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Living Food and Why We Need It

Sourdough bread
Good sourdough bread is alive and thriving when you put it in the oven

We were recently attending a social event with others from Transition Longfellow when someone mentioned "living food." Most people got puzzled - or even concerned - looks on their faces. We do not normally think of eating things that are alive. But, the fact of the matter is that we eat living things all the time. And that is a good thing. We should do more of it.

New celery growing from the base of an old head
A new head of celery growing from the base of one that was purchased at the grocery store, then cut and replanted.

The most obvious examples of this are all of the plants we eat. If we eat them fresh, they are very much alive. Take a bunch of celery from the grocery store, cut off the base and stick it in water and it will grow another head of celery, because it is very much alive. You can do the same with many leafy greens that form heads. You can root and grow many of the fresh herbs you get in the store, too. We've planted garlic and potatoes we purchased at the store, too, and they grew into wonderful new crops of food. The notion of eating living food, however, goes far beyond the eating of fresh, raw produce.

We are constantly reminded that our sourdough starter is very much alive and that it often seems to have a mind of its own, a trait common to starters that has caused many bakers to actually name theirs.

A sourdough starter is, after all, a thriving community of living organisms, a symbiotic mix of bacteria and yeast that work together to break down the starches and sugars in the grain. They turn them into proteins, essential minerals, vitamins and other micro-nutrients. Because it is a living thing, it behaves differently depending on different environmental factors.

Sourdough starter
Sourdough starter growing out the top of the jars containing it.

When we have things perfectly worked out, the starter will double in size in time period of about 4 hours after feeding it. We know this, so after feeding we will split it into jars that are about half full. Often, we have it in perfect balance and the starter will rise up to exactly fill the jars. Occasionally, something extra magic happens and the colony of microbes decides to be extra abundant and happy (at least we like to think so) and it grows so much that it blows the lids off and spills out onto the tray that holds the jars.

The entire process of baking sourdough bread is, as a matter of fact, taking a living colony of beneficial organisms and growing it to its most active and robust state, before sticking it in a hot oven and baking it. The starter is made into a slightly thicker leaven, which is made into a much thicker bread dough, creating the perfect environment in which the bacteria (mostly Lactobacillis and other probiotics and prebiotics) and wild yeasts can thrive. Placing the dough in the proofing baskets is giving them the time to do it.

The proofing, ideally, is timed to when the colony has reached its peak. Miss that time by waiting too long and you can end up with some sad, flat bread. Don't wait long enough and you will end up with a fragrant brick.

There is some controversy as to whether any of the culture survives the baking process. Some people like to think that some yeast and bacteria on the inner parts do survive and that is why people who eat sourdough experience so many digestive improvements from eating it. These benefits are consistent with the those of eating other fermented, living foods, which only makes sense when you think about it.

Our digestive systems are themselves entire ecosystems of living organisms. We have as many as 100,000,000 microorganisms per ml of stomach contents living in us, for example. We are healthier when those ecosystems are thriving with biodiversity. And the best way to do that is by eating as much living food as possible. Add more living food to your food intake and you'll probably feel better.

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