Monday, July 9, 2012

No stomach for pricey probiotics

A FRIEND who had been grappling with constipation was bursting with joy when we met up for dinner recently. He was all smiles the minute he stepped into the Chinese restaurant at Sentul Raya. He even suggested that we order the Szechuan steamed stingray, a dish he used to avoid because the black pepper would worsen his constipation.

When I asked him what had relieved him from his chronic ill, he said it was probiotics. He found out about the friendly gut bacteria at a health fair in Singapore recently.

Not only is his bowel movement now regular, even his eczema was gone, he said.

Now a probiotics evangelist, my friend actively encourages his family to go on probiotics-rich diet. That evening, he did not only explained the benefits of probiotics to me, he even gave me a list of brands to check out.

I told him that I had been taking probiotics for many years but mine did not come with fancy names nor were they imported. Mine is commonly known by it Indian name -- tairu, the plain yogurt even non-Indians can learn to make in their kitchen.

I learnt how to make yogurt years ago after Indian friends told me that tairu (creamy yogurt) or moru (the liquid counterpart) taken with a dash of salt, was not only good for the gut but also fantastic for dispelling heatiness.

I was also told that yogurt was frequently added to Indian dishes.

However, I learnt about the health benefits of lactobacillus, the good bacteria present in yogurt, way back in the early 1980s. Now I make a kilo every few days for my youngest daughter. She started taking it six months ago when I told her it would help heal mouth ulcers. I had learnt that from a book by Adele Davis, a nutritionist who pioneered the concept of eating right to keep fit.

Four decades ago, who had heard of probiotics? Or used it to keep constipation at bay? Those days, if one is constipated, doctors usually recommended laxatives, one of which is Brooklax. It looks like a small piece of Cadbury chocolate. Take it at bedtime and you will find fast relief in the morning.

Even the commercially-available cultured milk drink had yet to make its appearance back then. I remember how much trouble the salesmen had trying to explain why the lactobacillus bacteria was good for the gut to the less-educated shopper.

Those days, however, most people were already eating healthy traditional foods that contained generous amounts of good bacteria. If you recall, the Chinese have their lum yee (fermented beancurd), hak tau see (fermented black beans), phei tan (century egg) and preserved ginger.

The Malays made tapai (fermented tapioca or glutinous rice) and tempe (fermented soyabean cakes), in addition to pekasam (fermented fish).

Most Indian families made their own yogurt long before commercial ones appeared on the shelves.

Today taking probiotics have become a fad. Those who swear by it, like my friend, tell me that good probiotics should contain live cultures. The capsules have to be kept refrigerated and taken on the long-term before the effects are seen or felt. They also don't come cheap.

The way I see it, if we could just look back at what our forefathers ate and put those "peasant foods" on our table, we certainly don't need to stomach the marketing hype or be constipated paying through our noses for commercial probiotics.

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