When I tell people my website is about fermentation, most look at me either blankly or are taken aback. “What? Isn’t fermented food rotten, festering or gross?” I find it fascinating how disconnected we have become from this traditional process of preserving food. These fermentation methods that date back thousands of years, helped our ancestors survive by extending the shelf-life of food and simultaneously enhancing the food’s nutritional value. While the growth in technology aided in the survival of future generations, it was subsequently the demise of the practice of fermentation. The unique and interesting flavours, high nutritional value and living, beneficial microbes in naturally preserved fermented food, were replaced by commercially prepared, treated or pasteurized food.
Fortunately, the importance of our gut bacteria (the gut microbiome) has influenced modern science to recognize the nutritional value of fermented foods for our overall health. A fermentation revival is brewing, and our tastebuds, bodies and gut bacteria are all going to benefit!
THE ORIGIN OF FERMENTATION
Before the invention of refrigeration, food spoilage was rampant. Did you know that microbes thrive in warm environments (4 to 60 degrees C) where they can double in population every 15 minutes? Our ancestors had to learn how to control spoilage of the food they worked so hard to grow and forage before it became inedible. Although food preservation was our ancestor’s main concern, they unwittingly discovered a way to increase the food’s nutritional value obtained from the by-product of the beneficial bacteria and yeasts commandeering the fermentation process. “Significantly, every culture in the world seems to have its own fermented foods, suggesting how crucial they are to our health.” The Microbiome Diet, Dr.Raphael Kellman, MD, (2014)
Fermentation is essentially the controlled rot of food. If you think this sounds disgusting, then you might have to reconsider your next chocolate bar, yogurt, a slice of cheese or sausage, and a shot of Tabasco sauce, to name a few!
Beneficial bacteria and yeasts are the powerhouses in the fermentation process. Basically, they eat the sugar in food and produce useful alcohol, acids and gases (eg carbon dioxide). You can see evidence of this CO2 in the bubbles produced during fermentation. The word ferment actually means “to boil”.
Add the variables of time, salt and liquid and we have an amazing process to “cook” food, “a cold fire that can transform things from one state into a very different other” (Michael Pollan, “Cooked”).
FERMENTED FOOD: ENHANCED NUTRITIONAL VALUE
By eating the sugars, the bacteria are also pre-digesting the food for us. Take cabbage, for example. If you ate a few leaves of raw cabbage, you would most probably feel a little “gassy”, due to the polysaccharides our bodies have issues digesting. In contrast, if you ate fermented cabbage (sauerkraut, kimchi), the microbes have already consumed this dietary fibre. The food source now becomes more bioavailable to us; we can eat larger amounts and experience the full nutritional benefits of the food without gastrointestinal issues! Fermentation also increases the food’s nutritional value. Fermented vegetables have higher levels of vitamin C and B12 and enzymes than in their raw state.
PRESERVATION= SUPER TASTY and GUT HEALTHY
Back to the origin of fermentation- a method of food preservation. The good bacteria and yeasts thrive in an acidic and anaerobic (no oxygen) environment and produce acetic acid as a byproduct. This setup is inhospitable to pathogens that could cause the food to spoil or poison us.
In addition to the acetic acid, the beneficial microbes also produce other beneficial byproducts known as postbiotics. These include short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate which has been linked to improving the health of the large intestine.
Naturopathic doctor, Stephanie Harvey ND.A, recommends “incorporating fermented foods like Miso, Tempeh, Kimchi, Sauerkraut and Kefir on a regular basis. These delicious, healing foods are easy to make and will transform your health.”
When you consume uncooked, fermented food, you are consuming living, beneficial microbes as well as their valuable postbiotics. Even after refrigeration, these yeast and bacteria continue to subsist within the fermented food.
In addition to preservation and elevated nutritional value, the fermentation process deliciously transforms the flavour of the food. One of our favourite addictions, chocolate, would not taste anything like we are accustomed to if the cacao beans had not been fermented. That tasty tang found in fermented vegetables would be nonexistent without the process of lactofermentation.
MODERN FERMENTATION: FOR HEALTH AND FLAVOUR
Since modern technology has provided us with sophisticated methods of food preservation, we technically don’t need to use fermentation to extend the life of our food. However, this low-cost method of enhancing the food’s nutrition is hard to ignore. Our bodies have evolved to tolerate and benefit from the microbes involved in fermentation, giving us the bonus of a preserved, elevated nutritional food source. And the biggest bonus- it’s delicious!