Inflammatory, mucus-producing, allergy-inducing . . . what has dairy not been accused of in the last few years? While there has been an increase in milk protein allergies, lactose intolerance and whey intolerance, not all forms of dairy should have a bad reputation. It is important to prevent over-consumption of any food group, but here are some healthier versions of dairy to consider, packed with protein and good gut bacteria.
Yogurt can be found in some form in almost every culture around the world. The word yogurt is of Turkish origin, and it is thought that yogurt was discovered in Central Asia around 6000 BC when herdsman found that milk, left in carrying containers, curdled and produced a thick substance that lasted longer. These carrying containers were often animal organs like the stomach or bladder, and contained enzymes that naturally curdled the milk. History has records of Genghis Khan and his armies living on yogurt!
While yogurts differ around the world, they became commercially available in the early 70's. There are two types of bacteria that make up yogurt starters- thermophilic and mesophilic bacteria. Thermophilic bacteria are heat loving and cultured at high temperatures, while mesophilic bacteria are cultured at room temperature. In 1981, the FDA determined that only thermophilic starters were allowed in the US and yogurt had to contain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcos thermophilus, two thermophilic bacteria.
Yogurt continues to be a superfood, containing bacteria to balance the gut and immune function, varying in amounts by manufacturer and type. Greek yogurt, for example, is higher in protein than its traditional counterpart (typically 20 grams vs. 7 grams per serving) since it is made with more milk and is then strained, removing the whey. Greek yogurt is also lower in carbohydrates and sugar.
Choose yogurt carefully as the health benefits diminish when artificial flavors, sugars and colors are added to the original mix.
Another fermented dairy drink, kefir, originated in the neighboring Northern Caucus mountains, close to the Mongol empire and Central Asia- the presumed home of yogurt. Kefir, is made from milk kefir grains, and generates more mesophilic bacteria. Kefir has a completely different and more extensive bacterial profile from yogurt and is thought to not just help digestion but recolonize the entire intestinal tract. It also contains beneficial yeast, including members of the Sacchromyces and Candida families. There are numerous reports on the health benefits of kefir all through Russia and Eastern Europe, but like yogurt, loading kefir with too many additives and sugar reduces its healing potential.
There are many variations of cheese, but the world of fermented cheeses has options as well, depending on culture and geography. Farmer's cheese is a fermented cheese where the curd, once separated from whey is pressed to remove most of the moisture. In the process of removing this liquid, farmer's cheese has less whey and less calcium than regular cheese, since these are thrown away with the liquid. Farmer's cheese, however, is lower in calories, containing 40-50 calories per oz (vs. 75-130 calories per oz in other cheeses), lower in cholesterol and lower in fat. European varieties of farmer's cheese include chevre, neufchatel, and quark cheese.
Paneer is a variation of farmer's cheese, brought to India by the Mongols and then the Moghuls. It is also a fermented cheese, but when traditionally made, does not contain rennet, the animal enzyme used to curdle milk in traditional cheese making. Vinegar or lemons are use to curdle the milk, separating the whey. Paneer, like farmer's cheese, is lower in calories and lower in saturated fats. It is also lower in calcium and whey since the liquid portion of the milk containing these ingredients is again thrown away. When commercially prepared, paneer loses its benefits since many manufacturers are using heavy cream or adding milk cream to their paneer preparations.
Quark, another fermented cheese, has German origins, but like kefir, contains mesophilic bacteria, or bacteria that thrive at room temperatures. The starter cultures differ from those of traditional yogurt or cheese, creating an acidic environment where the casein, the primary protein in milk, becomes further hydrolyzed and "leaks" out. Quark is made with rennet, and has more protein per serving than yogurt, less salt than traditional cheese and less fat. Quark has been used more widely in Germany and Eastern Europe for treatment of digestive and allergic health conditions.
So before ditching all dairy, consider keeping these five forms in the refrigerator. Each of these health foods provides a unique set of benefits, varying in bacterial profiles based on starter cultures and manufacturing. Like all health foods, the message remains consistent—keep food and bacterial diversity at the forefront of the journey to whole health.