Traditional societies, for thousands of years, have naturally, and intuitively discovered the importance of the human relationship to our microbiomes both for our existence and demise. This is apparent through looking deeply into traditional diets, and food preparations. The history of preparing certain foods with high micro flora content happened both out of circumstance (i.e. no refrigeration, and a need for preservation); and the necessity of using food as medicine. My favorite topic of study!
In this newsletter, I want to talk about three foods that are common to Texas cuisine and climate, that can help not only increase our beneficial gut bacteria, nutrient absorption, and over all gut health, but are also helpful to improving blood sugar regulation, up regulating immunity, aiding detoxification, decreasing cholesterol, reducing ulcers, and preventing colon cancer.
These three foods are Okra, Nopal Cactus (A.K.A. Pricky Pear), and Aloe Vera. Each of these foods grow well here in Texas, either cultivated or wildly, and they all have something very important in common that makes them effective for the aforementioned health benefits: mucilage!
Eeew you might say! Mucilage! Yes, as unappetizing as it may be to some of you who couldn't stomach the slimy okra your mom tried to feed you growing up, it does have a very valuable place in our daily nutrition. Don't worry; there are ways around the sliminess. Raw okra picked fresh from the plant and eaten whole or sliced up in a salad is not quite as gooey as when it's cooked, and in my opinion the best way to eat it. When I grow okra, I often have a hard time getting it into the house because I tend to eat it immediately after I snap it from the stem.
Mucilage is the slime formed by large non-starchy polysaccharides (NSPs) in certain plants that form a semi-soluble, viscous fiber in water. In plants, mucilage serves as a mechanism for holding water, as a food storage device, for seed germination, and as a membrane thickener and stabilizer. NSPs also occur naturally in other foods like flax seed, chia seed, seaweed, psyllium, apple pectin, and oats.
The viscosity of these mucilaginous carbohydrates helps slow the uptake of sugar into the blood by forming a kind of gel inside the bowels. This slows down the absorption of food from the gut, evening out the peaks in blood glucose that occur after meals. Additionally, Soluble fiber, particularly mucilage and pectin, is capable of lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It achieves this by binding with bile acids that emulsify fats in the gut, promoting their excretion. It also helps to inhibit the manufacture of fats in the liver.
Although digestive enzymes cannot break down fiber, it is partially degraded by the micro flora in the gut. This natural fermentation process results in the manufacture of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) - acetic, proprionic and butyric acids, which have many positive functions. Acetic and proprionic acids are transported to the liver where they are utilized for energy production. Butyric acid is required as a primary source of energy for rapidly growing intestinal cells. It also aids the adherence of "friendly" bacteria to gut epithelial cells. This discourages the proliferation of toxin producing bacteria and yeast. Butyrate is also likely to be a contributing factor to the anti-cancer activity of dietary fiber.
The manufacture of short chain fatty acids helps maintain a slightly acid pH level in the colon, which promotes the growth of acid-loving "friendly" bacteria such as lactobacillus. This discourages the production of toxin-producing bacteria and yeast such as Candida albicans. Additionally, mucilage protects the gut against gastric acidity and soothes and protects inflamed or irritated nerve endings in all mucus membranes, which includes all respiratory passages and linings of the kidneys and reproductive organs. This protection of the mucous membranes is also helpful to improve both environmental and food related allergies. Yes, slime is your friend!
While scientists do not yet understand the role of these NSPs to the same extent as their fellow starches, it is clear that they play important roles in our immune function, our digestive function, and our detoxification system. We are discovering more and more that a healthy micro flora is at the core of preventing many diseases. As Hippocrates said, "All disease begins in the gut". Okra, aloe vera, and nopal, along with the other foods I mentioned are powerhouses of energy, and micro flora boosting properties. We often take probiotic and prebiotic supplements to improve our gut health, but we must also use food to grow a diverse micro flora and improve the integrity of our gut cells.
As I mentioned above, traditional diets have always consumed some type of fermented or cultured foods to build their bodies and immunity. Sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, kefir, fish sauce, miso, tamari, apple cider vinegar, etc. are all good examples. The addition of these mucilage rich foods along with these fermented and cultured foods can even further improve our body's ability to function optimally.
Okra, aloe, and nopal cactus all have a long history of medicinal uses in traditional diets. All of these foods are also decent sources vitamin C, and may improve vitamin C absorption. There are also numerous antioxidant phytochemicals in these plants that are protective to our bodies. These three local foods are anti-inflammatory too.
Preparation of nopal fillets can be a little labor intensive, but you can buy them in many grocery stores here in Texas with the spines already removed and the fillets pre-cut. Boiling them with a little apple cider vinegar, onion, and salt helps to soften them. They can then be used as a salad or served as a side dish along with pinto beans. For some, they are an acquired taste, but they really can be made into so many delicious dishes. There are recipes for agua de nopal, nopal rellenos, fresh nopal salads, burritos, tacos, etc. Here is a link to a Nopal and Shrimp Salad Recipe created by Lake Austin Spa for Epicurious. This food grew on me, and after learning all the health benefits of this plant I have enjoyed eating it more and exploring different ways to prepare it.
Aloe is most easily consumed in juice form and can be added to smoothies and other beverages without changing the flavor much. Be sure to buy pure aloe juice. About 1-2 tablespoons a day is recommended.
Also, I have added below, from the Foundation Culinary Menu, a recipe for Grilled Okra with Blistered Shishito Pepper Yogurt Dip. Here you have a cultured probiotic rich dip with the mucilage rich okra. A healthful combination indeed! You can also use this dip with fresh raw okra too.
Remember to do all you can to keep your gut bacteria in good health and your health will flora-ish! We are just discovering the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the synergism between the human body and bacteria. Stay tuned for further developments in this arena. Enjoy the rest of your Summer!
Blistered Shishito Pepper Yogurt Dip & Grilled Okra
2 pounds whole okra
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil½ pound shishito peppers
2 large shallots, peeled and sliced in ¼ " rings
1 clove of garlic, minced
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 16-ounce container Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Heat the grill.
Place the okra in one bowl, and the peppers in another. Toss both in one tablespoon of oil, salt, and pepper.
String the okra onto skewers and grill for about 5-10 minutes on each side. Cooking time depends on your preference for al dente or softer okra. You can also roast the okra in the oven at 400ºF for 10-20 minutes.
Blister peppers over the hot grill. You may also use a cast iron skillet over high heat if there is no grill available. After peppers are golden blistered (not burned), let cool completely. Remove the pepper stems once they have cooled.
Sauté the sliced shallot in a skillet with a small amount of oil until caramelized. Add the minced garlic at the end, and sauté for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool.
Finely chop the peppers and shallots and add them to the yogurt. Squeeze in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Enjoy the dip with the okra!