What You Can’t See Can Heal You

31 01 2008

By Jill Ettinger

There are an overwhelming number of people suffering from digestive disturbances in this country. This is due in part to the Standard American Diet, which wreaks havoc on our digestive system, as well as the over-use of antibiotics that kill friendly bacteria. (There are other factors, of course, such as lack of exercise, food allergies, genetic disorders, and so on.) Everyone’s dealt with one digestive problem or another at some point in their lives and knows just how uncomfortable, and even embarrassing it can sometimes be.

Just as we allow marketing to dictate our dietary preferences (which cause the internal imbalances in the first place), we also rely on them to solve it for us. (For years growing up I thought Roger Staubach was some kind of nut when he spelled relief “R O L A I D S.” Kids are so literal.) From the over-the-counter antacids to the prescription ads for ulcers, heartburn and the like, and now friendly bacteria yogurts, all aim to soothe America’s bellyache.

Traditional methods of yogurt making do contain high levels of friendly bacteria – stuff known as probiotics: mainly acidophilos and bifidus. Virtually all fermented foods supply the intestines with a strong dose, and encapsulated versions have been available for years. But the conventional yogurt industry in America has been devoid of enough “therapeutic” levels for decades, selling sugared, non-cultured yogurt ‘products.’ Oregon’s Springfield Creamery has been making Nancy’s Yogurt for over thirty years. They are considered one of the country’s most authentic source for commercially available organic probiotic cultured food products. From their website: “Springfield Creamery was the first to use live acidophilus and bifidum cultures in yogurt over 30 years ago. We use several strains of cultures which are added after pasteurization — each spoonful of yogurt contains billions of live, active cultures, providing you with continual health benefits.” How many cultures exactly? Somewhere in the range of 1,350,000,000 per 1/4 teaspoon. A mouthful contains more bacteria than people on earth.

The origin of artisan-crafted yogurt making is not totally clear, but best guesstimates place it in Europe and Turkey some 4500 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine the purity of a product made by hand from grass-fed cows and goats on rich soil, maybe some fresh berries and a bit of honey. It’s a far cry from what’s sitting on grocery store shelves in plastic containers laden with sugar, corn syrup, oils and frozen fruit pieces, made in enormous stainless steel tanks by the hundreds of gallons. How any bacteria – friendly or not – could survive that process is questionable.

As natural and organic foods find staying power in mainstream culture, one of the most commonly found options is yogurt. That credit goes to Stonyfield Yogurt, the New Hampshire based manufacturer now part of the Danone family. Stonyfield was one of the first cross-over products for the organic industry with taste and quality unrivaled by the likes of Yoplait, Breyers or its step-sister brand, Dannon. And as “real” yogurt found a place in American diets, so did a rise in awareness of friendly bacteria’s benefits. Enter Danone’s brainchild: Activia. Ads purporting this ‘clinically-proven digestive system regulator’ are everywhere, challenging consumers to give it a try for two weeks to create ‘intestinal rhythm.’ Except, it’s not clinically proven and Danone is facing a lawsuit.

In one of the most successful product launches in recent history, Activia has essentially sold its customers nothing more than regular old Dannon yogurt at a premium price –around $428 million worth since 2006. What this racket does to the collective consciousness is send one very strong and unfortunate message: “probiotics are a lie. Acidophilus is just another marketing scheme by big corporations with not-big-enough bank accounts.” Many people will not consider the history of yogurt’s benefits or the increasing need for friendly bacteria in their own diets. They’ll simply dismiss it all as ‘that Dannon lawsuit’ and opt for chocolate milk instead.

The digestive tract in humans is a lot like the roots of a tree. While we pull nutrients from the friendly bacteria produced within us, trees sprawl coils of roots into rich soil to feed itself. As water and soil quality degrade, we see problems with trees and thus ecosystems that rely on them. As our own internal soil becomes imbalanced, so does our entire body. Perhaps more than we need law suits against false advertising, we need education on ways to healthier relationships with those invisible critters controlling our bodies. If you’re not a yogurt eater, don’t worry, there are tons of ways to boost your friendly bacteria counts with fermented foods like those at Rejuvenative Foods, or over-the-counter probiotics available at virtually every health food store

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