In this article find out what all the fuss is about fermented foods and why this ancient practice can transform your health and wellbeing.
Fermenting grains, vegetables and fruit is a time-honoured practice to preserve surplace in the season of plenty. Way before refrigeration, industrial food processing, chemical preservatives and global transport, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were fermenting wild foods to extend their shelf-life. The great thing about the process though, is that the benefits go way beyond merely making the harvest last longer. Fermentation is used to produce some of our most delicious foods and drinks including beer, wine, bead, salamis, cheese, chocolate, coffee and yogurt; some of the simple joys of life. What is more, many fermented foods have a huge range of health benefits, which is what I will examine in more detail here.
But first let’s make some distinctions
What is fermentation?
There are a few different types of fermentation that are important to us. Both of them are caused by different suites of micro-organisms.
Lactic acid fermentation
One type of fermentation occurs when a certain suite of microorganisms turn carbohydrates into organic acids. The acids are what preserve the food. In this article we will focus on lacto-fermentation, also called lactic acid fermentation.
This sort of fermentation gives us yummy stuff like cheese and bread
The other type of fermentation is caused when micro-organisms turn carbohydrates into alcohol.
Yeast, for example, turns the starch in barely and the sugars in grape juice into alcohol, thus making beer and wine possible.
That may be very interesting to some but what what is all the fuss about fermented foods?
It turns out that there are a numerous health benefits to eating foods packed with microorganisms.
More and more, medical science is discovering that our health and well-being is tightly linked to our interaction with microorganisms.
1. Fermentation improves digestion
Fermentation breaks down many of the hard to digest proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients into forms that we can digest more readily. For example, fermentation breaks down the complex protein in soybeans to readily digestible amino acids, giving us traditional Asian ingredients, such as miso, tamari and tempeh. Yogurt and cheese is another example of fermentation converting lactose, the milk sugar that many individuals cannot tolerate, into digestible lactic acid.
2. Fermented products help keep your immune system healthy.
Research is increasing demonstrating that our immune system is influenced by our gut flora. That is, imbalance between the “good” gut microbes and disease causing microbes negatively affects our immune system. Adding fermented foods to your diet helps to support the population good microbes.
Believe it or not, we have more bacteria, those pictured above, living in our gut than the total number of cell that make up our bodies – we are talking huge numbers, like 100s of trillions.
3. Fermented products can reduce gastrointestinal disease.
Fermented products, such as yoghurt, have been shown to suppress the build-up of Helicobacter pylori, which is an important risk factor for many gut problems.
4. Fermented products have anti-cancer action
A number of research studies have found that some fermented foods seem to have anti-cancer properties. For example, a study of Polish immigrants to the US, who eat about 4kg of raw or lightly cooked cabbage per year, found the incidence of breast cancer in those women was three times that of their counterparts living in Poland, who eat about 13kg of sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) per year. Various mechanisms have been indicated. It seems the organisms responsible for fermentation can for example negatively affect the gut-bacteria that generate carcinogens, produce compounds that inhibit tumour cell growth and stimulate the immune system to defend against cancer cells
5. Fermentation increases the bio-availability of important nutrients and minerals
Fermentation can create new nutrients and improve the digestibility and quantity of nutrients that are already in the food. As microorganisms grow and divide they create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine and biotin. The bioavailability of lipids and protein are also enhanced by bacterial hydrolysis. Further the production of lactic acid, butyric acid, free amino acids and short chain fatty acids, all of which are either useful or required by the body, are increased by lactic acid bacteria.
6. Fermenting milk reduces the symptoms of lactose Intolerance
Some people have a bad reaction to milk. This is because they cannot tolerate the milk sugar lactose. Lactobacillus, which is the organism responsible for making yoghurt and cheese, consumes lactose in milk and transforms it into lactic acid that can be easier for individuals to digest.
7. Fermented foods have been shown to help treat liver disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the build-up of fat in the liver cells which can cause liver swelling, scarring, and even lead to cancer or complete failure. Research has shown that probiotic yogurt can lead to a reduction of various factors associated with fatty liver disease.
“It’s worth noting that each mouthful of fermented food can provide trillions of beneficial bacteria—far more than you can get from a probiotics supplement, which will typically provide you with colony-forming units in the billions. I thought this would be a good analysis, so I tested fermented vegetables produced with our probiotic starter culture to determine their probiotic potency and was astounded to discover they had 10 trillion colony-forming units of bacteria. Literally, one serving of vegetables was equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic!”
8. Fermented foods ease symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease
Clinical trials have shown that organisms associated with fermentation can help reduce abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and flatulence in patients with inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease.
9. Fermented foods can eliminates anti-nutritional factors in food
Anti-nutrients, or compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients, can be destroyed by fermentation. For example, phytic acid, which is found in legumes and seeds, binds minerals such as iron and zinc, reducing their absorption when eaten. However, phytic acid can be broken down during fermentation, so the minerals become available. Tempeh is a delicious example of a fermented legume.
10. Eating more fermented foods can helps curb sugar cravings.
Fermented foods can limit, and in some cases stop, cravings for sugar. It seems that the gut your microbiome favoured by eating fermented foods reduces sugar cravings. Further, as the taste buds adjust to the sour/savoury flavours associated with fermented foods there tends to be a reduction in the desire for sweet food.
There are more reasons than health benefits to eat fermented foods
11. Fermentation makes food more tasty
Fermentation can make food pleasantly tangy and further enrich the flavours. For example, vanilla, chocolate, some teas and the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses owe their characteristic flavours to fermentation.
12. You can easily lacto-ferment your own food.
Let’s be clear, lacto-fermenting veggies is insanely easy You don’t have to geek out and buy expensive equipment or track down exotic cultures. Nor do you have to be privy to a huge body of esoteric knowledge It is as simple as this:
Chop up your vegies
Add some salt
Stuff them all in a jar
Leave it to ferment
13 You can ditch the over-priced and virtually useless probiotic capsules when you eat fermented foods.
If you buy veggies when they are in-season, and local, then they are usually cheap. You can then make your own super-food at home for a fraction of the cost of buying them at the health food store. Further, you can ditch the over-priced and virtually useless probiotic capsules.