Filmjölk’s health benefits

In a previous post we covered fraudulent milk products being at the top of food cheating. Today we turn it around by covering the health benefits of consuming filmjölk. Never heard of filmjölk? Just read on.

First you need to know that people in Scandinavian countries are masters of food preservation because of the historic need to guarantee food supply during harsh winters. By necessity a range of cultured, naturally fermented foods were born. They include gravlax, pickled herring, cheeses and sourdough breads, pickled beetroot and, of course, filmjölk.

Filmjölk is similar to cultured buttermilk or kefir in consistency but is not the same as it is a unique product. It is sometimes translated as “sour milk” but there is a wide range of such products. So in the absence of an official English translation the name filmjölk or filmjolk is getting international tracking.

Different varieties of filmjölk are commonly found in the Scandinavian countries, but are also popular in neighbouring Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Somewhat surprisingly, filmjölk has found its way into supermarkets in the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia.

How is it produced

Commercial filmjölk is made from pasteurised, homogenised, and standardised cow’s milk by fermenting the milk with a variety of bacteria from the species Lactococcus lactis and Leuconostoc mesenteroides. The bacteria metabolise lactose into lactic acid so filmjölk is easier to digest if you are lactose intolerant. The acid gives filmjölk a sour taste and causes proteins in the milk to coagulate, thus thickening the product. The bacteria also produce a limited amount of diacetyl, a compound with a buttery flavour, which gives filmjölk its characteristic taste.

Prior to the commercial production of filmjölk, many families made their own filmjölk at home. A filmjölk-like product has probably been around since the Viking Age or longer. Nowadays it is possible to buy the bacterial cultures to make your own filmjölk if you want to.

Potential health benefits of filmjölk

The bacteria in filmjölk produce folic acid, an important vitamin for the development of growing cells. Filmjölk is also high in lactic acid, which is known to improve the nutritional value of food, and may alleviate intestinal infections and improve the digestion of lactose. 

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that when consumed confer health benefits on humans. Particular probiotic versions of filmjölk on the market usually add various strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.

Probiotic foods have gained a lot of attention in both research and mainstream media lately. There has been a huge growth in interest in probiotic products over the last decades around the world. There is a growing body of evidence to support their importance in our diet; both to treat and prevent specific diseases and as part of a healthy diet. 

Possible benefits include:

  • improving heart health
  • counteracting lactose intolerance
  • increasing iron levels in the blood
  • lowering the risk of yeast infections
  • improving the symptoms of diarrhea and constipation
  • reducing cholesterol levels
  • boosting the immune system
  • reducing the symptoms of certain allergies
  • fighting inflammation

An impressive list should it be true. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has evaluated several claims in relation to probiotic foods. In 2011, it agreed that certain probiotic strains could assist in the digestion of lactose. Other applications for health claims on probiotics have been submitted for evaluation to EFSA but no further application has received a positive opinion. 

What to believe

Unfortunately, many of the positive health effects of probiotics are strain-specific, which is one of the reasons these effects are so complicated to evaluate. A “strain” refers to a specific group within a species and there are often many such strains.

This strain specificity of probiotic properties has made research into the health benefits of probiotics and labelling of probiotic microbes much more difficult.

But why worry about that? Irrespective of the belief in potential health benefits you can enjoy filmjölk just for the taste of it. With some unspecified health benefits on the side.