Lose weight, boost immunity, clear colds, increase stomach acid, feel great – Apple cider vinegar.
Here in the county of Kent, the local fermentation community have been buzzing about apple cider vinegar for some time. Kent is a ‘garden county’, it has a long standing tradition of growing fruit, in particular apples, pears, cherries and soft fruits, not to mentions hops. In fact Brogdale houses one of the UK’s largest collection of apple trees with some 2,200 different varieties on one site.
We’ve used organic apple cider vinegar regularly over the last year, it’s got a number of culinary applications but in our home its main role is as a homely remedy. In the media you will come across a number of claims for its health benefits including, treatment of cold symptoms, regulation of blood sugar, support for a healthy gut, an immunity booster and even a mediator of weight loss. Although I have seen little evidence that apple cider vinegar directly causes consumers to shed pounds, its reputation as a tonic goes from strength to strength.
My own personal use of apple cider vinegar was linked to a misdiagnosis of acid reflux. It turned out that my stomach acid levels were too low not too high or escaping. To restore the balance I took 1 tablespoon of the vinegar diluted in a small amount of water before meals. It gradually did the trick, after about ten days all the signs of acid reflux had gone, however I still take a shot of the vinegar a couple of times a week. Incidentally I have been told that acid reflux can manifest similar symptoms to low levels of stomach acid, so the two are often confused. One way to tell the difference is to look for signs of undigested food in your stools. This is normally a good indicator that what you eat isn’t being broken down fully in the stomach and can be caused by low levels of stomach acid.
As a home fermenter I was particularly interested in accounts of how to make apple cider vinegar for myself. It is definitely a little more complicated than the products I’m currently working with (soya and orange kefir, red and white cabbage, ginger) but I’m keen to give it a try. In September we can normally expect the quality and quantity of local organic apples to be at their peak, that’s when I plan to start my first batch. I’m advised that it can take anything up to 12 weeks to create. If anyone out there has some experience I’d welcome more tips or first hand accounts.
Your diet can play a significant role in your chances of becoming obese, suffering from asthma or a range of other illnesses.
Discovery, a general science programme from the BBC World Service, has put together a helpful three part guide to the human microbiome. It is made for the wider World Service audience so it presents the issues in an interesting but accessible way. The discussion of the subject matter is engaging, and important contributions are made by leading scientists in the field such as Prof Rob Knight, from the University of California and Prof Tim Spector from Kings.
The show provides a general outline broken down into three parts; Manipulating Our Hidden Half, Dirt and Development and Gateway to the Mind. The idea that humans (in common with other animals) have not one but two genomes is central to this mini series. Our human genome is the one handed down to us through our parents, set in stone at conception. The so called second genome is made up of a vast pool of genetic diversity present in the microbes found throughout and within our bodies. The Human Microbiome Project has begun the process of analyzing the large number of microbes present in us. Two key issues that have started to excite scientists in recent years are,
the extent to which microbes can influence human health and experience.
the ability of individuals to alter their own microbial profile.
For example, it is generally observed that increased diversity of different kinds of helpful bacteria in the gut, is correlated with improved wellness. Studies in obesity, allergies, asthma and auto immunity suggest that gut bacteria may have a crucial role in meditating our health. This opens up the prospect that lifestyles remedies such as changes to diet may offer us significant potential benefits. It also raises the question about the long term benefits of medication known to have a detrimental affect on gut bacteria such as antibiotics.
This then takes us back to the discussion of probiotic and prebiotic food and drinks. When you consume products rich in helpful bacteria (probiotics) or the soluble fibre known to support microbial diversity in the large intestine (prebiotics), you are likely to be improving your health in a number of ways. It cannot yet be said that there is a direct causal relationship between your diet and certain illnesses. However the scientists are starting to think of gut bacteria as increasing or decreasing the chances of suffering from particular health problems.
At the time of writing all three programmes were freely available online or to download here.
There may be a relationship between kefir and obesity.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the benefit of fermentation, that enriching beneficial gut bacteria has widespread effects on wellbeing and health. I’m still near the beginning of this journey and learning all the time. I’ve posted a series of articles linked to kefir, not because I’m an expert, but based of the apparent benefits accrued over the last two months from a small glass of kefir each day. I should also say that Maggie has lost a lot of weight over the time she has been drinking kefir, but, she has also been exercising. However weight loss isn’t my only reason for writing about this subject. A few months ago I felt obliged to take a course of antibiotics, I think it was a mistake ( I am aware of the downsides of this kind of medication) but it’s water under the bridge now. The subsequent decline in my overall health was striking. I started to have trouble concentrating and sleeping, I got a cold, suffered from reflux and saw an augmentation in weight.
I didn’t really connect these things with the antibiotics until I noticed that my bowel movements changed significantly. If you are new to the gut bacteria scene you might feel a little uncomfortable around talk about bowel movements, don’t be. A regular healthy bowel movement is one of the signs of a healthy balance in gut bacteria. So when I noticed I wasn’t going to the toilet regularly I though about the possible impact of antibiotics on my gut. I started to take kefir more regularly whilst keeping my usual prebiotic and probiotic consumption at the same level. The difference was gradual but pretty much everything started to improve after about five days. Two months later things are back where there were before the antibiotics. I’m much healthier, bowels are back to normal and……..I’ve lost weight without any exercise.
This isn’t a morality narrative about the harm of antibiotics. I believe antibiotics represent a life saving technology, and in the right place and time are essential. It’s their inappropriate overuse which I think is harmful.
My own anecdote is that I think it took two months to return the state of my gut bacteria to somewhere like normal, and I am a daily consumer of natural prebiotics and probiotics. In all of this story things pretty much fitted my modest understanding of the underlying science except the weight loss. I know that lack of diversity in gut bacteria is correlated with obesity generally but I hadn’t come across any research papers linking kefir to weight loss. If you can improve your gut health and pull your body weight closer to its optimum level this has to be a win-win. So I started to look through the scientific literature. The most recent research is featured here.
Are their differences in traditional and commercial kefir?
This is the second part of the feature, you’ll find part one here.
Despite my scientific training, regular followers of my blogs will have realized I have an established scepticism for extravagant scientific claims. I am a fan of science generally but feel the need to maintain a discriminating eye and treat each scientific claim on its merits. However a recent study into the relationship between kefir and obesity has been worth a closer look.
In a research paper titled Traditional kefir reduces weight gain and improves plasma and liver lipid profiles more successfully than a commercial equivalent in a mouse model of obesity, Bourrie, Cotter and Willing found that kefir appeared able to meditate metabolic health. This study compared the ability of traditional with commercially produced kefir to mediate mouse weight gain, plasma cholesterol, and liver triglycerides. Four traditional and one commercially available kefirs were used in the experiment. Commercial kefir was shown to have no beneficial effect whilst two of the traditional kefirs demonstrated a reduction in the rate of weight gain and increase in blood cholesterol. This was (as far as I know) the first ever study comparing mass produced with traditionally produced kefir, so the research must be regarded as preliminary. It was a study with mice so the extent to which results can be generalised to humans is uncertain.
The research concluded that when also considered in relation to the modulation of the gut microbiome, traditional kefir has the potential to mediate obesity through the improvement to metabolic dysfunction.
The report also explained that different forms of traditional kefir do not generate identical microbial populations. It is assumed that this could be linked to variable health benefits. Further that whilst Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, and Leuconostoc would be expected to be found in most forms of kefir, acetic acid bacteria was not found in a majority of commercial products. Research has also suggested that traditional kefir possesses highly complex fungal communities (including, S. cerevisiae, Pichia fermentans, Kazachastania unispora, and Kluyveromyces marxianus and lactis) not always found in commercial products.
In conclusion, three take home points:
This is preliminary research, it’s early days!
Traditional kefir may support improved cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism.
Traditional kefir appear to offer a much greater microbial diversity to the host than commercially produced kefir.
Having been experimenting with DIY kefir for a while, I thought it was time to share some of the key points we have discovered. This is not an exhaustive guide, follow this link for more general resources. The first thing to consider is that kefir is created by fermenting bacteria, therefore you need to follow reliable instructions. Our ten point guide contains tips that may help you on your way to a more positive experience.
Decisions, decisions, decisions: Kefir can be made using powdered culture or live/dehydrated grains. You can also use a range of liquids to create kefir, milk, water, juice, coconut milk etc. There are subtle differences in how you approach these different processes. Think about it before you start.
Cleanliness: Given that you are going to be growing bacteria you do not want to introduce anything that will pollute or taint your product. Make sure everything that comes into contact with the kefir is as clean as possible.
Quality: I generally aim to use good quality milk/juice/water in order to have the best quality product.
Water: Chlorinated water (tap or bottled) is generally felt to be unsympathetic to both the grains and the product so aim to use filtered water as far as possible in your fermentation operations. Don’t expose the grains to very hot or very cold water.
Temperature: Typically milk takes around 20 – 24 hours to ferment into kefir at a room temperature of 22–25°C. If this sounds imprecise it reflects the range of factors linked to production. A golden rule is to try and avoid extremes of hot and cold.
Observation: At the outset check the fermentation process regularly, you can’t expect consistency in kefir production unless you control all of the relevant factors. In a normal family kitchen having the oven on or windows open can change the time needed for optimum fermentation. I always check the product (visually) after 12 hours and thereafter at regular intervals.
Avoid: Don’t use of anti-bacterial hand cleaners when working with fermented product.
Manage the grains: Most of the advice says you can handle the grains but your hand should be spotless.
Augmentation: Grain populations increase over time, you will have to remove grains every two weeks or so to keep the fermentation process stable.
Cleanliness again: After every batch make sure that all containers, implements and any gauze or cheesecloth covers are as clean as possible.
Milk and water kefir, resources for anyone thinking of making their own at home.
Kefir resources to help you on the journey of fermentation
Why not make your own kefir, it’s good for you, cost effective and much simpler than you’d imagine. Kefir is really hot right now, it’s got a high visibility in the health and fermented food niche and shows signs that it could break out in the mainstream. I say this as a guy that never heard of kefir a few years ago, now I’m making my own at home. Although making kefir is pretty easy there are a few potential pitfalls, particularly to people new to fermentation, so I decided to share resources that I found useful.
For our own practical guide into home kefir production click here.
Keeping your kefir going, a practical video guide on how to keep the grains living whilst harvesting the product.
There is a BBC guide to the health benefits of kefir, it’s a little bit dated in approach, I guess you wouldn’t expect anything less from the BEEB.
Mad Millie Kefir Kit at Lakeland was our first experience of DIY kefir. The kit contains everything you need to get started and so is a useful first step for beginners. The Lakeland site also has a lot of items that fermenters might find useful including, Kilner jars, cheesecloth, wooden utensils.
A journal study exploring the microbial interactions in kefir, largely linked to the composition and health benefits of lactobacillus.
The Wikepedia kefir page is not the best DIY resource on the internet but it gives a good overview and links to a lot of the relevant research to anyone interested in the science.
The Cultures for Health guide to Kefir, useful information for new and experienced fermenters. Links to plenty of related articles including some water kefir insights.
For information on vegan kefir, visit the Nourished Kitchen website. All the ins and outs of home productions, tips and recipes.
Eat more raw, to get the most from prebiotics and probiotics consider how you prepare your food.
As a fermentation fan and a non-strict vegan, eggs are not normally part of my diet. However a recent scientific study that came out of China got me thinking more generally about food preparation. In the UK eggs have enjoyed a love-hate relationship with food experts and nutritionists. In 1988 Health Minister Edwina Currie announced that UK egg production was badly affected by salmonella. Although she lost her job, uncertainty over the benefit of eating eggs remained. There has also been a long standing disquiet over the suffering experienced by hens in the ‘industrialised’ production of eggs. Scientists still suggest that there may be a correlation between egg consumption and a number of health problems.
Conversely a new large scale study from China has suggested eggs may actually reduce risk of stroke and heart disease. The current advice from the NHS is that the cholesterol found in eggs is less of a health problem than the effect of saturated fat from the cooking process. Indicating that boiled or poached eggs may be significantly better for you than fried. This is not an endorsement of eggs as a health food per se’ but it draws attention to the strong relationship between health and food preparation. So what has this got to do with fermentation, prebiotics and probiotics?
One of the reasons we cook food for a sustained period is to destroy potentially harmful bacteria. It follows then that if food, such as sauerkraut is cooked at a high temperature for a sustained period much of the helpful bacteria will be removed. People starting to think about gut-bacteria from scratch (like us), might be surprised to know that commercially available products thought to be ‘probiotic’ may in fact be pasturised (heat treated) or made from pasturised ingredients.
This is one of the reasons why home fermentation is taking off in such a big way. There are certain challenges to delivering high quality, probiotically rich foods, safely and at a competitive price. So if you are purchasing probiotics check the labels to ensure things are as they appear, in particular watch out for the word ‘pasturised’. This is not so say that you can’t cook ‘live’ yogurt in a curry or sauerkraut in a pork casserole. It’s just you may be loosing a lot of the bacterial benefit.
A quick word about prebiotics. Prebiotic is a blanket term for any food ingredients likely to enhance the growth and development of beneficial bacteria, typically (but not limited to) those found in the large intestine. In order to arrive at the large intestine, food needs to be structurally able to resist breakdown in the stomach. Foodstuffs in this group can (loosely) be thought of as ‘dietary fiber’. If you do a little research in this area you’ll find that many of the most useful prebiotics are in fact raw vegetables. That is because cooking can limit the probiotic benefit effect of certain foods.
There are many valid reasons why people may wish to cook fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products. The take home point is that if you don’t already, you might wish to take a look at how you prepare your food and the extent to which you are maximizing your support for beneficial gut microorganisms.