Want to live 100 years? Eat Bulgarian yoghurt

Want to live 100 years? Eat Bulgarian yoghurt

Want to live 100 years? Eat Bulgarian yoghurt

By Anna Mudeva

MOMCHILOVTSI, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Lactobacillus bulgaricus sounds like a nasty infectious disease but the organism that curdles milk may be the reason Maria Shopova recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

Unaware that she may owe her longevity to the friendly bacterium, Maria grins, unveiling her two remaining teeth, and explains: "It's luck given by God".

The lively centenarian, who kept a cow until she was 80, has lived on dairy products -- yoghurt in particular -- most of her life in the picturesque mountain village of Momchilovtsi in southern Bulgaria.

The Balkan country proudly claims to have invented yoghurt and given the world the secret to a long life but its own consumption has steadily declined since the collapse of communism.

Yoghurt is slowly disappearing from the nation's table with annual consumption falling from 40 kg (88 lb) per capita, the world's highest in the 1980s, to 22 kg in 2001.

The drop has paralleled a decline in agricultural production and incomes over the past 13 years as ex-communist Bulgaria charts a difficult path towards a market economy, industry officials said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of centenarians has also fallen to 187 in 2001 out of Bulgaria's population of eight million, or less than a one in every thousand, statistics show. Around 100 years earlier, the figure was four in every thousand.


Now found at supermarkets around the world, it wasn't until the early 1900s that Russian scientist Ilya Mechnikov, a 1908 Nobel Prize winner, linked yoghurt with longevity.

Mechnikov, who worked at the Paris-based Pasteur Institute, compiled statistics from 36 countries to discover more people lived to the age of 100 in Bulgaria than in any other. He attributed this to the country's most traditional food -- home-made yoghurt.

Later, numerous scientific studies in Europe, Japan and the United States proved the bacteria in yoghurt help maintain good health by protecting the human body from toxins, infections, allergies and some types of cancer.

Historians think yoghurt was part of the diet of Bulgaria's most ancient inhabitants, the Thracians, who were good sheep breeders. They say that in Thracian yog meant "thick" and urt meant "milk" and that's how the word yoghurt appeared.

Between the fourth and sixth century BC, they used to put milk in lambskin bags, which they carried about on their waists. The warmth of the body and the bags' microflora fermented it.

Some scientists think that yoghurt's predecessor was a fermented milk drink called "kumis". It was made from mare's milk by the proto-Bulgarians, a nomadic tribe who moved from Asia to the Balkans in AD 681.

Legend says that the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan used yoghurt to feed his army because of its healthy properties.

In Western Europe, it made its debut in the 16th century in the court of the French king Francis I, when a Turkish doctor cured the king's persistent stomach trouble by putting him on a Bulgarian yoghurt diet, writes professor Hristo Chomakov in his book "Bulgarian yoghurt -- health and longevity".

"The traditional Bulgarian yoghurt is a unique product because of our country's unique microclimate," said Tsona Stefanova, head of the research centre at LB Bulgaricum, a state-run company licensed to export yoghurt know-how.

"It has its own specific taste and properties. It is sour and thick so that when you turn the pot over, yoghurt sticks and does not fall," she added.


LB Bulgaricum has a unique collection of over 700 strains of bulgaricus, which allows it to produce various yoghurt starter cultures and achieve different flavours and density.

Over the past 30 years the company has sold yoghurt know-how to more than 20 countries, including Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, the Philippines and Austria.

"Bulgaricus can grow only in Bulgaria, elsewhere it mutates," said Georgi Georgiev, manager of Lactina which deals with research and production of health food.

Georgiev said his team had found strains of bulgaricus in soil, on some trees' bark, in blossoms and even in ant-hills in Bulgaria's most environmentally clean regions such as Momchilovtsi in the southern Rhodopa mountains.

Experiments showed that a wooden stick left over an ant-hill for a while and then dipped into boiled and cooled milk would ferment it and turn it into yoghurt, as would antique silver coins, said Georgiev's assistant Nikolai Zhilkov.

A good source of vitamin B, calcium and protein, yoghurt's virtue as a health food has defied time.

Apart from having a reputation for being kind to the digestive system, it is also an excellent face cleansing mask, a soother for sunburn and douche for a thrush attack.

"Numerous researchers have shown that fermented milk has strong anti-tumour effect, which is due to its lactic acid bacteria," said Professor Akiyoshi Hosono at Japan's Shinsho University, who studies fermented milk's anti-mutagen impacts.

International food giants such as France's Danone, Swiss Nestle and Japan's Meiji Milk Products have been using friendly bacteria to produce health food known as probiotics over the past few decades.

Although local consumption may have dropped, Bulgaria is not ready to give up on its claim as the inventor of yoghurt.

Economy Ministry officials told Reuters Sofia wanted the World Trade Organisation to prevent other countries from describing their yoghurt as "Bulgarian" or "Bulgarian-style".

"It is going to be the food of the new millennium. The world is gradually getting crazy about healthy food," said Georgiev.