Let me be clear where I stand on the whole milk thing: I’m not a fan.
Let me explain. I’m a huge fan of raw, organic, unpasteurized, nonhomogenized milk from grass-fed cows that graze on pastures in small farms devoted to sustainable agriculture. In fact, I think milk—raw, whole milk from the cows I’ve just described—is one of the best whole foods in the world. But I can’t say the same about the milk we find in the typical supermarket.
I realize this goes against generations of amazingly effective public relations campaigns from the dairy industry, including the Got Milk? ones with beautiful, healthy-looking, sexy, milk-mustachioed models smiling and against the warnings about how we will all get osteoporosis if we don’t drink a quart (946 ml) of the stuff a day (not true). But this book is about facts, not about spin. And though there are many ways to read the facts on milk—it’s a complex subject involving not only food but agribusiness, economics, and politics as well as nutrition—my job is to give you my reading of those facts. My reading is this: Cow’s milk is a great food if you’re a baby cow, and even if you’re a human—provided it comes direct from grass-fed cows untreated with antibiotics, steroids, and hormones, and is raw, unpasteurized, and unhomogenized—but even calves probably wouldn’t touch the stuff we get in supermarkets.
It’s been well documented that the dairy industry spends a substantial amount of money on advertising and lobbying, and it’s done a great job of convincing the public that homogenized, pasteurized milk from factory-farmed cows is a healthy product. And the dairy industry doesn’t like competition. It fought tooth and nail to prevent small farms from putting the words “hormone-free” or “no rBgh” (recombinant bovine growth hormone) on their milk for the transparently self-serving reason that they didn’t want the public to be confused and think that hormone-free milk was in some way better than regular milk. (It is.)
The industry also fought against the term soy milk. And it fought—successfully in most cases—against the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk. Thanks to its efforts, you can only buy raw unpasteurized milk in thirteen states, and even in those where you can legally buy it—such as California, where I live—grocers told me off the record that there’s tremendous pressure on them not to sell it. My local Whole Foods in Woodland Hills yielded to pressure, whereas my local Sprouts Farmers Market—two blocks down the street—did not. So much for conscious capitalism.
The dairy industry’s claim of wanting to protect the public from the dangers of raw milk seem self-serving. According to data from a 2007 CDC-FoodNet survey, reproduced on the website Food Renegade, about 9 million people drink raw milk. Want to know how many reports of raw milk causing people to get sick?
Again, this book isn’t the place to debate the politics of milk. But understand that just as factory-farmed meat has hormones, antibiotics, and all sorts of other undesirable compounds, so does the milk that comes from those factory-farmed animals. I’m not at all convinced that homogenization—which alters the fat content—and pasteurization—which kills an awful lot of good stuff—is necessary for healthy people. Personally, cold, raw, full-fat, unpasteurized, and unhomogenized milk is one of my favorite drinks, and I drink it daily. I suggest doing your own research and deciding if it’s for you (or not). If you do want to try it, it’s available through farm collectives even in states where you can’t buy it in the grocery.
In the modern factory farm—which is truly a farm in name only—cows are milk-and-beef production machines that exist to turn corn and grain (their main source of food) into milk and meat as quickly as possible. Given that the natural food of cows is grass, the resultant situation is no less than a biological absurdity, akin to keeping lions alive on a diet of chocolate chip cookies. As Michael Pollan wrote of the situation in his wonderful book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “…animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us—at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters—to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around.”
“Considerable cost” is putting it mildly. A concentrated diet of corn can give a cow acidosis, which can lead to a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to a host of horrible diseases. Cattle rarely manage to live on these diets for more than 150 days. Between 15 and 30 percent of them are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers. Some estimates are considerably higher.
In addition, with intensive production schedules (they don’t call them factory farms for nothing), it’s common for modern dairy cows to produce many times the number of pounds of milk they would produce in nature. Growth hormones and unnatural milking schedules cause dairy cows’ udders to become painful, heavy, and infected. To prevent this, factory-farmed cows are routinely given large doses of antibiotics, the residue of which, along with that of the steroids and growth hormones they are given, invariably wind up in the milk and meat they produce.
If you think all those hormones don’t have any impact on your health, consider this: A study in the prestigious Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in February 2005 demonstrated a significant positive association between milk drinking and teenage acne. The researchers suggested that the most likely explanation was the presence of hormones and “bioactive molecules” in the milk.
So if hormones, steroids, and antibiotics weren’t enough—and they are—the resultant milk is then pasteurized and homogenized. Both procedures destroy vitally important health-giving compounds in the milk. As Joe Mercola, D.O., accurately points out, “Pasteurizing milk destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamins, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria and promotes pathogens.”
There have been more than a few studies linking dairy consumption—especially milk—with increased risk for prostate cancer, and these studies go back at least fifteen years. One study in the May 2005 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “Dairy consumption may increase prostate cancer risk through a calcium-related pathway” and that “…the mechanisms by which dairy and calcium might increase prostate cancer risk should be clarified and confirmed.” On April 4, 2000, the Harvard School of Public Health issued a press release titled Higher Intake of Dairy Products May be Linked to Prostate Cancer Risk. And in October 2001, a paper called “Dairy Products, Calcium, and Prostate Cancer Risk in the Physicians’ Health Study” appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition . Its conclusion: “These results support the hypothesis that dairy products and calcium are associated with a greater risk of prostate cancer.”
Similarly disturbing connections have been found between dairy—especially milk—and ovarian cancer. In November 2004, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Swedish researchers concluded that “our data indicate that high intakes of lactose and dairy products, particularly milk, are associated with an increased risk of serious ovarian cancer, but not of other subtypes of ovarian cancer.” And just as the original manuscript for this book was being submitted, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health examined twelve different previously published studies to try to find some trends. The results, published in Cancer Epidemiological Biomarkers and Prevention in February 2006, noted that while no associations were observed for intakes of specific dairy foods or calcium and ovarian cancer risk, “A modest elevation in the risk of ovarian cancer was seen for lactose intake at the level that was equivalent to three or more servings of milk per day.” The researchers noted that because three servings is exactly what the dietary guidelines recommend, “the relation between dairy product consumption and ovarian cancer risk at these consumption levels deserves further examination.”
I wish we could say for certain what conclusions can be drawn from so many conflicting studies that suggest connections without proving cause. Unfortunately, we can’t. All I can do is point them out in the hope that they will at least cause people to reflect on whether the “all milk all the time” mantra of the dairy industry ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Or two. Or three.
It’s also worth pointing out that in all these studies, it’s unlikely that the majority of the milk drinkers were drinking the raw, organic, unpasteurized, and non-hormone-treated milk I recommend. Does that make a difference? It’s anyone’s guess. My personal belief is that it probably does. That’s why milk—or meat or cheese—from factory-farmed cattle is not food I will ever recommend.
I do, however, recommend yogurt. In a perfect world, we’d make it ourselves, or get it from the same grass-fed animals that provide raw milk and healthy meat. But even commercial yogurt can contain large amounts of healthy bacteria—called probiotics—and for this reason alone, yogurt is worth including. (There are other reasons as well—see below.) And both organic butter and ghee, for all the reasons listed, below, remain among my favorite fats.
I love butter. And back when I first wrote this section—in 2006—I knew that my positive take on butter was going to cause apoplexy among the diet dictators, conventional dietitians, doctors, and other members of the diet establishment. And it did. But that was then, and this is now. Two powerful meta-analyses, one published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010, the other in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014, both concluded that there was no clear evidence that saturated fat had anything to do with cardiovascular disease, leading New York Times food writer and consumer advocate Mark Bittman to title a column “Butter is Back.”
The fact is that butter—from pasture-fed, organically raised cows—is a wonderful, healthy food.
To understand why real butter is a healthy food, you have to unlearn a great deal of what you’ve been taught about saturated fat. Now the argument over saturated fat is way too complex to go into here, but I’ll give you the CliffsNotes, and if you’re interested in reading further, some suggested sources. Number one, yes, butter contains saturated fat. Number two, yes, saturated fat raises cholesterol somewhat, but that is turning out to be less important than previously thought, and newer, more modern cholesterol tests are showing that saturated fat may actually have a good effect on cholesterol overall. Three, whether an increase in cholesterol translates into higher rates of heart disease or greater rates of mortality is a hotly debated topic whose subplots, political intrigue, and warring factions make the arguments over The Da Vinci Code look like a household discussion over which television channel to watch. If you’re interested in exploring this issue further for yourself, I’d like to throw in a shameless plug for my 2012 book (with cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D.), The Great Cholesterol Myth. It’s a great place to start.
So yup, butter has saturated fat, and nope, let’s not debate the whole saturated fat issue here. Sure, we can always use more research, and sure, we don’t have the absolute final word on any of this stuff. My opinion is that the fear of saturated fat that gripped the country for about four decades was way out of proportion to any harm it does. Some saturated fat is good for us and necessary in the diet. To remove healthy foods such as butter, avocado, eggs, coconut oil, palm oil, and grass-fed meat from the diet simply because they contain saturated fat, is, in my opinion, extremely unwise, not to mention unjustified by the research data.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the good stuff on butter. Butter is a rich source of vitamin A, which is needed for many functions in the body, not the least of which are optimal functioning of the immune system and maintaining good vision. Butter also contains all the other fat-soluble vitamins—E, K, and D. Vitamin D deficiency is being called a “silent epidemic” by nutritionists these days, many of whom don’t believe we get nearly enough of this cancer-fighting, bone-building nutrient.
When you eat animal products that come from healthy, grass-fed animals, you are getting the benefits of the animal’s diet. Real feed for cows is green grass, not grains. Foods like butter that come from grass-fed cows are rich in the fats proven to be healthful, such as omega-3s, which are virtually absent from their grain-fed counterparts. Food that comes from grass-fed animals also contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a particularly healthy fat that has demonstrated anticancer properties. Research has also shown CLA to have a lot of promise in fighting weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.
The promise of CLA is so great that it has been the subject of an entire research conference (Perspectives on Conjugated Linoleic Research, Current Status and Future Directions), which is posted on the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements website. Butter, milk, and meat from grain-fed animals contain virtually no CLA, while food from grass-fed animals is a rich source of this health-promoting fatty acid.
The fat in butter is rich in health-giving properties. For years, I’ve bucked the diet dictators and recommended butter as a “good fat,” alongside nuts, eggs, fish, coconut, avocados, and certain oils. Butter has been used for centuries. What’s more, 30 percent of the fat from butter is from monounsaturated fat (the same kind that’s in olive oil). The late Mary Enig, Ph.D.—a respected lipid biochemist—pointed out that the fat in butter inhibits the growth of pathogens, and that butter is a source of several kinds of antimicrobial fats, including lauric acid, which disables many pathogenic viruses. In her writings, she also noted that butter has glycolipids, which have anti-infective properties, as well as the aforementioned CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which has anticarcinogenic properties. In her textbook on fat she states: “Butter is definitely a fat with health-potentiating properties.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Ghee is clarified butter, which means it’s basically butter with the milk solids removed (more on this in a moment). But to treat ghee as just a form of butter doesn’t properly acknowledge the fact that this food has been used specifically for its health-giving properties for thousands of years in an honorable and esteemed medical tradition.
Ghee has a long and respected history as a medicinal and healing food in Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine, a tradition that dates back nearly 5,000 years. According to Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., author of Food as Medicine, ghee is highly regarded in yoga nutritional therapy, where it is valued as both a nutrient and a preservative for food and medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is believed to strengthen the ojas, our vital energy cushion at the root of our well-being and immunity.
Remember that in India, the cow is revered as a sacred being. There are no factory farms for cattle in India—all cows are grass fed. Therefore, all the health benefits of grass-fed butter discussed under Butter (shown here), apply completely to ghee. As Amadea Morningstar explains about the cow in her excellent book, Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners, “her milk and her butter, clarified as ghee, are like mother’s milk in Ayurveda, absolutely essential for health and well-being. They must be pure to do this. Many Westerners are concerned that the use of ghee will increase their cholesterol or add unnecessary amounts of fat to their diet. Used within the context of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, this is unlikely to happen.” Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., would agree. In her book, Food and Healing, she says that ghee is one of the three best-quality fats to use.
In Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is believed to help stimulate the healthy flow of fluids throughout the body. It is considered an important rejuvenative tonic for the mind, the brain, and the nervous system. And, because it has all the milk solids removed, it can be used for cooking at higher temperatures. Ayurveda describes ghee as one of the finest cooking oils; it increases “digestive fire,” thereby improving assimilation and enhancing the nutritional value of foods. It also doesn’t go rancid. I keep a container of ghee out on my kitchen counter all the time, unrefrigerated, and dip into it for a spoonful almost every day.
Like butter, ghee contains butyric acid, a fatty acid that has antiviral and anticancer properties and that raises the level of the antiviral chemical interferon in the body.
When it comes to cheese, here’s a good thing to keep in mind: It’s all about the source. Unfortunately, the generic name “cheese” covers a lot of territory. Just as “carbs” include lollipops and cauliflower, the cheese section of the deli is a pretty big umbrella, containing everything from phenomenally wonderful natural cheeses made from the raw and unpasteurized milk of sheep and goats to single-sliced “cheese foods” that bear no resemblance to anything that should ever be put in the human body.
There’s a great deal of diversity among foods labeled cheese, from raw organic milk cheese to Velveta “cheese products.” Sorting out the types and kinds and their origins could fill a book on its own, and if each healthy type were given its own entry, there’d be no room for anything else. So this general introduction to the category will have to suffice.
Cheese falls into four main categories, according to production techniques and maturity: soft, unripened (cottage, ricotta, Neufchâtel); soft, ripened, either mold ripened (blue vein, Brie) or salt cured (feta); firm (Cheddar, Swiss); hard (Parmesan or Pecorino).
Some nutrients that are in all classes of cheese include calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and folate. Natural cheese also has all four fat-soluble vitamins: A, E, K, and D. The mineral content of cheese is influenced by the addition of salt, optional ingredients, the method of coagulation, the treatment of the curd, and the resulting acidity.
French cheeses are especially high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat that has been widely studied for its health benefits. A 1998 survey found that CLA levels in French cheese range from 5.3 to 15.8 mg/g of fat. American cheese from conventional dairies has half this amount. Why? French dairies are more likely to raise their cows on pasture, which results in naturally high levels of CLA.
The benefits of cheese from healthy animals extends beyond CLA. Unpasteurized Camembert is a natural source of probiotic lactobacilli, the very same protective bacteria we find in yogurt and naturally fermented food.
In 2017, a study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology examined the real-life consequences of eating full-fat dairy products, those same ones we’ve been advised against for decades. It basically found… nothing. Study researchers concluded that consuming full-fat versions of cheese, milk, and yogurt didn’t increase the risk of heart attack or stroke a whit.
This follows several similar studies, including one in 2010 that reviewed 16 years of data on more than 1,500 adults to investigate the relationship of dairy consumption to mortality. Disappointingly, there was no consistent association between total dairy intake and mortality. But investigators found that those in the study who had the highest intake of full-fat dairy (about 339 g, or 12 ounces, per day) had a 69 percent reduction in their risk for death from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed the lowest.
Full-fat dairy contains a fat called palimiteric acid that may have a protective effect against diabetes. Palimiteric acid seems to lower the amount of fat produced from carbohydrates in the liver—a driver of metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease. Much of the research on full-fat dairy has been done by cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. In 2016, Mozaffarian and his team published another study of dairy fat in the journal Circulation. “People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes” than people with the least, he told NPR in an interview.
The take-home point? Once again, consider the source. Sheep and goats are less likely to be factory farmed, so their milk and cheese may contain a lot less drugs and antibiotics. Natural, raw milk cheeses—whether from cow’s milk or any other animal—are likely to be richer in healthy fats such as omega-3s and CLA, especially if the animals graze on grass.
Raw, certified organic milk—unpasteurized and unhomogenized—is one of the true health foods on the planet. It’s a wonderful source of protein and calcium, the fat in it is perfectly acceptable, and it tastes absolutely delicious.
Raw milk is loaded with nutrients, including beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Because it isn’t subjected to the high heat of pasteurization, those good bacteria—along with wonderful beneficial enzymes—aren’t destroyed.
Raw milk virtually always comes from grass-fed cows. Milk from grass-fed cows contains higher levels of cancer-fighting CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and will be richer in the full gamut of vitamins and minerals. Vitally important nutrients like vitamins A and D are greatest in milk from cows eating green grass. And the healthy enzymes contained in raw milk help the body assimilate all those great nutrients, including, by the way, calcium. According to Connecticut naturopath Ron Schmid, N.D., author of Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine and The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows and Raw Dairy Products, enzymes are a critical component in recovering from disease and establishing and maintaining health. “I have become more convinced than ever of the value and importance of raw milk in the diets of people of all ages,” says Schmid.
The fat content of the milk from organically raised, grass-fed cows is wholly different than that of their factory-farmed brethren. Studies have shown that the omega-3 fat content of grass-fed, pasture-roaming cows is as high as 50 percent. It’s virtually nonexistent in factory-farmed animals. And research at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) at Aberystwyth, Wales, showed that organic milk contains between 71 percent and a whopping 240 percent more omega-3s than nonorganic milk, plus it has a much better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats than conventional milk. This is probably because the pasture-fed cows graze on a diet rich in red clover silage as well as their natural diet of grasses.
While it’s always possible to become sick from any contaminated food—just read the newspapers—raw milk seems to have been unfairly singled out as a risk. Consider this, from the Weston A. Price Foundation website:
Except for a brief hiatus in 1990, raw milk has always been for sale commercially in California, usually in health food stores, although (there was) a period when it was even sold in grocery stores. Millions of people consumed commercial raw milk during that period and although the health department kept an eagle eye open for any possible evidence of harm, not a single incidence was reported. During the same period, there were many instances of contamination in pasteurized milk, some of which resulted in death.
Raw organic milk is hard to find—see below. But more and more people are turning to small farms and collectives. At this writing, there are nearly forty such farms licensed to sell raw milk in Pennsylvania alone. It’s worth looking for.
Goat’s milk has more easily digestible fat and protein content than cow’s milk. This increased digestibility of the protein is of great importance to infant diets as well as for invalid and convalescent diets. It also has 18 percent more calcium, 41 percent more magnesium, 22 percent more phosphorus, 42 percent more potassium, and almost twice the vitamin A. What it doesn’t have is much folic acid or B12, something to consider if you’re using it for an infant’s diet. And many people who are allergic to cow’s milk do fine with goat’s milk. Plus, it tastes great.
However, the same caveats exist as with cow’s milk. Much of commercial goat’s milk is not only pasteurized but ultrapasteurized. That gives it a ridiculously long shelf life, but unfortunately, according to Ron Schmid, N.D., “turns a great food into something that’s basically useless.”
Camel milk is beginning to be available in the United States. I’ve tried it, and it’s delicious. It is the closest thing to human mother’s milk, and contains higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, and potassium, vitamin A, B2, E and C.
It’s been used medicinally in some cultures for centuries, and research has shown it to be effective in treating diabetes by reducing blood glucose, insulin resistance, and hemoglobin A1C—a long-term measure of blood sugar used to diagnose diabetes.
It also has potential therapeutic effects on the immune response in hepatitis B patients, autoimmune diseases, food allergies in children, and autism.
Camel milk has exactly none of the two components—beta-lactoglobulin and beta casein—which are the main cause of allergy in cow’s milk. In addition, camel milk contains various protective proteins—mainly enzymes that have antibacterial, antiviral, and immunological properties.
Be aware that camel milk is not cheap. (That’s an understatement.)
When I was a kid, I remember hearing stories of long-lived robust mountain people in the plains of Bulgaria who regularly consumed this weird white food that was evidentially the secret to their longevity and health. The food, I later found out, was yogurt, and as far as I was concerned, it tasted horrible. Of course, those were my five-year-old taste buds speaking. Now, decades later, yogurt comes in a zillion varieties including, of course frozen yogurt, and it no longer has to fight for shelf space in the American grocery store—it’s practically become a staple. Whether this is the same food that the robust, rugged centurians of Bulgaria ate is quite another matter. Read on.
As long ago as the turn of the twentieth century, a Russian scientist named Metchnikoff wrote of yogurt’s benefits in his 1908 book The Prolongation of Life. He believed that bacteria in the gut produced toxins that would shorten our life span and promote disease and that the good bacteria in yogurt would displace the bad bacteria and improve our health. More than a century later, abundant research has shown that he was on to something.
According to many experts in health and nutrition, all health begins in the gut, which is, after all, the site of digestion and the absorption of nutrients and is a huge part of the body’s immune system. As Metchnikoff intuited, the gut is the site of a turf war between bad and good bacteria. You can never completely get rid of the bad bugs, but you can balance them with good bacteria and create a healthy environment that promotes digestion, increases immunity, fights against Candida overgrowth (Candida albicans, or yeast, is one of the bad bacteria), and strengthens the immune system.
Yogurt—real yogurt, that is (more about that in a moment)—is a wonderful, rich source of those good bacteria. They’re called probiotics, which literally means “for life.” Because of their critical importance in supporting overall health, and because most people don’t get nearly enough in their diet, many nutritionists consider probiotic supplements to be among the most important supplements a person can take on a daily basis. That’s probably true—however, you can go a long way toward creating a healthy gut environment by consuming foods that are rich in these amazing, health-promoting microorganisms. Which is where yogurt comes in.
First a bit of history and some definitions. The word yogurt (or yoghurt) probably derives from the Turkish adjective meaning “dense and thick.” Yogurt is basically fermented milk. Any milk can be used as a starter—goat’s, sheep’s, or cow’s—but it’s the fermentation of milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid that gives yogurt its texture and tangy taste. Traditionally fermented foods—such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso—are among the healthiest foods in the world. They’re rich in enzymes and other live microorganisms that have a wide array of health benefits.
The yogurt that the hardy centurians in Bulgaria were eating was very rich in a particular bacteria called bulgaricus. Bulgaricus—also known as B. bifidum or bifidobacteria—is part of that larger class of “good” bacteria known as probiotics (see above). Bifidobacterium primarily work their magic in the large intestine, while another probiotic genus—lactobaccili—are found mainly (though not exclusively) in the small intestine. Examples of lactobacilli species are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus plantarum. (David Perlmutter, M.D.—the integrative neurologist and author of Brain Maker—highly recommends that any probiotic supplement you use include Lactobacillus plantarum.)
In any case, it’s the presence of these live cultures that are responsible for the main health benefits of yogurt.
And what a list of health benefits it is. Various members of the Lactobacillus class have been found to support and improve immunity in a number of studies. One Austrian study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism found that daily yogurt consumption had a stimulating effect on cellular immunity in healthy young women. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated that yogurt containing Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria can suppress H. pylori.
The research on gut health has been exploding since the original publication of this book, and talk of the microbiome is everywhere. (The microbiome is the name scientists give to the whole ecosystem of non-human microbes that reside in your gut and on your skin.) The health of the microbiome has been shown to impact obesity, mood, schizophrenia, and autism—and the list continues to grow. Our knowledge of the specifics of probiotic therapy is still in its infancy. We don’t yet know exactly how to use which strains of probiotic bacteria for which purposes. Still, just about everyone in the health space agrees that maintaining healthy gut flora—with food, supplements, or a combination of the two—is of central importance in human health. Eating fermented foods, such as yogurt with real live cultures, is the least controversial and most accepted way to do just that.
All yogurt taking up shelf space in American supermarkets is not created equal. Far from it. There are food products with the word “yogurt” in them that bear absolutely no relationship to real yogurt except for the fact that the letters on the label are the same. Yogurt-covered pretzels? Yogurt raisins? “Yogurt” with 37 g of sugar and “fruit” on the bottom? People, let’s get serious.
For yogurt to have any benefit it has to actually contain real live cultures. The National Yogurt Association (NYA) has developed a “Live and Active Cultures” (LAC) seal for the yogurt label to identify yogurt that contains significant levels of live and active cultures. Be aware that a label stating “made with active cultures” does not mean the same as the LAC label. All yogurt starts with active cultures—the question is whether any remain after the processing. The LAC label means that the yogurt contains at least 100 million cultures per gram of yogurt at the time of manufacture and after pasteurization.
Some yogurt products may indeed have live cultures but not happen to carry the LAC seal. To determine whether the yogurt you buy contains living bacteria, check the labels for “active yogurt cultures,” “living yogurt cultures,” or “contains active cultures.” Two brands that contain live cultures are Stonybrook Farms and Dannon (plain). Remember, don’t be fooled by the words “made with active cultures.” All yogurts are made with live cultures, but no live cultures survive heat treatment.
The best nutritional deal is plain yogurt, which has only two ingredients: live cultures and milk (whole, low-fat, or skim). The longer the ingredients list, the more calories and the less nutrition. Certain highly sweetened yogurt have more calories in the sweetener than in the yogurt. Read the protein and sugar values on the nutrition panel. The higher the protein and the lower the sugar content, the more actual yogurt you’re getting in the container.
The NYA has been urging the FDA not to allow products that do not contain live and active cultures to be called yogurt. The LAC label ensures consumers that the healthful properties of the organisms are present at the time they eat the yogurt, not just at the time of manufacturing.
Besides live cultures, yogurt is also a good source of protein and a great source of calcium and potassium. Depending on brand and type, it also has some B vitamins and a little of the important cancer-fighting mineral selenium.
Remember, live yogurt culture contains enzymes that break down lactose, so many individuals who are otherwise lactose intolerant find that they can enjoy yogurt with no problems.
One more thing: In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not a fan of no-fat foods, and that certainly includes yogurt. Many vitamins and minerals—including calcium—are better absorbed with some fat. As I’ve pointed out many times, if the total number of calories in your diet does not exceed what you need, the percentage of calories from fat is of no real importance, provided it’s not damaged fat like that found in fried foods, or horrible fat like trans fats. Yogurt with some fat in it fills you up; it is much more satisfying than the no-fat kind; and, it generally contains a lot less sugar to boot. If you’re still squeamish about the fat, at least go for low fat rather than no fat.
Some of the types of yogurt available include:
• Bulgarian yogurt. Known for its specific taste, Bulgarian yogurt contains the important probiotic Lactobacillus bulgaricus.
• Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is made the same way regular yogurt is made, but strained an extra time or two, removing some of the whey and leaving a more concentrated, higher-protein yogurt (see box). The traditional Greek tzatziki sauce is made from yogurt, cucumber, and garlic.
• Lassi is a yogurt-based beverage that originated in India and comes in two varieties: salty and sweet. The salty kind is usually flavored with the wonderful spices cumin and chile peppers; the sweet kind often has fruit juice.
• Kefir is another traditionally fermented milk drink sometimes billed as “drinkable yogurt.”
• Goat’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurt have the properties of the milk they were made from; they’re definitely worth trying as well.
Stephen Sinatra is a board-certified cardiologist, a certified bioenergetic psychotherapist, and a certified nutrition and antiaging specialist. Sinatra integrates conventional medicine with complementary, nutritional, and psychological therapies that help heal the heart. In my opinion, his classic Heart Sense for Women should be required reading. He and I coauthored The Great Cholesterol Myth.
Sinatra couldn’t choose among his top twelve, so I let him list all twelve! All foods listed below are organic, natural, wild, or free range. These are the foods that he eats in everyday life.
1. Asparagus: These are loaded with folic acid, vitamin C, and are glutathione precursors.
2. Avocado: This contains lots of vitamin E, glutathione, and monounsaturated fat that doesn’t require an insulin response.
3. Onions: Slice raw onions on salad. They contain many important flavonoids, especially quercetin, which supports the immune system, improves prostate health, and it is perhaps the major nutrient responsible for the “French Paradox” (shown here).
4. Spinach: Spinach contains lutein, which helps prevent macular degeneration and is instrumental in both lung and heart health. It is also one of the best sources of calcium.
5. Wild blueberries: Blueberries contain flavonoids that not only improve the macula and retina of the eye, but also help neurons in the brain communicate with one another.
6. Pomegranate juice: Pomegranate is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to assist in plaque regression in both the carotid arteries and the heart.
7. Free-range buffalo: This is an outstanding source of protein with minimal saturated fat. No hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals are added. Grass-fed buffalo also contains precious omega-3s.
8. Wild Alaskan salmon: This is an outstanding protein source with the vital carotenoid called astaxanthin. This carotenoid prevents lipid peroxidation and assists in mending DNA breakdown products. It is seventeen times more powerful than pycnogenol and fifty times more powerful than vitamin E. It is the carotenoid that gives salmon its orange color.
9. Broccoli: This vegetable contains sulfur compounds that assist in detoxifying the body. It is a major source of cancer-preventing compounds, such as sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol. Steamed with fresh garlic and olive oil, broccoli is a heart saver.
10. Almonds: Great monounsaturated fat containing precious gamma-tocopherol, a vital nutrient that neutralizes the perioxynitrite radical, a dangerous free radical that causes destruction to cellular endothelial membranes.
11. Seaweed: This contains all fifty-six minerals and especially natural iodine, which are needed for the thyroid gland. Magnesium, chlorophyll, and alginates are also vital for optimum health.
12. Garlic: Whole baked garlic cloves not only help blood pressure and cholesterol, but help detoxify the body from heavy metals, especially mercury and cadmium. Garlic was used during World War II as Russian penicillin, as it also neutralizes dozens of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It is a perfect nutraceutical.