Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Probiotics the Old Fashioned Way

Probiotics are live microorganisms that confer a health benefit on the host. In other words, they are good microbes that get in your body to render some positive effects. Today, scientists are studying them and the health food market is trying to cash in. Companies promote yogurts, teas, pills, soups, cultured butter, and sauerkraut among many other items. According to some ads, these products aid digestion, ease constipation, lessen inflammation, and possibly even cure avian flu. A New York Times article stated that colicky babies might get some relief from probiotics. The possibilities seem wide open, but it’s obvious that more research is needed.
In some ways, those of us who grew up on old-fashioned dirt farms were early test cases for these beneficial microbes. During the summertime, we were barefoot germ factories, and maybe we have probiotics to thank for the fact that we survived at all.  Many of the farm’s natural probiotics were commonplace food ingredients. Mom washed the beans, onions, and tomatoes from the garden, but before making it to the house, we might just rub the dirt off a radish or carrot knowing that the fresh taste would overshadow the gritty residue. We didn’t worry about popping dew-laden raspberries or strawberries straight into our mouths, and if a small insect or partially bird-pecked portion came with the bites, so be it. And any farm kid who gorged on juicy, purple mulberries knew that the research was conclusive: probiotics could definitely solve constipation.
No health officials inspected the eggs or chicken meat that we harvested from the small flock in the shed. I’m not sure their diets were “probiotic,” but in addition to the corn we gave them, the chickens ate any bugs and seeds they could scrounge in the grassy pen. Unless the insects had died from DDT ingestion, we must have been eating organic eggs and fried chicken.
Some modern probiotics include milk or butter based items. When we hand-milked Bossie twice a day, I didn’t know what “lactose” or “cultured” meant, but every time my brother aimed upward and squirted me in the face, I experienced the taste of fresh, warm milk straight from the cow.
At times, our good germ policy probably went too far. I remember a summer day on the front step, three of us enjoying tootsie roll pops, and my two younger brothers taking a lick, then letting our farm dog Smoky take a lick. I was just old enough to decide not to join in the sharing, but not old enough to stop the fun.
Probiotics, or whatever they want to call it, just seems to make sense. Why not get healthy from the food we eat? But it’s not always that simple. Some of the crab apples that looked the best when we reached up to pick them ended up having a brown, bug-infested backside to them.  As more credible research surfaces, consumers will be better able to understand how probiotics do (and can) play a part in their diets. CAST recently released a new video (click HERE) to explain the issue from a scientific viewpoint, and CAST’s Issue Paper, Probiotics: Their Potential to Impact Human Health is also available for free download HERE.
We all eat probiotics of some type, but the key is how to consume the best food products for our health. I’m sure we’ll find out more from solid scientific research, but from my childhood research, I recommend that you pull the bigger corn borers out of the sweet corn, you cut off the edges of lettuce leaves that have rabbit teeth marks, and you don’t share sweets with your dog no matter how much it pleads and grovels.  Dan Gogerty

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