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We know there are good bacteria and bad bacteria. But these single-cell organisms have a reputation and not always a good one. That is why the idea of eating bacteria may not appeal to many. Yet, we are eating and drinking bacteria all the time and even enjoying it.
Every time we down a bottle of probiotic cultured milk drink, every time we have yoghurt for breakfast or a snack, every time we eat cheese with our burger or pizza, we are eating bacteria, specifically lactic acid bacteria (LAB).
If this has piqued your interest, read on.
Lactic Acid Bacteria or LAB are a group of Gram-positive bacteria that are important to food fermentation. Found in any environment rich in carbohydrates such as plants and fermented foods as well as in human and animal intestines, they produce lactic acid when they break down lactose, a sugar found in milk. This contributes to the taste and texture of the foods they ferment while preventing bad bacteria from spoiling the food. In addition to helping food ferment, LAB are a type of probiotics which are live microorganisms that, in the right amounts, have health benefits.
LAB were among the first bacteria studied. In 1873, Joseph Lister isolated the first bacterial pure culture which is today used for fermenting milk to produce hundreds of different types of dairy products.
LAB are good for health but it depends on which species and strain, and the amount of it. Because it is difficult to identify and classify the strains of LAB, research on their benefits has been complicated. Still, LAB have several well-established health benefits.
Our intestines are lined with trillions of bacteria that promote health. LAB produce lactic acid which prevents harmful bacteria from colonising the intestines, increases the number of good bacteria and ensures the lining in our gut remains intact. LAB also increase the levels of short-chain fatty acids which promote gut health as well.
LAB improve lactose digestion, particularly L bulgaricus and S thermophilus in yoghurt. The bacteria break down the lactose in the product once it reaches the intestines, making it easier for people previously intolerant of lactose to digest dairy products.
LAB may prevent and even cure diarrhea by competing with pathogens for nutrients and space in the intestines. Some studies have found that they can treat acute diarrhea in children as well as in cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. They also reduce travellers’ diarrhea and diarrhea associated with antibiotics.
LAB may improve abdominal pains and bloating caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In a small study of 60 people with IBS, taking a combination of L. acidophilus and another probiotic for a month or two improved bloating while reducing stomach pains. Studies indicate that for LAB to most effective for IBS, only single-strain probiotics must be used and for shorter than eight weeks in doses of less than 10 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) a day.
They help resist and fight infection. LAB have been shown to increase B cells which recognise foreign matter, increase phagocytic activity which helps destroy foreign matter, increase antibody activity and aid white blood cells in their fight against diseases. LAB also stimulate immune activity in the intestines, preventing foreign substances from passing through.
Much more research needs to be done but there is some suggestion that LAB may lower cholesterol, improve constipation, lower the risk of colon cancer, reduce urogenital infections and heal stomach ulcers. There are some indications that LAB may help with allergies and eczema as well.
The best way to benefit from LAB is to eat food with them.
Japanese cultured milk drink Yakult contains 6.5 billion live LAB in each bottle. The drink began with Dr Minoru Shirota who discovered that LAB could suppress harmful bacteria in the intestines. In 1930, he became the first in the world to successfully strengthen and culture a strain of bacteria that could withstand gastric juices and bile. That strain was later named Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota in his honour. This bacterium was put into a drink called Yakult which was marketed in Japan in 1935. Today, the drink is sold in 33 countries and regions in the world. A close competitor is the Singapore-made Vitagen.
Yoghurt, particularly Greek yoghurt, has plenty of LAB. Some brands of Greek yoghurt have added probiotics to enhance their health benefits.
There are two types of buttermilk: traditional and cultured. Traditional buttermilk is liquid left over from making butter. It contains probiotics. Cultured buttermilk found in supermarkets do not.
Miso is a Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a type of fungus. Although it is used to make soup, boiling miso actually kills its probiotic content.
Another Japanese staple with probiotic benefits is natto, also a fermented soybean product usually mixed with rice and served at breakfast. Natto contains Bacillus subtilis.
Tempeh is yet another fermented soybean product. It is popular in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
This is a black or green tea drink fermented with bacteria and yeast. Originating in Japan, its probiotic benefits include aiding digestion, increasing energy and improving immunity.
Not all cheese contains LAB so check the labels to make sure. Fermented cheeses where the LAB have survived the ageing process include cottage cheese, cheddar, gouda, mozzarella and parmesan.
Kimchi , sauerkraut and pickles all have LAB. Kimchi is cabbage fermented with LAB and spices that have probiotics as well as prebiotics, and is a mainstay in Korean diet.
Sauerkraut is to the West what kimchi is to the East. The shredded cabbage is fermented by LAB and is popular in many European countries, especially Germany. Only unpasteurised sauerkraut has LAB because pasteurisation kills live and active bacteria.
Pickles are cucumber pickled in salt and water, and left to ferment using their own natural LAB which makes them sour. Avoid pickles made with vinegar. These do not contain live probiotics.
Olives are fermented in lactobacillus bacteria resulting in a species of probiotic bacteria.
Fermented Japanese plums or umeboshi use young, barely ripe ume which are salted and fermented then served whole as a paste or in vinegar form. They have probiotic properties.
This type of bread is made with dough fermented using the same probiotics used to make sauerkraut and kimchi.