Natural health: Probiotics and dark chocolate

Fermented pickles

Probiotic organisms improve the nutritional quality of foods and enhance the absorption of nutrients, says Megan Sheppard.

Q. I have been recommended to take probiotics. However, they are very expensive. Would fermented foods give the same result?

A. Fermented foods and drinks do provide beneficial gut bacteria, and improve digestion. 

Backing up traditional wisdom, scientific studies have proved that probiotic organisms improve the nutritional quality of foods and enhance the absorption of nutrients.

It used to be that fermentation was simply an effective method of preserving foods while keeping their nutrients intact before refrigeration, freezing, and bottling became commonplace.

For many cultures, fermented foods still play an important role in the diet, not only helping to preserve the food but also aiding the digestion process, enhancing liver function, and inhibiting pathogens and carcinogens.

Of course, we still make use of fermentation in wine, beer, cheese, yoghurt, sourdough, yeast and soy sauce, but fermented vegetables and fruits are not nearly as common as they once were. 

People who often have trouble digesting certain foods, such as cabbage, onions, beans, or dairy products, find they can eat lactic- fermented foods with no gastric troubles at all.

Fermented foods and drinks are becoming more popular in health stores, cafes, and even some supermarkets. 

These include sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir and while you can pay a pretty penny for these ‘exclusive’ probiotic products, you can easily make your own at home.

Check noticeboards and ask at health shops to see if anybody has a Scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which you can use to brew your own kombucha, or some kefir granules/ grains.

The Scoby looks like a strange rubbery pancake, whereas milk kefir granules look like little cauliflower florets. You can also find water kefir franules, which are translucent and the size of large rock salt.

Miso is typically cheaper and easier to purchase, plus a little goes a long way, whereas sauerkraut and kimchi can be made relatively easily in your kitchen at home. 

Check online for recipes and methods, or invest in a copy of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Q. I know that chocolate isn’t exactly a health food, but I am a long time chocolate lover and so I try to keep my indulgences as healthy as possible in buying dark chocolate. 

What percentage chocolate should I be buying, and how much should I be eating daily?

A. Dark chocolate might just have a place in the health food aisles, but as you have already figured out, it needs to have a considerable percentage of cocoa solids to earn its status as a health food. You ideally want to aim for a minimum of 70% cocoa solids, and eat around 7gm (two squares) daily. For optimal benefits, check out raw chocolate, which has been processed at low temperatures and typically doesn’t contain refined sugars.

Raw chocolate has higher levels of flavanols, the constituents responsible for the healthy effects of chocolate, than regular dark chocolate. White chocolate contains no flavanols (and I hesitate to even include the white stuff in the chocolate category!), milk contains minimal flavanols, and dark contains the highest amount.

Food scientists found the flavanol content doesn’t increase significantly between 70% to 100% dark chocolate, but are sensitive to oxidation and alkalinisation which is likely the reason behind raw chocolate being richer in these plant polyphenols that assist in the metabolism of glucose and blood pressure regulation, fight cell damage, boost brain performance, and may even help to curb junk food cravings.

Dark chocolate reduces hunger and lead to a greater feeling of satiation. The raw cacao bean has 300 to 400 chemicals. Chocolate enhances levels of mood-elevating endorphins in the brain. It also contains magnesium, which can help muscles to relax and help in stress reduction.


As UK legend John Surman gets ready to play at Cork’s jazz fest, he tells Philip Watson about his well-travelled career and why he’s so angry about Brexit.Jazz legend John Surman on a well travelled career and why he's angry about Brexit

Dr Naomi Lavelle answers a weekly science question.Fish live in water all their lives but does that mean that they never get thirsty or do they even drink at all? To answer these questions we need to look at where the fish live.Appliance of Science: Do fish ever get thirsty?

More From The Irish Examiner