Before you turn up your nose at fermented food, just remember this: If you’ve ever had pickles with your sandwich, or sauerkraut on your hot dog, or kefir, or yogurt, or kimchi, or miso, or beer, or wine, then you too have indulged with pleasure. What’s more, while savouring their distinctive flavors, you probably weren’t focused on their actual health benefits. The fact is that these foods have been shown to boost our immune and digestive systems by increasing the number of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
The word fermentation comes from the Latin term to boil, probably because early attempts at fermenting beverages resulted in bubbling and foaming that looked a lot like boiling. In the process of fermentation, organic substances are turned into simpler compounds by enzymes. Among the microorganisms that produce these enzymes are molds, yeasts, and bacteria.
Molds and yeasts belong to the fungus kingdom, and are distinct from both plants and animals.
Microorganisms, however, unlike molds and yeasts, need more than carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to feed and grow on. The fermentation that occurs along the way is incidental to their growth. Whatever the agents of fermentation, the healthy bacteria they provide to the gut increases the body’s defenses against harmful contamination, viruses, worms, parasites, and yes, unhealthy fungi and bacteria.
Almost all indigenous cultures around the world include some form of fermented food in their diet, and have been doing so since Neolithic times. The earliest in the West were yeast-based beer, wine, and bread, and cheeses made by bacteria and molds.
In East Asia, these were followed not long after with yogurt and other fermented milk products, pickles, vinegar, butter, and other alcoholic beverages. Fermentation has been an essential feature of Asian cuisines ever since. Japanese natto (soybeans), Chinese douchi (black beans), Korean kimchi (cabbage, radish, and other root vegetables), Vietnamese nuoc mam (fish sauce), Burmese ngachauk (dried fish), are all staples of each country’s daily diets. In addition, many fermented foods in Eastern cultures are valued for their medicinal properties as well.
Sad, then, that we seem to be seeing a decrease in traditional food fermentation in developing countries of the East – a decline partly due to the influence of Western supermarkets and fast-food culture. All the more reason for keeping alive this age-old culture of preservation, by introducing some fermented foods into our diet.
Here are five excellent reasons to do so:
Absorption of nutrients. The digestive enzyme in fermented foods increases absorption of nutrients by rendering them “partially digested,” thus helping the breakdown of food in our body before it's even ingested.
Lactose intolerance is a common allergic reaction to milk. Fermented cultures in yogurt may help alleviate this intolerance. For vegans, coconut kefirs are a great substitute.
Weight loss. Numerous studies demonstrate the effects that healthy bacteria can have on weight loss.
A study on obesity published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that by simply drinking a probiotic-rich fermented drink for 12 weeks, subjects reduced their abdominal fat by nearly 5 percent.
Another study on infants aged 6 months and 12 months identified those with high counts of bifidobacteria as being far less prone to obesity than those with lower counts, perhaps explaining why breastfed babies are similarly less prone to obesity (since bifidobacteria are more prevalent in mother’s milk.)
Additionally, two separate studies detected 90% more of a healthy bacteria called bacteroidetes in lean people than in obese people.
Immune system boosts. Intestinal flora is often overlooked by conventional medicine in fighting disease. Perhaps knowing that 85% of our body's immune system lives in our intestines and carries approximately 100 trillion bacteria (both good and bad), should be sufficient reason to “go with our gut” in treating various ailments. It’s worth remembering too that fermented foods contain probiotics that colonize the gastrointestinal tract with beneficial microorganisms for a healthy immune system.
Studies published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews and The Journal of Nutrition show not only how probiotics may reduce diarrhea and other intestinal problems, but how they may even protect the body against colon cancer. In keeping with such findings, according to the United Nations University, kefir has been used in the treatment of tuberculosis, cancer, and pulmonary tuberculosis. Other maladies widely believed to benefit from probiotics therapy are diarrhea, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Vitamin content. The process of fermentation greatly increases the vitamin content in foods containing B Vitamins, Vitamin C, Choline, Thiamine, and Biotin.
According to The International Journal of Food Science & Technology, “Fermented dairy products show an increased level of folic acid which is critical to producing healthy babies as well as pyroxidine, B vitamins, riboflavin and biotin depending on the strains of bacteria present.”
Longer food shelf life. If you’re ready and willing to try out food fermentation at home – whether for health, culinary, or experimental purposes – the good news is that one of the easiest and most common methods of food preservation.
It is thought that in early societies, before the process was understood, fermentation was seen as a miracle of transformation. The Egyptians praised Osiris for the brewing of beer; the Greeks worshipped Bacchus as the god of wine; in Japan, few miso and shoyu breweries were without a small shrine to the Gods.
Maybe the time has come now to recapture the sense of wonder inherent in this ancient practice of preserving our food and satisfying our taste buds at the same time. And to think that all it takes is the nearest vegetable to hand—carrots, cucumbers, onions, garlic, radishes, cauliflower, you name it; a bit of salt, and a nice clean jar … and a miracle is born!