Greetings! I'm Hilary Jacobson, offering one-on-one support for mothers struggling with low supply, or overcoming the emotions and anxiety when breastfeeding does not go as hoped. I'm a holistic breastfeeding consultant, author of "Mother Food," and "Healing Breastfeeding Grief."
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Before there was bread or beer, there was barley, a hardy, nutritious grain that grew in all kinds of difficult terrains. The discovery of barley as a food source was huge for the advancement of humanity. In fact, it is thought to have been discovered and cultivated as our earliest grain, even before wheat. Because grain such as barley and wheat could be dried and stored, it provided protection from hunger and starvation. This enabled humans to settle down and get on with things, building communities, domesticating animals, and generally laying the groundwork for civilization.
The cultivation of barley--planting in fields and harvesting for the winter--began over ten thousands years ago in isolated settlements. Eventually, its cultivation would spread across Europe and Asia.
Barley, when it is sprouted and dries, develops enzymes that break down the carbohydrates in the grain. This dried grain is called "the malt," and its enzymes continue working in the fermentation of beer.
Barley therefore became the primary grain used in the production of malt, beer and bread. These three forms of “food production” would be advanced and specialized, and this spurred the development of technology.
We take fermentation for granted. Fermentation allows us to enjoy bread, beer, yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, pickles and wine. We don't think twice about fermentation as we buy our food from the store. But think what fermentation must have looked like to primitive people, to see beverages ferment into inebriating brews, to see flour puff up into bread, and to see the sprouted, dried and enzymatically digested barley grain turn into yummy malt sugar.
It must have looked like the invisible world of the gods was interacting with the human world of food.
Malt as a Galactagogue – Some Insights
I craved Ovomaltine after the birth of my first child. I guess this was my body's way of getting malt.
The word malt triggers memories of Ovomaltine, Malt-O-Meal, malted milk and shakes. These icons of childhood are beloved due to their taste which is warm, nuanced, sweet and bitter. Malt’s flavor speaks to its range of sugars, with their array of subtle taste differences, in combination with the satisfying bitterness of malt’s high mineral content.
In the above section, I explain that malt traditionally derives from barley. We know that barley is highly lactogenic. It contains copious amounts of beta-glucan, a polysaccharide (long-chained sugar molecule) that studies show has the potential to increase prolactin, a central hormone of lactation. Beta-glucan is a primary reason that malt and beer are so popular among breastfeeding mothers.
There is another reason that malt is lactogenic. Through the malting process, the nutritional components in the barley grain are separated out into their smallest constituents by the malting enzymes. In a sense, the enzymes "pre-digest" or "break down" the grain for us. This means that the minerals, vitamins and micro-nutrients can be easily absorbed by a mother.
Many lactogenic foods follow this rule: they are both nutrient-rich and easily digested. The weeks after childbirth are a time of recuperation. In Eastern medicine, it is said that a mother’s digestive energy is low. Her body is healing, and putting all its energy toward creating a milk supply. Any food that offers mothers a lot of easily digestible essential nutrients is welcome and supportive of her milk supply.
Galactagogue of Ninkasi
I have described elsewhere that many dietary galactagogues are associated with mother goddesses. This connection underlines how our foremothers valued dietary galactagogues for breastfeeding. Consider Ninkasi of Sumer, the goddess of both malting and beer, shown in this statue from about 1800 BCE. Note her confident breasts. What is she carrying in the basket on her head? Could it be malt?
Consider the verses in The Hymn to Ninkasi. This hymn contains step-by-step instructions for malting and brewing. It may have been sung by as an instructional song to pass the skill on to the younger generation, it may have been sung by the workers, helping them maintain an ecstatic state of mind while focusing on the task at hand, preparing the sacred foods of Ninkasi: malt and beer.
Malt In Europe Today
Today as in ancient times, malt is used in countries around the Mediterranean region to increase milk supply. It is popular in the rest of Europe, too. In Switzerland where I lived and had my babies, malt was given to me as a gift by my husband's aunt. She didn't know why she brought me a can of malt syrup when she visited me after the birth of my first child. She had never had children herself. But this was simply what was done--it was tradition to give a new mother malt.
"Biomalz" is the brand of malt given to mothers after birth in Switzerland. Look at this advertisement, it must have been from the mid-20th century as the German lettering is modern.
I looked at that can of "BioMalz" rather helplessly, unable to imagine any situation in which I would use the thick syrup. Years later, I learned that it is a powerful galactagogue. Whenever I lost my supply, which was highly volatile, I would take four soupspoons-full between meals, 3 - 4 times a day. Within a couple of days, my supply would fully rebound.
In Germany, birth professionals today recommend that mothers drink malt-beer, a non-alcoholic malt-based soft drink.
Although no studies directly link malt with increased milk supply, German researchers nonetheless explain this popular usage with barley malt’s beta-glucan content.
Malt for American Mothers
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.
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 store, rich in calories and contains a range of important nutrients.
Malt's Reputation as a Galactagogue is Independent of Beer
All of the above clarifies that, independent of its use in beer, malt has been known and used as a galactagogue, both in Europe and the US.
Malt is surely a galactagogue, the gift, as it were, of a Sumerian goddess.
Changes in Brewing Malt
Beta-glucan is actually undesirable in brewing. It acts as a thickening agent and is problematic when filtering the beer, adding cost to beer production.
One way modern brewers manage this is to add other grains to the malting process such as corn, wheat, rice and other grains that contain less beta-glucan. With these other grains, however, the product’s lactogenic properties are diminished. Oats are an exception, as oats also contain lots of beta-glucan.
In recent decades, strains of barley have also been cultivated that contain less beta-glucan, and yeast has been genetically enhanced to digest more of it. This means that very little beta-glucan is found in 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 change in the composition of malt reinforces the goal of this blog. I want to help you understand that 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 and a few other dark beers are maintaining their reputation with breastfeeding moms. With Guinness, flakes of raw barley grain are purposefully added to the brew in order to increase its beta-glucan content. Here, its function as a thickening agent is desired.
The identical principle applies when oat flakes are added to produce Oat Stout. Oats also contain beta-glucan.
Barley and oats are well-known galactagogues!
Do I recommend Malt as a Galactagogue?
No, I do not. At least, not as a main galactagogue.