What You Need to Know Before Buying Your Next Bottle of Olive Oil, Olive Oil Fraud, and Israeli Olive Oils

Old olive oil press

This post has been updated as of December 2017. It had been part 2 of a 3 part series about choosing healthy oils. Each post now stands on its own. In what had been the first part, Choosing Healthy Fats and Oils: What you need to know, I explained that according to our biochemistry we need to consume  monounsaturated fats like olive oil and saturated animal and  tropical fats  – coconut and palm oils – and some naturally occurring polyunsaturated oil.  As demonstrated by the “Israeli Paradox, the polyunsaturated vegetable oils we are told to use, almost exclusively, are actually detrimental to our health. I also discussed the health benefits inherent in extra virgin olive oil including why olive oil and/or saturated fat is necessary in order to obtain the full nutritional value of your salads. What had been part 3 is all about coconut oil. 

Olive Oil Fraud, Health, and Kashrut Concerns

Ancient olive press

Ancient olive oil production

Just as harvesting quality grapes and producing wine is a complex operation, so too is the harvesting of olives and production of good quality olive oil to ensure that the oil tastes good and contains optimal nutritional components. Unfortunately the olive oil industry is fraught with deception and fraud. Often times soy oil or nut oils are substituted for olive oil with coloring and a small amount of olive oil added for taste, or low quality olive oil is deodorized and mixed with a bit of extra virgin olive oil for taste. Even thousands of years ago, olive oil fraud was a problem! In fact, the Romans clearly labeled each bottle of olive oil, noting the quality of the oil and origin and sealing, it as a guarantee of authenticity and quality when it reached its destination.

The Israeli Health Ministry repeatedly warns about problems in Israel  with companies selling sub-par olive oil or substituting with seed oils and selling them as olive oil. See their latest one here. The Israeli Rabbinate has issued notices about fraudulent kosher certification on olive oils as recently as last year.

Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff, of Yeshiva Beit El, wrote a very interesting article entitled Olive Oil Concerns in which he reviews the use of olive oil in the Beit Hamikdash, methods of pressing the olives, health benefits of olive oil, and concerns about olive oil adulteration not only today, but also as discussed in the Gemara and by the Rama over a thousand years later. In his article, Rabbi Kaganoff discusses the important differences in standards that kashrut agencies employ today to guard against the possibility of olive oil adulteration. And he very astutely concludes that “this information is highly useful not only from a kashrus perspective, but also from the perspective of someone purchasing extra virgin or virgin olive oil who wants a guarantee that they are getting the health benefits they are paying for.”

What to Look for When Buying Olive Oil

You do not have to remain at the mercy of the bottlers; if you know what to look for when purchasing olive oil you can be pretty sure that what you are getting is the real thing. If you would like to become a real olive oil aficionado, you can learn to sip different olive oils to detect their qualities in a manner very similarly to how one tastes wine. Since this is not practical for most of us, here is what to look for

In the store:

  • Oil should come in dark glass bottles to protect against light.
  • Don’t worry about color. Good oils come in all shades, from green to gold to pale straw.
  • Buy oil labelled “extra virgin” (in Israel look for שמן זית כתית מעולה – shemen zayit katit meula), since other categories have undergone chemical refinement, lost many of their health benefits, and may contain traces of chemicals and other contaminants.
  • If you see olive oil labeled as “pomace oil” steer clear of it. It is basically (to put it bluntly) re-purposed waste from the olive oil refining process. It may sound fancy, but it is not.
  • The acidity (חוּמצִיוּת – chumtziut) content on the label is also an indication of quality – the lower the better. Anything over 0.8% is lacking in quality; however, even that percentage is considered too high. In Israel olive oils that have acidity greater than 0.8% are considered virgin, not extra virgin.
  • Try to buy oils only from this year’s harvest – look for bottles with a date of harvest. Otherwise, look at the “best by” date which should be not more than two years after an oil was bottled (but even that may be too long since there is no way of knowing how long the oil sat till it was bottled).
  • Buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly.

At home:

  • The flavor and aroma of extra virgin oils have a marked fruitiness reminiscent of fresh olives and some level of bitterness and pepperiness. Good quality oil will have a pleasant taste and clean sensation and you should feel a “burn” at the back of your throat when you’ve swallowed the oil plain (neat).
  • If you put some olive oil on your skin and the smell does not go away after a few minutes then it is not olive oil.
  • Contrary to popular belief, putting the oil in the refrigerator to see if it hardens is not an indication of whether or not it is truly olive oil. Read why here.

Tom Mueller, in his book  Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (both an entertaining and eye-opening read) explains that

… the oil’s healthful properties are directly proportional to the strength of its flavors, aromas, and other sensory characteristics. If an oil doesn’t sting at the back of the throat, it contains little or no oleocanthal (an anti-inflammatory). If it isn’t bitter, it’s low in tocopherol (vitamin E – which would also help prevent the bottled oil from oxidizing) and squalene. If it isn’t velvety in texture then it’s missing hydroxtyrosol.

Back of olive oil bottle showing awards on top and Seal of Authenticity below

Note the seals showing the awards above and the olive leaf Seal of Quality below on this bottle of Israeli olive oil.

Quality olive oil is not inexpensive, but you are buying a product with significant health benefits that has been carefully harvested and processed.

The Israeli consumer can find many award-winning Israeli olive oils (not necessarily organic) that are reasonably priced. Oils that have received an award from the  TERRAOLIVO   International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition have a round seal with a pitcher on the label with the year awarded or multiple seals if they’ve won in more than one year.

Many Israeli  olive oils also have a a Seal of Quality (תו איכות – tav aychut) from the Israel Olive Board, shaped as an oil droplet, which includes a unique number on the bottom.

The quality mark for Israeli olive oil is a voluntary quality standard, the rules of which are accepted by the participants. The label is a registered trademark and is subject to the Israeli standard for olive oil… and today it is used by more than 100 growers and manufacturers.
                                                                                                                   (Translated from the Hebrew.)

Seal of quality from defunct oilve council

Seal of quality from the defunct Olive Council.

Previously, the defunct Israel Olive Council provided a similar certification. Their stickers, like the one to the left, if found on bottles of olive oil today, are fraudulent.

A major concern when buying uncertified Israeli olive oil is that it may contain mostly foreign oil. As explained in this HaAretz article,  Israeli companies are allowed to market their olive oil as Israeli if at least 35% of the production costs originate in Israel. This means that olive oil bottled and sold as Israeli olive oil can really be mostly foreign oil. Legal fraud or just misleading? Olive oils bearing the Certificate of Quality must be 100% Israeli oil from a certified grower or distributor.

It pays to bear in mind, however, that there are many excellent Israeli olive oils that do not have this voluntary seal. If you are interested in using one without a quality or award seal, then it’s best to peruse their website or call them up for information, in order to determine the integrity of their products. And while you may also find excellent olive oils imported from other countries, unlike wine that improves with age, olive oil starts degrading after it’s produced. Therefore, quality oil produced and bottled in your own country will most likely be fresher and retain more of its health/nutritional components than oil that sat in a tanker as it made its way from foreign shores.

One caveat: Olive oil should not be the only oil or fat used since we also need the nutrients found exclusively in animal fats; too much monounsaturated fat without a balance of saturated fats can cause health problems.

No-Mayo Coleslaw with Olive Oil

Try out this great recipe for coleslaw prepared by food blogger Marc Matsumoto who explains why he prefers his coleslaw without mayo:

I’m not a big fan of traditional coleslaw. Call me crazy, but I really don’t get the appeal of raw cabbage swimming in mayonnaise soup. That’s why I make my coleslaw without mayonnaise.

Instead, I use lemon juice, a little honey and generous dose of olive oil. The latter two ingredients add depth, while smoothing out some of the sharp edges of the lemon juice. Not only is it healthier, it makes for a light, citrusy contrast to the foods of summer, be it an unctuous rack of barbecued ribs, or a greasy leg of fried chicken.

My suggestions: You can substitute white wine vinegar or fresh lime juice  for the lemon juice, if you prefer. I buy organic limes when in season, squeeze the juice, freeze in an ice-cube tray, and then store in a baggy. If using vinegar I would recommend adjusting the proportions to start, so that you have about 1/4 the amount of vinegar as oil. Not only is this healthier than using mayo made from GMO soy oil, it tastes great, and you avoid the  risk of spoilage that coleslaw with mayonnaise has. You can also use this as a starting point and get creative. We enjoy it so much that it actually disappears very quickly.


  • 1/4 small red cabbage
  • 1/2 small green cabbage
  • 1/2 carrot, shredded
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Remove any tough outer leaves from the cabbage.
  2. Trim the core and any tough stems from the cabbage and thinly slice.
  3. Add to a bowl with the shredded carrot, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt and black pepper. Toss to combine.
  4. Serve this right away for more of a salad, or store it in the fridge overnight for a slaw that’s more pickled.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Garlic Oil

I would also like to thank our dear friends Shoshana and Scott for introducing us to Garlic Oil at their Shabbos table. Since then we have been enjoying olive oil with chopped garlic in it on our challah.  Very often it’s actually olive oil in our chopped garlic!  (Of course, it’s enjoyable during the week, too.) Much better and healthier than the garlic bread I used to make or buy (many years ago) with powdered garlic.

To your health!

Click here for Part 1
Click here for Part 3

Resources and additional information:

Cover Image of Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil









Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
by Tom Mueller

How to Buy Great Olive Oil
Olive Oil Times
19 Olive Oil Brands Certified for Purity and Quality (North America)
The World’s Best Olive Oils 2017: The winners of the New York International Olive Oil Competition

Posted in Fats and Oils, Food, Recipes Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

Fish heads for Rosh Hashanah? Make super-nutritious fish soup

Drawing of a fish

Fish drawing

One of the customs of the first night of Rosh Hashanah is to eat a number of foods that symbolically represent our concerns and hopes for a good judgment for the upcoming year. Among these foods is the head of a fish (or sheep) over which we say a short prayer before eating it, asking that we be the head and not the tail. So I thought that it might be helpful to have a fish soup recipe made with the heads of fish. (You can also use the rest of the skeleton but on Rosh Hashanah you really want just the head!)

If you are going to buy whole fresh fish for the holiday be sure to ask for the heads (intact, not cleaned out) for which you are paying anyway. (Learn how to buy fresh fish in Israel here.) A little while ago I had gone into the fish store and the woman ahead of me was buying several fresh fish but did not want the heads even though she was paying for them with the purchase of the entire fish. I asked for them and got about 8 heads (for free with the woman’s agreement) that I made into nourishing fish soup. (Non-fatty fish is said to be best for fish stock.) When the bones are allowed to simmer for a few hours, especially with the addition of an acidic liquid to help draw out the calcium better, the stock becomes a veritable gold mine of nutrition and a great boost to health.

In fact, fish stock is said to be the most nutritious of all the bone broths. According to a South American proverb: “Fish broth will cure anything”. Stock contains minerals and trace minerals in a form that is easily usable by the body and fish stock in particular since it also contains iodine when made from heads; iodine is necessary for proper thyroid function. The breakdown of cartilage and tendons yields nutrients like chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, important for joint health. And when the broth cools and gels that is because of the presence of gelatin which has been acclaimed to be a most nutritious food, important for digestive health, a protein sparer (making it a good way to make a meal from just a little meat), and useful in the treatment of many ailments.

Here’s how I make the fish stock and soup:


Into an 8 quart stock pot:

  • Place at least 3-5 fish heads depending upon size (also skeleton if not for Rosh Hashanah); 2 heads if the heads are very large. I like there to be enough to more than cover the bottom of the pot.
  • Fill the pot with filtered water to about 1 – 1 ½ inches from the top.
  • Add Apple Cider Vinegar (about ½ cup) to help leach the calcium and other minerals from the bones. My family doesn’t like the vinegar taste so I either use white wine which is also acidic, or nothing.
  • Let the water come to a gentle boil and skim off the scum that forms on top.
  • After the scum is removed, lower the fire so that it just simmers, and let it cook for about 4 hours.
  • When the stock is finished, remove the heads and take off the meat from the bones. Remove the heads one at a time to work on. Once out of the soup the bones fall apart and it makes it very tedious to remove the meat. This is especially true if you are not going to remove the meat right away. Leave the fish in the stock until you are ready to remove the meat.
  • I put the meat back into the soup. Very often I have more meat than I want in the soup so I freeze some of it and put it into additional batches of soup when using up the frozen stock or to make more fish soup after the stock is finished.

Vintage drawing cooking soupSoup (one version, feel free to experiment):


  • Olive oil (Learn more about choosing olive oil here.)
  • 2 large onions
  • Sea salt
  • Parsley  (fresh or dried)
  • Oregano (fresh or dried)
  • Dill (fresh or dried)
  • Other herbs and spices according to your taste (optional)
  • 2 to 3 large tomatoes
  • 2 large zucchini
  • 2 cloves of garlic (or to taste) minced or chopped (Learn about choosing garlic here.)
  • Coconut milk/cream (optional) (Learn more about buying coconut milk/cream here.)
  • Fish meat that was removed from the bones.
  • Sea Salt

To prepare:

  • Sautee the onions in olive oil until soft and sweet. Add some sea salt to help break down the cell walls to extract water and flavor.
  • Add the herbs and spices (except for the garlic) and let cook for a few minutes until soft
  • Add tomatoes and zucchini and let cook till soft
  • Add the garlic – do not cook for more than 20 minutes or you will lose some of the garlic’s nutritive value. Or, you can add the garlic after you’ve finished cooking the soup.
  • When finished add the vegetables to the stock
  • Add about a cup of the fish meat you took off the bones to the stock as well
  • If you like you can add coconut milk. I generally use about half a can, but the amount depends on your taste (and how much room is left in the pot).
  • Add sea salt to taste
  • Take a hand blender and blend the soup. I like to make sure everything is chopped up, but you may like to leave some larger pieces as well.

Note: Any bones left in the fish meat will fall to the bottom

If you do not want to make the entire pot of stock into soup, you can freeze some of the stock, and have it at hand when you are ready to make the next batch of soup.

Have a Happy & Healthy New Year

References and resources:

Broth is Beautiful
The Secret of Fish Stock
How to Make Homemade Fish Broth or Stock (+ Video)

Related Articles:

Cognitive performance among the elderly and dietary fish intake: the Hordaland Health Study



Posted in Blog, Food, Nutrition, Recipes, Rosh Hashanah, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

Amazing Pomegranates: Rosh Hashanah Specialty, Nutritional Powerhouse

Painting of Pomegranates by Leah Laker

Painting of Pomegranates by Leah LakerRimonim/Pomegranates – Painting by Leah Laker

Your lips are like a thread of scarlet, your speech is beautiful.
Your cheeks are like a piece of pomegranate from behind your veil.

                                                                          Song of Songs 4:3

The Pomegranate – special to Israel and an Israeli specialty

The pomegranate (רימון – rimon) is one of the seven species (שבעת המינים – shivat haminim) identified in the Torah (Deut. 8.8)  with which the Land of Israel is blessed and which were staple foods in Israel during biblical times (the others being wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey). The pomegranate, found growing in gardens and sold in stores all over Israel, is immensely enjoyed fresh when in season, and as juice during the whole year. (Be sure to get only pure, non-sweetened juice, preferably unpasteurized. If you juice your own you will be sure to preserve all the health benefits since it won’t be pasteurized.) And best of all, it is a nutritional powerhouse.

Growing up in the Northeast United States, the pomegranate was a novelty for me. Its foremost purpose was to be the “new fruit”, a fruit not eaten since the beginning of its growing season, that we enjoyed on the second night of Rosh Hashanah when the blessing of Shehecheyanu was said. Truth be told, I was rather disappointed with it; it was a messy, hard to eat fruit that squirted you with red liquid when you tried to suck the juice out of the arils, those clear sacks filled with red liquid surrounding a pit, which you of course spit out. After all, who eats pits?

Seemingly more prevalent in Israel than in the United States, is the custom of eating special, symbolic foods on the first night of Rosh Hashana (some eat them both nights) as signs of a blessed new year. Apple in honey, Pomegranate, and GrapesWhile in the States we always dipped the apple in honey for a sweet new year, and some people may have eaten the head of a fish as a sign that we should be the head and not the tail, most Ashkenazim didn’t do much more. In Israel, the custom to eat about 10 special foods at the start of the meal with special blessings for each is much more common, even among Ashkenazim. The pomegranate is one of these symbolic foods and the blessing we say expresses the wish that our merits should be plentiful like (the seeds of) a pomegranate. The pomegranate, for the majority of Israelis, is not a “new fruit”!

Physical and spiritual health benefits of pomegranates

When we first moved to Israel, I was amazed to see pomegranates growing in people’s gardens; it took a while till I began to eat them in salads, pits and all. It was a few years later, however, when I read the Mishpacha Magazine article, 7 on Seven Ruby Bottles of Mitzvos, about a group of Jewish women in the UK who prepare pomegranate juice for people undergoing chemotherapy, that my perspective changed and I began to really appreciate them and anticipate their seasonal appearance in the stores.

I was amazed by the tremendous health benefits the article attributed to the pomegranate. This anecdote in particular wowed me:

When her close relative … was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, Ita Rivka was dismayed by the debilitating effects of chemotherapy on his body. Treatment left him weakened, with a fragile immune system and skin stained a pallid yellow. When she heard about the benefits of pomegranates, especially for cancer patients, Ita Rivka requested juice from a London pomegranate juice gemach. Moshe drank two bottles. Within two days, he said he “felt amazing.”

Indeed, GreenMedInfo.com – a popular health website with a database of research and articles, gleaned from mainstream medical journals – describes pomegranates as having over one hundred recorded health benefits!

Pomegranates help with everything from fighting serious viral and bacterial infections to reducing oxidative stress, from inducing programmed cell death in a variety of cancer cells to protecting the skin from photo-aging.

Especially noteworthy is the pomegranate’s ability to support the ovaries as a natural form of ‘hormone replacement therapy,’ especially as one gets older, and its ability to reverse plaque build-up in the arteries (atherosclerosis) – a condition which underlies heart disease. In addition, it has been found that pomegranate can also help Type 2 diabetics.

Pomegranates have also been associated with increasing fertility, helping improve fertility, and benefiting  individuals participating in performance sports.

Pomegranate juice has very high levels of many antioxidants, as well as high levels of Vitamins C & E, folate, potassium, Vitamin K, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and more flavonoids and polyphenols than grapes. According to some scientific research, pomegranate juice raises hemoglobin levels, boosts iron, improves heart health, aids the digestive system, and may fight cancer.

The Weston Price Foundation’s article, Who Needs Soda Pop with these Bodacious Beverages, suggests several ways to enjoy the juice, including fermenting the juice or peels for a delightful beverage, which would make the pomegranate’s already robust health profile even more so.

And, since pomegranate pits are high in fiber, even the pits are good for you.

Pomegranate growingAnother rich source of information about the pomegranate and its importance to both health and Judaic ritual is the wonderful book The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel: With their Mystical and Medicinal Properties, by Chana Bracha Siegelbaum. It is filled with medical and spiritual aspects and recipes related to the Seven Species. Three interesting things I learned about the pomegranate (among many others) are:

  1. In Chinese medicine the peel, bark, and root of the pomegranate are used for healing purposes! (p. 234)
  2. The pomegranate develops from a flower that has the shape of the Star of David, which then takes on the shape of a crown as the fruit grows. In Hebrew the Star of David is known as a Magen David – Shield of David. The pomegranate boosts our immune system and shields us from illness. (p.235)
  3. The crown (כֶּתֶר – keter) of the pomegranate is compared to the Sefira Keter, the highest of the Ten Sefirot or Divine emanations. Keter is the manifestation of our true willpower and a reflection of the Divine will. When we are in touch with our true Divine will then our immune system is strengthened to fight our opponents. (p. 235)

You can remove the pomegranate’s arils without making a mess!

The easiest way to deseed a pomegranate is to score it several times  from top to bottom with a sharp knife, being careful to cut through the peel only, so that you have formed several sections. Cut off the top of the pomegranate to reveal the seeds and throw away the top. Pull the pomegranate apart in sections following the sections defined by the white membrane. You can then turn the pomegranate sections over a bowl, one by one, pull away the membrane and let the seeds drop into the bowl.

Alternatively, cut the pomegranate in half across its equator, turn it over a bowl and bang it with a wooden spoon. The seeds should fall out easily.

If you have more than you need at the time, simply store them in the refrigerator or freezer if you will not be using them shortly.

Whether you are having your pomegranate for a “ new fruit” or one of the simanim this coming Rosh Hashana, you can be sure that you are reaping tremendous blessings – both spiritual and physical.



The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel book coverThe Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel
with their Mystical & Medicinal Properties

by Chana Bracha Siegelbaum






Posted in Food, Health and Wellness, Israel, Natural Health, Nutrition, Rosh Hashanah, Women's Health Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Why Some Israeli Yogurts Aren’t Really Yogurt

There was a surprise in store for me when I scrutinized the yogurt (יוֹגוּרט – yogurt) container.  What I discovered might surprise you, too.

In the United States in the late ’70s, Dannon yogurt featured commercials extolling the longevity of Soviet Georgians who ate plenty of yogurt. The takeaway, of course, was that if you eat yogurt you will be enhancing your longevity. These commercials helped to propel the growth of the yogurt industry in the USA.

Whether or not eating yogurt regularly is the main reason that these people were purported to live long and healthy lives, yogurt, a fermented food, is supposed to be rich in probiotics; probiotics are important components of healthy gut flora and critical for both physical and mental health. Several European countries include yogurt or beneficial microbes in their dietary guidelines. In fact “…”yoghurt” was defined in 1925 and specifies a typical milk fermented with Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus.”[1] Most people I know also associate yogurt with probiotics and consume yogurt with that intention or expectation.

When I went food shopping after we first made aliyah, I noticed that there was yogurt and there was bio (pronounced beeyo by Israelis) yogurt. I had never seen yogurt labeled as bio yogurt in the States. Not considering that there might be a real difference between the two that would actually matter to me, I never checked it out. And while we preferred the goat and sheep yogurt sold in the Organic Market near us (which happened to be bio), since even the yogurts sold in the health food store were not organic, we also bought other plain, unflavored sheep yogurt (יוגורט כבשים – yogurt cvasim), goat yogurt (יוגורט עיזים – yogurt eezeem), and cow yogurt (generally just labeled as yogurt).

This all ended the other day, however. I was looking at the ingredients (רכיבים – richivim) on the container of yogurt we had in the house and I realized, that aside from milk, there were no other ingredients listed. Having noticed on occasion the inclusion of probiotics in the ingredients of other yogurts, I called the company to inquire. And that’s how I learned that (at least in Israel) if it’s not bio yogurt and lists probiotics as an ingredient, it has no probiotics in it! In other words, if it’s not bio yogurt, then by definition, it is not yogurt.

While the websites of some commercial brands of yogurt sold in Israel don’t say which probiotics are contained in their bio yogurts, the website for Halav Haaretz, the brand of sheep and goat bio yogurts that we buy in the health food (and other) stores, lists as their probiotics the two strains of bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus, which are included in the definition of yogurt above.

Yogurt containers showing ingredients

Note the difference in ingredients:  the blue container only lists sheep milk (חלב כבשים) while the green and white container lists both sheep milk and probiotic bacteria (חיידקי יוגורט). 

I’m done with the fake yogurts – are you?

[1] Probiotics in dietary guidelines and clinical recommendations outside the European Union 

Related Articles:
Are Your Gut Microflora Doing the Happy Dance?

Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus Thermophilus Yogurt Benefits

Posted in Blog, Food, Gut Health, Nutrition, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Are Your Gut Microflora Doing the Happy Dance?

cartoon of bacteria

cartoon of bacteria

Did you know that inside your intestinal walls is a humongous community of microflora that largely determines your health? It’s true. While we think that the food we eat is just for us, we are really feeding a whole little world inside our guts that impacts our physical and mental health!

I was recently watching several of the online Microbiome Medicine Summit presentations where a number of different medical and holistic practitioners discussed the gut microbiome over a series of days. While I knew that the bacteria that reside in our gut are critical to our health and mental well being I was surprised to learn that in addition to bacteria, there are lesser populations of fungi, viruses, and protozoa residing in our intestinal tract which also play important roles in promoting good health. Together these form the gut microbiota and their genes form the gut microbiome. It’s not just our genes that inform our health and well-being but, perhaps more importantly, the genes of the 10-100 trillion microbiota that reside in our intestinal tract.

I also learned that while the human genome is about 99% identical among individuals, 95% of gut microbiota varies depending on the individual’s geographic location. Through further research I discovered that, in general, there is also an 80-90% variation in the gut microbiota among individuals, [1] and that while the composition of the gut microbiota is largely influenced by diet, these microbes are interdependent, influencing the predominance and/or activity of others and, collectively, our health.[2]

Understanding the role of our microbiome, which is almost like another body organ, and keeping it in good shape are, therefore, very important keys to health and longevity. Although researchers are beginning to study other microbiota in depth, currently, it is the bacteria with which we are most familiar and have the most information.

Bacteria can be either helpful or harmful. Depending on a variety of factors, we may colonize more or less of different types. Beneficial bacteria prevent detrimental bacteria from proliferating; are instrumental in the breakdown/digestion of our foods and turning their components into products our body can use; produce numerous vitamins, amino acids, and other active substances; support our immune system; and have a major impact on our moods and mental health. You might be surprised to learn that almost 90% of the “feel good” brain neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut and that bacteria are critical to sufficient production.[3]

Beneficial bacteria are introduced to a baby’s system as it travels down the birth canal and in the breast milk it drinks (there are bacteria in both) in order to populate his/her gut with balanced, healthy flora that should ideally last a lifetime. (Some formula manufacturers have begun adding probiotics to their formulas.)

Unfortunately, a number of different factors negatively affect gut flora, causing detrimental bacteria to proliferate or a reduction in the number and diversity of bacteria, resulting in improper or incomplete breakdown of foods, autoimmunity, inflammation, cancer, and unwanted psychological and behavioral symptoms.

Many of us take probiotics during and after a course of antibiotics thinking that this will put back what the antibiotics have destroyed. However, studies such as the following have shown that antibiotics do long-term harm to our systems and sometimes these changes are permanent.

Antibiotics are mainly used to combat pathogenic bacterial species that reside within or have invaded a host, however the current generation of antibiotics are broad spectrum and target broad swaths of the normal microbiota as well. Thus, antibiotics significantly affect the host’s innate gut microbiota. Three to four days after treatment with the broad-spectrum antibiotic ciprofloxacin the gut microbiota experience a decrease in taxonomic richness, diversity, and evenness. The large magnitude of changes in the gut microbiota demonstrated significant interpersonal variability. While the gut microbiota began to resemble its pre-treatment state a week after treatment, differences between individuals were seen with regards to how closely the post-treatment community resembled the pre-treatment community, and some taxa failed to return to the community. Indeed, the reestablishment of some species can be affected for up to four years following antibiotic treatment.[4]

Image of Gut and Psychology Syndrome Book CoverDr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), discusses the role that not only antibiotics, but other drugs, poor diet, disease, stress, and other factors play in negatively affecting gut bacteria. And she points out that these negative influences on the gut microbiome have a far greater affect than most of us have ever imagined:

Every one of us carries a unique mixture of microbes in the gut. Under the influence of drugs and other factors… this gut flora will be changed in a unique way in every one of us, predisposing us to different health problems… This damage gets passed from generation to generation as a newborn child gets its gut flora from the mother. And as the damage is passed through generations, it gets deeper and deeper.[5]

So what are we to do if we want to maintain (or regain) our health and that of our children and pass down a better heritage to future generations? While individuals with specific digestive issues such as SIBO and IBS may have disease specific requirements and others may need a diet such as Campbell-McBride’s GAPS diet, most of us can make some (relatively) simple adjustments to our diets to get on the right track.

One of the easiest ways of populating your intestinal tract with beneficial bacteria (and as Weston Price Homemade picklesdiscovered has been an important part of the diet of most indigenous and traditional populations and cultures) is by eating fermented foods. Foods fermented by natural yeasts and bacteria in the air produce a multitude of beneficial bacteria, and increase the food’s nutritional profile. Since they are partially pre-digested through the fermentation process they are also easier for you to digest. These foods include not only the yogurt, cucumber pickles, and sauerkraut with which we are most familiar, but other pickled vegetables like beets, carrots, and garlic, beverages like kefir and kombucha, and sourdough breads. (Commercial sauerkraut and pickles, unless kept in the refrigerator section of the supermarket, are most likely pickled in vinegar and heated, so they are not fermented foods.)

Another way of improving your microbiome is by taking a good quality probiotics containing a large variety of beneficial bacteria. Another presenter at the summit enumerated some of the important bacteria to look for in quality probiotics, noting the different influences on health for some of them:

  • Bacillus coagulans – reduces abdominal bloating and gas
  • Saccharomyces boulardii – reduces inflammation, elevated TNF Alpha, and Interleukin 6
  • Acidophilus rueteri
  • Biffidobacterium lactis – alleviates constipation and diarrhea
  • Lactobacillus Roselle 52 – breaks down hard-to-digest fibers
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus
  • Lactobacillus Casei Roselle 215 – makes enzyme that helps breakdown lactose

The following bacteria can be instrumental in alleviating depression, anxiety, and brain fog

  • Lactobacillus helveticus
  • Lactobacillus plantarum ps128
  • Biffidobacterium infantis
  • Biffidobacterium longum

In addition to positive lifestyle changes such as reducing stress and getting adequate sleep, the best ways to support intestinal (and overall) health is by eating a varied diet of good-quality nutrient-dense foods. In addition to eating fermented foods, there were many other dietary principles that the populations that Price examined adhered to that were important to maintaining a well functioning digestive system, overall good health, and a cheerful disposition. Thanks to Price’s research, we can incorporate these principles into our diets as well. Read about them here.

For sources of probiotic/fermented foods and natural and organic products in Israel click here.


[1] Defining the Human Microbiome
[2] Archaea and Fungi of the Human Gut Microbiome: Correlations with Diet and Bacterial Residents
[3] Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in Gut
[4] Defining the Human Microbiome
[5] Gut and Psychology Syndrome, pg. 38

Other Resources:

Fast Facts About the Human Microbiome
What is the Gut Microbiota? What is the Human Microbiome?
Are Probiotics in Your Baby Formula?
The Best Probiotics for Mood: Psychobiotics May Enhance the Gut-Brain Connection
5 Simple Steps to Cure IBS Without Drugs
SIBO – Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth


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