The other day Lena texted me a great question: “I want to start including more probiotics/ live foods into my diet. Could you advise me about the products that are the best (tastiest) probiotics, that you think have the most benefit for maintaining a healthy body/ mind? And where do I buy these locally?”
I’ve written this post to help you make choices about probiotic food/ live food, and food that has been made using traditional fermentation methods.
We’re lucky in the Waikato. There are some great local producers of these foods.
I love making and eating traditionally fermented foods. And I’ve done a lot of research and thinking about this topic.
This is my take on why I think it’s worth including these foods in an everyday diet. And how to do this as easily and inexpensively as possible.
I’m not an expert. This post should not be taken as health advice. I’m sharing my process and the conclusions I have come to.
Live food – my definition
I’m including under this definition food that’s made using traditional fermentation methods. This includes traditionally made live pickles, e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi; fermented beverages, e.g. kombucha; milk cultures including yoghurts and kefir; and bread that is made using traditional sourdough starter. Tempeh and miso are traditional fermented soy products that may also be live (check the labels).
The live organisms vary in different foods.
My skeptical husband Matthew (who very kindly edited this article) has pointed out that traditionally made sourdough bread isn’t actually alive. However, I’m including sourdough in this post because the live sourdough yeast organisms, when properly used, make the wheat bread much better for many people’s digestion.
You can also buy probiotic products from health shops, e.g. Tonic Health, and many pharmacies. But these aren’t food, so I’m not including them in this article.
Why eat live foods?
There are many books explaining in detail the case for including live culture foods in our everyday diet.
One of my favourites is Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz. Like me, he’s a live food enthusiast. I particularly enjoy his playful attitude.
There’s also ongoing research into the effectiveness of live foods. Research findings suggest that regularly consuming live cultured food helps balance the friendly bacteria in our digestive system; can improve mental health and wellbeing generally; can prevent and heal vaginal infections and urinary tract infections; and improve immune function generally, amongst other benefits.
Every traditional human culture worldwide has some kinds of fermented foods.
Live food is generally absent from the standard Western diet, which prioritises foods that can be stored for a long time and can be transported long distances. Unless we choose to consume live fermented foods, many of us don’t have much experience of these.
It wasn’t a regular feature of my family meals when I was growing up, apart from my mother making yoghurt occasionally.
More reasons for live foods
Health is only a small part of my motivation for eating live foods. I love live foods because they’re delicious, fun and interesting. They widen the flavour and texture palette of my everyday meals.
Also, they’re a gesture to the traditional food cultures of my global ancestors.
My three principles of live foods
- Choose probiotic/ live foods that you enjoy eating. Don’t choke down something that you think tastes yucky, just because you think it’s good for you. Probiotic foods can be delicious. But not everything suits everyone’s taste.
- Start eating live food when you’re in reasonably good health. Many people only start eating probiotic foods when they’re seriously sick and desperate. But when we are already sick, then we may get reactions to probiotic foods. People who are very unwell should be cautious when introducing new live foods. Get advice from a health professional. Also, some people expect miracle cures from probiotic foods. I think in general probiotic/ live culture foods are about maintaining health and wellbeing, rather than curing illness.
- Start with small quantities and build up. More is not always better.
My top three live cultures
These are the three main kinds of probiotics/ traditionally fermented food that I eat regularly:
- kefir and yoghurt
- sourdough bread.
These are all easy to include in a normal diet, without making too many changes.
Sauerkraut and other kinds of live fermented pickles
Where to start
If you haven’t eaten live pickles before, the flavours and aroma will be unfamiliar.
Before you go and buy a big expensive jar of something strange that you’ve never heard of, I recommend you head to one of the Waikato farmers’ markets (Hamilton Sundays 8am to 12 noon, Claudelands, or Cambridge, Saturdays 8am from 8am to 12 noon, Victoria Square) and check out the GoodBugs stall. They always have lots of tasting samples. You don’t know until you try whether your tastebuds prefer kimchi or one of the several sauerkraut flavours. My current favourite is Dilly Dally, the dill-flavoured sauerkraut.
GoodBugs is the only local Waikato producer of live sauerkrauts and other pickles that I know about. They also sell online.
There are a few other New Zealand producers of raw sauerkraut. Be Nourished and Living Goodness products are sold in some supermarkets and other food stores. But they’re not locally made. The Waikato Foodbasket prefers to support local producers.
Important: Only buy products that are clearly labelled as “raw” sauerkraut. Live raw sauerkraut will be in the chiller section of the store. Raw sauerkraut costs twice as much as the other kinds, but it’s worth it. Each 500g jar of GoodBugs sauerkraut contains at least one big cabbage, probably more. Plus zillions of friendly micro-organisms.
Most of the sauerkraut in supermarkets has been pasteurized, so it won’t contain any live probiotics. If it’s in a can, it’s not live. The wording on the labels can be sneaky. If it says “heat treated” or “heat stabilized”, then it’s not a live product.
How to eat sauerkraut and other live pickles
We keep a jar of GoodBugs sauerkraut in the fridge. About once a week we have sauerkraut as a vegetable or condiment with dinner, along with salad or cooked vegetables. We eat the sauerkraut cold. Heating will kill the live bugs. Sauerkraut goes particularly well with lamb or roast chicken.
In a sandwich: A layer of sauerkraut or other raw vegetable pickle is great in a sandwich, e.g. with cheese, salami or peanut butter.
Making your own sauerkraut is pretty easy. My son Tom used to make it regularly before he moved to Auckland. We miss him! Here’s a home made sauerkraut recipe.
Marea Smith from Goodbugs runs workshops teaching how to make sauerkraut and other live food cultures. Here’s where you can find out about these.
Live milk cultures – yoghurt and kefir
Where to start
Probiotic milk cultures are easy to fit into an everyday diet. And they’re stocked by most supermarkets.
Yoghurt and kefir contain different kinds of probiotic organisms. Also, different strains of yoghurt contain different organisms. Not all yoghurt at the supermarket contains live organisms. Check the labels.
I suggest choosing the products that don’t contain sugar. You can add your own sweetener.
In the supermarket, kefir usually comes in a pouring bottle, whereas yoghurt is more often in a tub.
I make both yoghurt and kefir at home, using milk from a local small-scale producer: Jersey Girls, Alexander Organics or Dreamview. It’s pretty easy. Here’s my post about DIY milk cultures.
Another bonus is that I don’t have lots of plastic yoghurt tubs to throw out.
Local yoghurt brands
I know of two Waikato-based live yoghurt producers. Raglan Yoghurt produces delicious dairy-free yoghurt, made with coconut. Their products are sold nationwide, including in many supermarkets.
The Matatoki Cheese Barn near Paeroa http://www.thecheesebarn.co.nz/ make certified organic kefir, which is stocked by many organic shops nationwide. Locally I’ve found Matatoki Cheese Barn products at the Farm Shop in Gordonton, at Organic Nation in Frankton, and at Whole Heart in Queenwood. See the Local Retailers page for where to find these shops.
There may be a gap in the market for an iconic Waikato live milk culture product made with cow’s milk (and/or goat’s milk). But maybe the easy availability of good quality live yoghurt and kefir in supermarkets is crowding out the market for small-scale local producers.
Cultured butter and buttermilk
Another traditional dairy culture food is cultured butter. We’re super-lucky in the Waikato to have Cambridge-based Bellefield Butter producing superb traditionally cultured butter, and its delicious byproduct, buttermilk.
Here’s my post about Bellefield. Their award-winning products are currently available in some Cambridge delis, and online. Check their website for current stockists.
The butter sold as “cultured” in supermarkets isn’t produced using proper traditional culturing. It just has culture added as flavouring. It may taste good, but it doesn’t have the health benefits of properly cultured butter.
Matatoki Cheese Barn also sell cultured buttermilk.
Real sourdough bread is made using a live sourdough starter bug, with a long-raising process, over more than 24 hours. This kind of bread is much easier for human digestion than industrially produced bread, which has been made using fast raising methods. In real sourdough bread, the live sourdough organisms have had enough time to process the flour into a form that our stomachs can deal with.
We’re very lucky in the Waikato to have some great producers of real sourdough bread.
TOFS and Volare both sell at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and Volare are also at the Saturday Cambridge market.
TOFs and Volare breads are quite different in style.
Volare breads are what I’d describe as classic European-style, e.g. ciabatta and pain au levain. They also sell through their shops.
TOFS make excellent sourdough breads, using certified organic flour. It’s heavier, more distinct in flavour and very satisfying. They often sell out before I get to the market – that’s how popular they are.
I’m a big fan of TOFS raisin bread. They also sometimes have rewena paraoa – traditional Maori bread.
As well as the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, TOFS have a shop in Frankton, on the corner of Commerce St and Lake Rd.
Supermarkets don’t stock real sourdough bread. Most supermarket sourdough (even the stuff that’s called “traditional”) is not made using proper long-raising sourdough methods – it has sourdough added as flavouring. It doesn’t have the digestive benefits of real sourdough bread. My gut can tell the difference.
Kombucha is a refreshing live fermented beverage. I enjoy kombucha, in small quantities. It’s easy to make at home. Here’s my post about how to make kombucha.
There are some good local producers of kombucha, e.g. Gutsy Kombucha is sold on the GoodBugs stall at the local farmers’ markets. I’ve seen a locally made kombucha range at Duck Island Ice-cream’s Hamilton East shop.
I’ve known a few people who have had allergic reactions from kombucha. However, I think they were drinking large quantities. More is not better.
Two kinds of probiotics that I don’t bother with
- Small dose probiotic drinks (e.g. stocked in the supermarket). If you want to take measured doses of probiotics (e.g. after a course of antibiotics), there are much better products at health stores and pharmacies.
- “Probiotic” bars and snacks in shiny wrappers. These are highly processed products with lots of sugar and other additives. The “probiotic” is a sales point and the quantity and quality will be pretty variable.
What about beer?
Many craft beers are made using traditional fermentation methods.
However, I’ve done some research, and the consensus seems to be that although these beverages may be very enjoyable, they can’t be considered healthy probiotic foods. The alcohol outweighs the benefits of the live fermentation organisms. Sorry, folks!