Types of Fermented Foods
There are many different ways to give your child probiotics, ranging from fermented foods, such as pickles and miso, to probiotic booster. Making your own fermented foods is easy and inexpensive, and you do not need expensive equipment or supplies. Homemade fermented dishes have a distinctive tangy flavor. The more types of fermented foods you introduce to your child, the greater diversity of flora he will develop, which offers him diverse health benefits. The combination of both eating fermented foods and using probiotic booster is most effective in creating a healthy gut.
When making or purchasing fermented foods, keep in mind that their true value lies in their live cultures. Avoid the word “pasteurized” which means the food was heated to the point at which microorganisms die (115ºF). Many brands of yogurt now say “contains live cultures,” and have high probiotic value. You can either purchase fermented foods that are unpasteurized, or make them yourself. In his book, The Art of Fermentation, author Sandor Katz debunks the myth that botulism poisoning comes from homemade pickles. C.botulinum spores persist when canning techniques (home or industrial) have not heated the foods to a high enough heat, for a long enough time to destroy them. Fermenting live cultures does not harbor botulism. Following are different types of fermented foods and probiotics that you can offer your baby, as well as their preparation methods.
Whole grains and beans contain phytic acid, a compound that can block the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals, which can result in mineral deficiency. Soaking or sprouting grains and beans before cooking is a mild fermentation process that neutralizes phytic acid, breaks down complex sugars, and increases the mineral absorption rate of the grain. You can soak oats, rice, millet, quinoa, and barley in water for 8 to 24 hours prior to cooking. This process ferments the grain, makes it easier to digest, and allows its full range of nutrients to come through. Soaking grains and beans for a longer time can make them sprout, which further decreases phytic acid and produces vitamin C.
Sweet potato mash is made from a baked sweet potato that is slightly fermented with a small amount of yogurt or kefir for 48 hours. Sweet potato mash is a low salt fermented first food that is easy and delicious for your baby to eat.
Miso has a number of health benefits, ranging from aiding digestion to counteracting the effects of toxins. Many Lactobacilli enzymes and other vital microorganisms thrive in miso and add unique flavors, such as the savory taste of umami. Miso is rich in protein and a good source of B-complex vitamins, vitamin K, amino acids, antioxidants, manganese, and zinc, and it contains at least 160 strains of beneficial bacteria. Miso is most commonly and conveniently added to soup, but it can also be added as a seasoning to dips, sauces, vegetables, fish, and grains. There are several varieties of miso, and the best ones for babies are low in sodium and usually fermented for one year or less, such as sweet white miso.
Plum vinegar is the brine created through the fermentation of pickled umeboshi plums. It adds a healthy seasoning to soft rice, pasta, steamed vegetables, and salads. Plum vinegar is not a true vinegar, because it contains salt, and it has a unique flavor that is fruity, salty, and sour. This plum juice helps neutralize an acidic condition, and it has many of the medicinal properties of the pickled plum, in a more diluted form. Because it is salty, use it sparingly when you give it to your baby or toddler. I discovered plum vinegar when I was pregnant, and the alkaline-producing effect and sour taste helped settle my morning sickness nausea. To this day, I enjoy the taste of plum vinegar.
These salty, sweet, and slightly tart fermented seasonings are made from soybeans, salt, and water. Making tamari also includes the liquid that rises to the surface during the production of miso. Traditionally made soy sauce is brewed for more than a year, and is different than the soy sauce that is chemically brewed in a 24-hour process. Soy sauce is made with a wheat koji (yeast) as a starter, and tamari is made without wheat, and is therefore generally free of gluten. Amino acids are released from the breakdown of proteins, imparting an umami flavor. Unpasteurized soy sauce retains the living enzymes and Lactobacillus that offer a probiotic benefit. Tamari and soy sauce impart a savory flavor in soups, vegetables, beans, and other protein-rich foods.
You can ferment pickles with a small amount of sea salt, or by adding wakame and kombu sea vegetables. Fermenting with salt or with the sodium in sea vegetables can kill harmful bacteria and help grow beneficial bacteria. Starter cultures such as whey, kefir, and kefir grains can be added to speed up the fermentation process. Many vegetables make delicious pickles: beans, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, greens, onions, and squash. Fruits, such as apples, berries, pears, and dried fruits create sweeter pickles for your baby or toddler. Using vinegar is not recommended, because it can weaken or kill the beneficial bacteria in naturally fermented pickles. If you buy pickles instead of making them, look for pickles that are naturally fermented without sugar or vinegar.
Water kefir is made from tibicos (water kefir grains), a culture of bacteria or yeast that can be used as a starter and combined with sweetener, dried fruit, citrus fruit, and filtered water to make a beverage. Kefir grains feed off the sugar to produce lactic acid, alcohol, and gas, which slightly carbonates the drink. Each culture creates a unique set of microbes and provides a probiotic drink that is dairy-free. Chlorine in tap water or sulfites in dried fruit will inhibit the fermentation. Your first batch of kefir grains cannot be made like a sourdough bread starter; you will need to purchase them online, from a natural foods store, or get them from a friend’s existing kefir culture. Kefir grains can also be used as a starter for pickles.
Yogurt, a traditional food from southeastern Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East, is the most popular fermented food in the world. In the past, it was most often eaten as a savory dish. Today in the United States, it is usually sweetened with fruits or sugar. Yogurt is made from live Lactobacillus cultures added to milk to start the production of lactic acid and fermentation. Look for yogurt brands that are made from organic whole milk, do not contain sugar, are unpasteurized, and contain “live, active cultures.” Take note of the expiration date, because the probiotic potency can diminish with time.
Dairy kefir is a beverage from Eastern Europe that can be made from any type of milk: cow, goat, rice, almond, coconut, or soy. It starts with “grains,” or colonies of bacteria and yeasts, that are added to the milk, starting a live culture that begins fermentation. While it does create mucus, the mucus coats the digestive tract and protects the beneficial bacteria on the way down to the intestines, where they then colonize. Kefir has the consistency of liquid yogurt and a taste that is slightly sour.
There are many varieties available with added flavor, but they usually have sugar. You can add natural flavor, such as cooked blueberry, strawberry, or raspberry, along with rice syrup. Look for organic unsweetened whole milk kefir, if possible.
Usually, those who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir because the beneficial microorganisms in the kefir culture consume most of the lactose, or milk sugar. If you decide to include cultured dairy in your child’s diet, I recommend using products made with whole milk. Children up to three years old can benefit from the nutritional value of whole milk, and the Lactobacillus will aid in the digestion. Introduce the beverage gradually, and observe how your child’s body reacts.
Whey is the thin liquid that separates from the solids in milk, yogurt, or kefir. If you hang yogurt or kefir in cheesecloth over a bowl, the liquid that drips out is whey. The curds of yogurt or kefir may separate easily when left at room temperature for a few hours, and you can easily pour off the whey. This is rich in vital bacterial cultures, and it can be used as a starter or to speed up the process of fermenting foods, such as pickles and sweet potato mash. You can also add whey to the liquid used in soaking whole grains before cooking them.
Umeboshi plums are made by fermenting apricot-like plums with sea salt and red shiso (beefsteak or Perilla) leaves. These plums are traditionally considered to be a digestive aid because they increase the production of digestive enzymes in the body and reduce excessive stomach acid. They strengthen the body’s resistance to coughs, flu, colds, fevers, and sore throats due to their potent antibacterial properties, and they also can act as a natural antibiotic.
Umeboshi are good for many ailments, because they help neutralize acidity in the body. The red shiso leaves are rich in vitamins E and K, iron, and zinc. They are added as a natural preservative and to give a pink color to foods. Because of the salt content, umeboshi plums can help preserve the rice inside rice balls. You can add small amounts of the pickled plums in rice balls for toddlers, or use them medicinally in remedies. They are very salty and should be used sparingly, after your child is one year old. You may want to soak the pickled plums before using to remove some of the salt.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food that is made by pounding, cooking, and then fermenting soybeans with an active culture. Tempeh that is sold in vacuum-sealed packaging is usually pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria, but it also kills beneficial bacteria. Fresh or fresh-frozen tempeh has usually not been pasteurized. Tempeh is an easily assimilated protein-rich food, an energy-building food, and a great source of B vitamins, magnesium, copper, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fats.
Tempeh produces a natural antibiotic that supports immune system functions. It is healthier and more versatile than tofu, and it can be cooked in a variety of ways. Vegetarian burgers, kabobs, and sandwiches made from tempeh are a fun way to introduce children to fermented foods. Tempeh does not have a strong taste of its own, so it needs marinating or added seasoning, such as soy sauce or miso, to give it a flavor.
Make sure tempeh is cooked at a low heat for at least 20 minutes, to cook the soybeans thoroughly, and to soften and moisten it for easy chewing and digestion. Steaming can open up the outer layer, which easily absorbs seasonings.
Sourdough is the way that bread was traditionally made, before baker’s yeast was widely available. Sourdough is a natural process that combines wild yeast and Lactobacilli to partially digest the grains and make the bread rise. Commercial baking yeast ferments sugars present in the flour and gives off carbon dioxide and ethanol, which causes the dough to rise. Baker’s yeast cannot survive in an acidic environment, but sourdough can.
Sourdough bread is made with a starter by mixing flour and water together and allowing it to ferment. You must feed the starter every day with flour and water, and then you can refrigerate it for several months. You can use the starter for making pancakes or for baking breads, muffins, scones, and other baked goods.
Cheeses can be made from a variety of fermentation processes. Soft-ripened cheeses such as cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese, and crème fraîche are examples of fermented cheeses made with bacteria as part of the fermentation process. Unpasteurized versions of these soft cheeses keep their living probiotic microbes. The longer a cheese is aged, the fewer bacteria remain alive. The exception is aged cheese made from raw or unpasteurized milk, which typically keeps probiotic bacteria alive for longer.
Probiotic booster for children and infants is available in capsule, powdered, and liquid form. Because probiotics are considered food supplements, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the FDA has released a short list of guidelines for manufacturers. Probiotic booster can cause gas at the beginning of treatment, until the body achieves balance with the new bacteria, but otherwise, it has almost no side effects.
When purchasing probiotics for your baby, check the labels for the benefits, when to use, the bacterial strain, the colony forming units (CFUs, a measure of the viable cells that can grow inside the body), proper storage conditions, and serving size. Make sure the booster is nondairy, gluten-free, wheat-free, corn-free, soy-free, and non-GMO. Also check to see that it is acid and bile resistant, so that the microbes can survive when they pass through the stomach.
Probiotic booster should be stored in a cool place and in an opaque jar or container. Refrigeration will extend the life and potency of the microbes. Contact the product manufacturer for advice and dosage instructions, if you have questions, and communicate with your health care provider about your baby’s diet.
Many probiotic snacks and drinks are now available in the form of granola bars, chocolate, pizza, kombucha, and water kefir. Often these items have refined sugar, so check the labels for ingredients before giving them to your child.
Vinegar is produced when a sugar-containing liquid ferments through the acetic acid bacteria fermentation method where alcohol (ethanol) is exposed to oxygen. Traditionally, local sweet liquids were made into vinegar—grapes into balsamic vinegar, apples into apple cider vinegar, and rice into rice vinegar. Unlike modern vinegar, traditional vinegar is not pasteurized. Therefore, many traditional vinegars have health, as well as medicinal benefits. When shopping for vinegar, look for “unfiltered,” “unpasteurized,” “traditionally fermented,” or “aged in wood.” Vinegar is sensitive to heat and utensils made of reactive materials. Because it is sour, babies are usually not interested in the vinegar taste for their first one or two years. Used sparingly, it can help break up excess fats in food and congestion in the body.