Fermentation – The Art of Making Your Food Work For You
Before the age of refrigerators, fermentation was traditionally used as a method of food preservation. Going back to the basics by making our own ferments at home allows us to reconnect to the origin of our food, and profit from diverse colonies of live bacteria within it.
The benefits of bacteria
Fermentation occurs when micro-organisms, including bacteria and yeast, convert the sugars from raw foods into a longer-lasting form of energy, such as lactic acid. Consuming these live micro-organisms, as we do through many fermented foods, helps keep our digestive and immune systems strong.
“We are all ingesting antibacterial products on a daily basis, even at a low level, which can have repercussions for the health of our micro-ecology,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, fermentation expert and author of The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). “Consuming fermented foods containing live bacterial cultures can help replenish the populations already living in our gut.”
Probiotics, a term referring to the beneficial live bacteria that can reach our intestinal tracts through fermented food, have been shown to act as anticarcinogens, restore crucial intestinal flora, and help us ward off illness.
A natural evolution
Although our ancestors may not have been aware of the microscopic superheroes present in many of their traditional foods, the preservation process enacted by probiotic bacteria was both visible and invaluable.
“The historical context of fermentation was to preserve the harvest,” says Katz.
Without refrigerators, milk was transformed into longer-lasting kefir, yogurt, and cheese. Vegetables such as cabbage and cucumbers were turned into rot-resisting kimchi and pickles. In this way, the “good” bacteria, which instigate the process of fermentation, can inhibit the growth of pathogenic “bad” bacteria, acting as a safe and natural preservative.
“Even now, looking at the earth as a whole, most people do not own a refrigerator,” says Katz. “These are practical preservation strategies; fermentation, throughout history, has always been used for effective food safety.”
Much attention has been paid in recent years to the benefits of probiotics. However, mass-produced commercial ferments are usually treated with heat—killing the live bacteria—or contain only limited bacterial strains. Home fermentation allows multiple types of beneficial bacteria to transform and remain in our food, providing a wealth of health benefits.
From Eastern European sauerkraut to Japanese miso soup, traditional ferments provide a simple way to benefit from natural bacterial processes. The following ferments are all rich in live bacteria and can be made at home using very little equipment.
Usually made of fermented cabbage and radish, this tangy Korean staple is rich in both bone-protective vitamin K and brain-boosting vitamin B12. Studies have suggested that fermented kimchi can increase metabolism, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduce inflammation in overweight subjects. The beneficial effects were noted to be much greater in those who consumed fermented kimchi, rather than fresh.
This probiotic-filled fermented milk packs a healthy punch. Grown from bacterial grains, kefir’s protective lactic acid bacteria boosts immunity, helping us to ward off infections. It can also decrease the severity of allergic responses such as lactose intolerance.
Regular consumption of kefir can ease tummy troubles and may promote anticarcinogenic activity. One study even referred to the tart treat as “a new dawn of food for mankind”—so go ahead and drink up!
This hearty ferment brings good news for those with a gluten allergy. Research suggests the bacteria in sourdough can calm intestinal inflammation, and further studies found that fermenting gluten-free sourdough bread with lactic acid bacteria can remove the risk of gluten contamination. Though more detailed studies are needed, sourdough bread made with gluten-free flours may be a tasty option for celiacs.
Unprocessed cheese, including Gouda, havarti, mozzarella, ricotta, and feta, is another fermented milk product that allows us to benefit from lactic acid-producing bacteria. These probiotics have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and offer protection from heart disease, while helping to regulate digestive function and soothe inflammation, which is particularly beneficial for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Fermented foods are regaining popularity as an important source of probiotics. This “good” bacteria restores crucial intestinal flora and improves immunity. If you’re looking for a little extra boost for your digestive health, show your gut some love with these delicious traditional foods.