. It’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. My approach has been to try a large range of fermented foods and eat a lot of them.

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