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The Man Who Launched a Global Mania for Yogurt
How Yogurt Becomes Yogurt
Even though the souring of milk had been practiced for millennia, no one knew why the process kept milk stable. Metchnikoff revealed the secret: In the course of the souring, microbes converted milk sugars into lactic acid, which, in his experiments, killed rot-causing germs. He hypothesized that milk-souring microbes could create the same acidity in the intestines, killing harmful bacteria. His prime candidate was a microbe isolated from yogurt eaten in Bulgaria that produced especially large amounts of acid.
“Interestingly, this microbe is found in the sour milk consumed in large amounts by the Bulgarians in a region well known for the longevity of its inhabitants,” Metchnikoff said in his lecture.
The press eagerly picked up on the longevity promise. “Those of you, pretty ladies and brilliant gentlemen, who don’t want to age or die, here’s the precious recipe: eatyaghourt!” suggested the popular French dailyLe Tempsin its article “Eliminating Old Age.” Soon, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were spreading the euphoric message. A headline in theChicago Daily Tribuneblared, “Sour Milk Is Elixir: Secret of Long Life Discovered by Prof. Metchnikoff.”
Yogurt Goes Viral
Within a few months, Metchnikoff’s lecture sparked a global craze for yogurt. Drugstores throughout Europe and the United States were offering yogurt itself or Bulgarian cultures in the form of tablets, powders, and bouillons — precursors of today’s probiotics. These were to be consumed as is or used to make sour milk at home in jars or in special incubators, marketed under such brand names as Sauerin, Lactobator, or Lactogenerator.
Doctors started prescribing yogurt to prevent or treat infections, but also to avert gout, rheumatism, and even the clogging of arteries. To obtain the cultures, they telegraphed the Pasteur Institute or even traveled to Paris, as did John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, who later made sure each patient in his Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium received a pint of yogurt every day.
As with every remedy, doctors warned about side effects.The Lancetcautioned that those wishing to try “the sour-milk treatment” should consult “a medical man”; theBritish Journal of Medicinewarned that the dose of “[2.2 pounds] a day should not customarily be exceeded.”
Some physicians tried to argue that the longevity claims about yogurt were unfounded, but the public still craved the safe and accessible milky fountain of youth. Metchnikoff, in the meantime, indirectly fanned yogurt mania when he wrote in one of his books that if science found a way to block the harmful effects of the intestinal flora, people could live 150 years.
The 'Sour-Milk Cure'
Inevitably, the hysteria inspired satire. In December 1910, a London theater presented a pantomime,Jack and the Beanstalk, in which a king was prescribed the “sour-milk cure” for his gout; his remedy was to be supplied by “a Metchnikoff cow” that gave sour milk.
Sour milk lost its longevity mystique when Metchnikoff died in 1916 at age 71, less than halfway to his own target, but by then yogurt had earned a modest place in the Western diet. In 1919, a small Barcelona business called Danone (later Dannon in the United States) started selling sour milk through pharmacies as a remedy for children with intestinal problems. In the United States, yogurt’s popularity began to rise in the 1960s, when hippies embraced it as one of their natural foods, and growing ranks of dieters were welcoming the new low-fat yogurts.
Contemporary scientists ridiculed Metchnikoff’s ideas connecting aging with intestinal microbes, but 100 later, in the early 21stcentury, the connection was shown to exist in invertebrate animals. Future research will reveal whether or not these findings apply to humans.
Luba Vikhanskiis the author of Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine, from which she adapted this piece.
Top Photo Credit: Verdina Anna/Getty Images
Bottom Photo Credit: Arnon de Shalit
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