The SA Yoghurt in Nutrition Initiative launched the 1st Yoghurt Summit in South Africa in Johannesburg recently, with the mission of providing unbiased scientific data regarding the nutritional impact of yoghurt. Regular yoghurt consumption may be linked to numerous health and nutritional benefits, as outlined by the guest speakers.
According to Dr Ruairi Robertson, from Queen Mary University Hospital, London, the human intestinal tract harbours a complex microbial community which plays a central role in human health. It has been esti¬mated that we are more bacterial cells than we are human cells. It is now apparent that our gut microbiome coevolves with us and that the right diet has a positive effect on creating diversity of the bacteria in the gut.
The modern Western diet, however, is destroying this microbe-man relationship. Intriguingly, these may have negative outcomes on the many physical and biochemical connections between the gut microbiome and the central nervous system. For example, the vagus nerve carries information from the gut to the brain. Furthermore, a large proportion of serotonin is produced in the intestines – our gut. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the “feel good” chemical because of its ability to impact mood, anxiety and happiness, among other functions. Therefore, feed the gut, feed the body, feed the brain.
Robertson described that interest in yoghurt and the gut was started by the immunologist, Élie Metchnikoff. Metchnikoff studied a group of people in Bulgaria who were living exceptionally long lives and he noted that their diet included the consumption of large quantities of sour milk. Although this observation was purely associative, Metchnikov subsequently began research to examine how maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, through diet and other means, could help stave off disease and prolong life.
Professor Harry Sokol, a gastroenterologist from Saint Antoine, France, described that during a vaginal delivery the microbes in the mother’s birth canal helps to build the immune system. This can help babies to better digest breast milk and solid foods. Each person has his or her very own composition of gut microbiota like a unique fingerprint. It’s critical to care for the gut because it plays a key role for important body functions including metabolism (the utilisation of foods by the body), building the immune system and even brain function.
He explained the concept of dysbiosis (alteration of gut microbiota composition or functions) and how it can be related to many environmental factors including bad eating habits. Dysbiosis is involved in many intestinal and extra-intestinal diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and neuropsychiatric diseases.
Dr Friede Wenhold, from the department of nutrition, University of Pretoria, expressed concern that, according to a recent study, it was found that South African nutritionists and dietitians do not consume the recommended 2-3 servings of dairy every day. Nutrition professionals, as agents of change in dietary behaviour should set examples for their patients to fulfil the South African food-based dietary recommendations of “Have milk, maas or yoghurt daily”. Maas or amasi, a traditional food in South Africa, is a fermented dairy and provides benefits to the gut.
Professor Yanga Zembe, a socio-anthropologist from the Institute of Social Development, University of the Western Cape, emphasised that eating well is not simple. Most people have intentions to eat well but they are strongly influenced by their culture and psychosocial needs. All of these factors complicates the decision making process. For example, although eating maas and bread or pap is a better option than a take-out meal, eating maas is associated with the days that were linked to hardship or is “non-modern”.
The challenge for health practitioners trying to make people eat healthier is to acknowledge these tensions and complexities and strive to adapt eating patterns rather than trying to change them. For example, provide ideas on how to make maas part of the modern way of eating.
Monique Piderit, registered dietitian and panel member of the South African Yoghurt Advisory Panel recommends that maas can be added over cooked chicken, as a cold sauce, mixed with mayonnaise or eaten traditionally with brown bread, cooked cabbage and beans. This combination will provide live cultures and fibre, food components that together promote a good gut bacterial diversity.