Saturday, June 9, 2012

No Meal Is Complete Without This...

It seems as though every few years some type of nutrient makes the headlines and is touted for it potent health benefits.  Decades ago vitamins crashed the marketing landscape and they were added to everything from milk, fruit juice to breakfast cereal.  Not long ago fiber was the “Johnny come lately” nutrient and it was added to cereal, yogurt, crackers and nutrition shakes.  More recently Omega-3 fats hit the mainstream and marketers and food manufactures decided it would be a good idea to add them to milk, pasta and even peanut butter.

In all cases these nutrients are added to the food in an attempt to boost it’s marketability, whoops I meant nutrition…

I am going to predict the next nutrient that will make headlines and become the next media/marketing darling will be food enzymes.

One caveat must be added before I go forward on this subject and that is anything that is artificially added to a food even a seemingly beneficial nutrient such as fiber has a neutral impact on health at best.  When food is eaten in its natural package nutrients are more available for absorption and utilization by your body.  Science can’t possibly account for the delicate balance of nutrient ratios that make a food such as broccoli so nutritious and health promoting.  Fiber in that broccoli may be beneficial but it’s likely more effective because it exists in a specific ratio with other nutrients like vitamins C, K and potassium.  For instance did you know that eating too much calcium can lead to an imbalance in magnesium?  And guess what nutrient is added to food products all the time to “improve” its nutrition?  That’s right calcium!  The lab technicians should have accounted for that but neglected to do so.  Trust nature it’s always the better way to go.

When it comes to food talk we hear all about macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrate) and to a slightly lesser extent micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

However, there is one component of food that is often overlooked, misunderstood or totally unknown and these oft-mysterious agents are food enzymes.

Enzymes are complex proteins that acts as catalysts in almost every biochemical process that takes place in the body. [1]

Enzymes fall into one of three major classifications metabolic, digestive and food.  We will direct our attention to the food enzymes for this discussion.

Food enzymes are present in ample amounts in many raw foods, and they initiate the process of digestion in the mouth and stomach.  These enzymes in raw food, particularly raw fermented food, help start the process of digestion and reduce the body’s need to produce digestive enzymes.

All food enzymes are destroyed at a wet-heat temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit and a dry heat of 150.

A diet composed exclusively of cooked and processed foods places a strain on the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes, and thus overtime repeated withdrawals can exhaust the system and ultimately deplete your body’s ability to produce it’s own supply of enzymes for proper digestion and absorption.

Am I suggesting that you consume all of your foods raw, even meat?  Not even close but what I discovered during my research will get your attention because there is a valid reason we slather our burgers with ketchup and it serves a much larger purpose than to enhance it’s flavor.

First allow me to provide a list of raw plant foods that are rich in enzymes (believe it or not many fruits and vegetables contain few enzymes); extra virgin olive oil, raw honey, grapes, figs and many tropical fruits including avocados, dates, bananas, papaya, kiwi, pineapple and mangos.

While we do need to include enzyme rich raw foods in our diets, no traditional cultures ate diets composed exclusively of raw foods.  However, traditional ethnic cuisines are rarely eaten without at least one fermented food or drink. [2]

The art of lacto-fermentation has been a traditional practice around the globe.  If all of these different cultures were using it the question of why needs to be asked?  Not only was it a method of preservation before refrigeration came along but it also makes the food more nutritious and plays a vital role in digestion and absorption.

Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, is not meant to be eaten in large quantities but in traditional cultures they served as condiments to be eaten with cooked meat and grain meals to enhance digestion and the utilization of nutrients.

In fact, ketchup is an example of a condiment that was formerly fermented and therefore health promoting, but whose benefits were lost with industrial food production and a reliance on high fructose corn syrup rather than lactic acid as a preservative.  [3]

Kefir is also an example of an enzyme rich food derived from process of lacto-fermentation, some nutrition experts refer to it as a natural antibiotic-and it’s made from milk.  Kefir is like a drink-style yogurt in texture, but the taste is more tart. [4]

Kefir from cow/goat milk is a complete protein with all of the essential amino acids.  By the time you drink kefir, its friendly bacteria have already partially digested the protein, making it much easier for your body to digest.  In order for you to utilize protein optimally your body requires an adequate supply of minerals.  Kefir provides these, too.  For these reasons kefir is an excellent sports recovery drink, certainly more effective than any protein powder you can buy.  Amino acids within the kefir also work with its calcium and magnesium content to help calm the central nervous system.   Donna Gates author of the Body Ecology Diet says of kefir, “it’s calming effect is great for hyperactive children or for people who have trouble sleeping.” [4]

Kefir is a super food because it is rich with highly bio-available vitamins, minerals and amino acids (building blocks of the body) and they come in a natural package of ideal ratios that enhance their effectiveness.  If you have a young athlete that is attempting to gain “weight” at the edict of a coach consider that most protein powders are little more than innate materials.  Kefir is a much better option because the muscles absorb its protein quickly and efficiently. 

Most commercially available kefir and yogurt is full of low-quality sugars and additives and should be avoided.  The best option is to start with high quality milk and make your own.  Homemade kefir is relatively easy to make you just need a good culture starter.  Below I will list a few quality resources for milk, kefir and yogurt.

Modern society has all but abandoned the traditional practice of lacto-fermentation in favor of mass produced food products that have been pasteurized (destroying health promoting enzymes in the process) and sterilized apparently to keep us safe.  Modern food production has lead to food that is sterile at best and more likely is detrimental to our long-term health (artificial sweeteners and preservatives, Trans fat…).  So in spite of all of these efforts to “clean” up the food supply in order to prevent acute outbreaks of food poisoning and contamination the health of our nation has suffered immensely (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer…). 

Milk is one example of this and I have studied its history quite thoroughly.  The short version is that pasteurization was a byproduct of the industrial revolution when milk parlors were located in filthy inner city “swill dairies.”  That product required treatment and pasteurization because the conditions were filthy.  But the process stuck even though consumption of raw milk had never been an issue before when obtained from small farms with traditional cow breeds.

As it relates to our discussion on food enzymes, pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, and alters fragile milk proteins.  Lactase the main enzyme in milk that digests milk sugar (lactose) is destroyed by pasteurization.  In my opinion the pasteurization era correlates closely with the increase in milk allergies and lactose intolerant children and adults.   As we distance ourselves from traditional food sources we no longer eat foods rich in enzymes like lactase and many people simply have lost their ability to digest the milk.

During the fermentation process lactase is recovered when making kefir and yogurt making it much easier to digest even for people that normally don’t do well with dairy products.  I am not suggesting that if you are lactose intolerant that you try kefir or yogurt, that is a discussion that requires more personal assessment between you and a nutrition professional or doctor.  I also am not suggesting that you should switch to raw milk.  Sadly, the way milk is produced now pasteurization is a necessity.  Also we are so far removed from the consumption of raw milk that it would be extremely difficult due to the evolution of our digestive systems to tolerate.  I recently spoke with a doctor that has dealt with quite a few consumers of raw milk and he said they are a “mess!”  Society evolves and if you didn’t grow up consuming raw milk and most of us have not it’s likely not a good idea to start.  We simply lack the internal mechanisms to tolerate it.  This same doctor also advised against the use of ultra-pasteurized milk even when it’s organic (you’ll be surprised at how common this method is).[5]

I am suggesting that the current food preparation and production culture requires that we explore the use of lacto-fermented foods to enhance our long-term health and regain our ability to thoroughly and efficiently digest and absorb the nutrients in our food.  It’s quite clear given the disease rates in this state that we are over-fed and undernourished.
Enzymes from the food we consume are essential to optimize health and build strong bodies.

Resources and a few notes on fermented dairy and vegetables:

Milk products are rich in calcium and phosphorous (for bone development) but only have a small amount of magnesium.  Overindulging in dairy products could lead to an imbalance between these key minerals.  If you do consume a lot of dairy include many magnesium rich foods (black and kidney beans, cooked spinach, almonds, cashews, brown rice, pumpkin seeds) into your diet. [6]

Thomas Organic Creamery Whole Milk, sold at Whole Foods and Plum Market
Grass-fed from traditional cow breed and local farm (Henderson, MI).

Thomas Organic Creamery, above

Helios Plain Kefir also at Whole Foods
Add your own fruit and natural stevia leaf powder to sweeten.
Kefir goes well with strawberries, blueberries and pineapple.  Add nuts such as almonds or walnuts for a complete breakfast or snack. 

Fermented vegetables:
Look for a product that is raw and has no preservatives, vinegar or sugar, and is not pasteurized.
Products from “The Brinery” fit the bill and they are located in Ann Arbor.
My palate is likely very similar to that of your children.  The idea of eating sour vegetables is very unappetizing to me.  When my wife opens up a jar of kimchi I nearly pass out from the smell.  That said I add about a tablespoon full of sauerkraut from The Brinery to my cooked meals and salads.  I don’t even notice it’s there and after some exposure I can eat a little on it’s own without closing my eyes and wincing.  Only add it to food after it’s cooked or else the heat will destroy the enzymes.


[1] [2] [3] [5] Fallon, Sally.  Nourishing Traditions.  Washington, DC:  New Trends Publishing, 2001.

[4] [6] Gates, Donna.  The Body Ecology Diet.  Decatur, GA:  B.E.D. Publications, 2006.

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