For many of us, the word malt leads us to think of Ovomaltine, Malt-O-Meal, beer, malt-beer, and malted milk and shakes, all of which benefit from malt's complex, sweet-bitter nuances. Malt's multi-textured flavor reflects its healthful contents: a range of natural sugars with subtle taste differences, along with the satisfying bitterness of its high mineral content, entice and delight the tongue.
The food industry uses the word malt to refer both to the malting process and to its result, the malt. But malting and malt could not exist without barley, whose particular malting enzymes transform the grain into the malt sugar we know and love.
The cultivation of barley was a major accomplishment in our early development. It provided some protection from hunger and starvation, enabling human folk to settle down and get on with the business of community and the start of civilization. Beginning over ten thousands years ago in isolated settlements, its cultivation would eventually spread across Europe and Asia, where it would be used to make malt, beer and bread, three forms of “food production” that would spur development of technology.
Fortunately for our ancient foremothers, barley is highly lactogenic, as it contains copious amounts of beta-glucan, a long-chained sugar molecule that studies show has the potential to increase prolactin, an important hormone for lactation.
The art of malting and brewing with malt apparently goes back to Sumeria -- the oldest civilization, predating even the Egyptian -- and it is described in the verses of this song, "The Hymn to Ninkasi", which was engraved on this statue of Ninkasi around 1800 BCE. The hymn contains detailed instructions for malting and brewing, and may have been chanted while malting and brewing the goddess's sacred foods.
To make malt, the barley grain is first germinated, triggering the production of powerful malting enzymes. It is quickly dried, to prevent further sprouting, and then moistened and warmed. Now barley's malting enzymes "digest" the barley, resulting in malt that can be used to make beer or to produce malt syrup, other malt beverage or baked goods.
Today, mothers throughout the world eat or drink malt to support lactation. In Germany, birth professionals recommend that mothers after birth drink malt-beer, a non-alcoholic malt-based soft drink. Although there are no studies that directly link malt with increased milk supply, German researchers explain this popular usage based on malt’s beta-glucan content.
Colic Warning: Mothers of babies with colic will want to use malt cautiously, as its high sugar content could aggravate a baby's digestive struggles.
There is history behind non-alcoholic malt-beer. Internationally, it became popular as a beverage during the 19th and early 20th centuries when the Temperance Movement condemned consumption of alcoholic beverages, and in some countries exerted pressure to outlaw alcohol production.
The beer industry responded by producing beverages that used the same ingredients as beer -- hops, barley and sometimes yeast -- but contained little or no alcohol.
In the US, malt beer was called Near-Beer; in Germany, it was called Malzbier; and in France, bière de nourrice, or "wet-nurse beer." All were recommended by their producers as nourishing beverages for children, and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
There were loud claims in magazine advertisements that malt-beer was an excellent health tonic, good for children, invalids, and mothers, and of course, that it increased milk supply. This was not merely a marketing ploy, but was based on the experiential feedback of countless breastfeeding mothers who already used malt to increase their milk supply. The brewers had cleverly "tapped" into a traditional galactagogue.
|"Take my advice: Take Biomalz"|
When I gave birth to my first child in Switzerland, in 1985, I was surprised to receive a can of malt syrup from my husband's aunt. In response to my perplexity, she told me that malt is often given to mothers to speed their recovery and to support their milk supply. "Biomalz," the brand name, was also recommended for children. A Swiss health-food expert explained that, because the grain's nutrients are pre-digested (broken apart into small units) by the malting enzymes, mothers and children can easily absorb them.
It is intriguing to consider that in pre-refrigeration days, powdered malt might have served the same function as today's "super-foods" or "energy bars": easy to preserve, nutritious, and rich in calories and a full range of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. A gift indeed. Any mother would have welcomed the benefits of malt, and the added nutrition alone may have helped with her supply.
Lactogenic Malt Contains Beta-Glucan
As mentioned above, barley malt contains a special substance, beta-glucan, which is a long-chained sugar that studies show increases prolactin. Although it has never been tested directly on breastfeeding women, its presence may well contribute to malt's effects on milk supply.
I myself relied on "Biomalz" syrup as a galactagogue. When my supply occasionally decreased to a trickle, I would take as much as 3-4 large soupspoons of the syrup before meals, and a few more between meals. On the fourth day, like clockwork, my supply fully returned.
In 19th century America, several cook-books mention malt-tea as a galactagogue. The tea was made by stirring 3/4 cups of malt powder into a quart of hot water, leaving it to stand and cool, filtering the tea, and drinking it throughout the day.
All this suggests that, independently of its use in beer, malt was already used as a galactagogue before malt-beer came into commercial production. Malt is surely a galactagogue, the gift, as it were, of a Sumerian goddess, appreciated by breastfeeding mothers today.
That said, in treatises on traditional Chinese medicine, one reads that a small dose of barley malt increases supply, while a large dose decreases supply. If this is true, then I could not possibly have had such success with extremely large doses of malt—and yet I did, as have many others. Is it possible that different galactagogues affect women differently depending on their culture, their usual diet, and their individual metabolism? I intend to write an article on this question. For now, let me simply suggest that mothers use high doses with caution.
The Decline of Brewing Malt
Beta-glucan, paradoxically for breastfeeding women, is undesirable in brewing. It acts as a thickening agent--problematic for filtering, adding cost to beer production.
One way to manage this is to add other grains to the malting process such as corn, wheat, rice and other grains. However, because these grains contain less beta-glucan, the product’s lactogenic properties are diminished.
In recent decades, industrial brewers have gone a step further. Strains of barley have been cultivated that contain less beta-glucan, and yeast has been genetically enhanced to digest more of it. Today, beta-glucan is absent from most beer by the end of the brewing process. It's too bad, really, as beta-glucan is healthful, immunity boosting, and good for the heart.
This stark alteration in the composition of malt underlines the thought presented in an earlier article: we truly cannot compare the beer that our foremothers drank to the beer that is drunk today. To do so would be to grossly misrepresent the history and significance of beer and malt as galactagogues.
Guinness Stout is maintaining its reputation as a galactagogue (see my last article). This may be explained by the flakes of raw barley grain that are purposefully added to the brew in order to increase its beta-glucan content. Here, its function as a thickening agent is desired. The same, healthful beta-glucan that makes stout delightfully silky also thickens barley soup. The identical principle applies when oat flakes are added to produce Oat Stout. Oats also contain beta-glucan, as evidenced by Oat Stout’s fuller body, and by oatmeal’s sliminess. Barley and oats are well-known galactagogues!
This youtube video demonstrates the ingredients used in stout. Note the addition of flaked raw barley to add extra body.
Unfortunately, not all thick, dark beers are made with extra barley or oats. Good "body" can be achieved by using maltodextrin, without containing beta-glucan.
On Your Market Shelf: Barley, Malt Syrup and Malt Sugar
The barley in the shops today is the same barley as that of yesteryear. We can use it in soup and other recipes, and count on its thickening properties. Barley water (a handful of barley cooked in a quart of water for at least a half-hour, longer is better, and the water drunk as tea) is a traditional galactagogue.
Pure organic barley malt syrup is available from several producers. Before buying, be sure to check the label to make sure that it is not diluted with corn syrup.
Powdered malt sugar is commonly combined with dextrose (corn sugar), which in the US is undoubtedly derived from GMO corn.
Malt powder used to make malted milk or malted milk shakes is also commonly combined with dextrose, in the US, from GMO corn.
Note: I inserted (above) a photo of a supplement for barley beta-glucan. To my knowledge, mothers have not yet experimented with beta-glucan concentrate as a galactagogue. If you try it, (not necessarily this product, I am endorsing no particular brand) please let me know your results.
This article represents my original research, and is an excerpt from a book in progress. All rights reserved. Do not re-print or use without my permission ©hilaryjacobson 10.2011