To most Americans, the term “fermented foods” may sound somewhat strange and even distasteful. Yet, many will be surprised that this ancient preparation and preservation technique actually produces delicious foods that are also incredibly healthy and important to our well-being.
Fermentation has been used by humans as early as 10,000 B.C. to preserve foods for long periods without the use of freezers or canning machines. Fermentation or culturing involves the chemical process of breaking a complicated food substance down into simpler parts, usually with the help of bacteria, yeasts, or fungi. Cultured dairy products, miso, olives, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, tempeh, beer, wine, and the aged sausages the French call “charcuterie” are some the most popular and delicious traditional fermented delicacies.
Why You Need Fermented Foods In Your Diet
Your body is a complex ecosystem made up of more than 100 trillion microbes. This system of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa living on your skin, in your mouth, nose, throat, lungs, gut, and urogenital tract is referred to as the human microbiome. In the last few years, there is a flurry of scientific information about how crucial this microbiome is to genetic expression, immune system, inflammation, body weight and composition, mental health, memory, and minimizing risks for numerous diseases, from diabetes to cancer.
Although there is still so much about the human microbiome that is not understood, there are some facts that are known for certain – your army of microorganisms is continuously affected by your environment, diet and lifestyle choices. If your microbiome is harmed and thrown out of balance (such as an overgrowth of bad bacteria, not enough good bacteria), all sorts of illnesses can result, both acute and chronic. The following are some factors that pose the gravest dangers to your microbiome:
- Excess refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup in the diet
- Genetically modified foods
- Gluten, if you are sensitive or intolerant to it
- Antibiotics (both taken as a drug or in meats and milk of factory farmed animals)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Acid-blocking drugs used to treat acid reflux (Nexium, Prilosec, Prevacid)
- Pesticides and herbicides, in particular glyphosate (Roundup)
- Chlorinated water
- Chronic stress
In this day and age, your microbiome is perpetually facing assault from multiple fronts. A very effective way to help out your army of microorganisms is to eat more fermented foods regularly. Fermented foods are very rich in beneficial bacteria, they work as reinforcements for your good bacteria in the digestive system. Since 70-80% of your immune system lies in the gut, having the proper balance of gut flora is essential.
Benefits Of Eating Fermenting Foods
Apart from inoculating your gut with healthy bacteria, eating foods that have been fermented have other benefits too.
Fermentation enhances digestion of the food. Fermented foods have been partially broken down and pre-digested by bacteria or yeasts. That explains why people who cannot tolerate milk can usually eat yogurt as the lactose in milk has already been converted into lactic acid by the Lactobacilli bacteria.
Fermented foods improve your digestion. Your body needs adequate digestive enzymes to properly digest, absorb, and utilize the nutrients in food. However, as you age, your body naturally produces less. Fermented foods are rich in these digestive enzymes.
Fermented foods have higher levels of vitamin K2 and vitamins B9 (folate) and B12 (coalbumin). These vitamins are extremely important cofactors in many chemical reactions in the body. K2 is essential for keeping calcium in the bones and out of the arteries. Folate is used by the body to make DNA and is important for the healthy development of cells and brain health. B12 is needed for energy production and it keeps your nerves and red blood cells healthy.
Fermentation enriches the flavor of food. There is a reason why we like pairing wine with stinky cheeses, having sauerkraut on our hot dogs, or eating pickles with our sandwiches. Fermentation increases the depth and richness of the food’s flavor.
Watch Out For “Fake” Fermented Foods
Fermentation, like most things in nature, takes time and can be inconsistent. For instance, “true” sauerkraut is made by fermenting cabbage with the correct level of salinity and at the proper temperature. According to some experts, sauerkraut needs at least six months to fully mature and develop its flavor.
In the old days, people made sauerkraut, pickles, relishes, mustard, ketchup, fruit chutneys, marmalades, and preserves at home using traditional methods of lacto-fermentation. The end products contain high concentrations of various strains of Lactobacilli bacteria. If you leave a jar of pickles that is still fermenting at room temperature on the kitchen counter, it will continue to ferment and produce carbon dioxide. Eventually, it will blow off the lid or explode in the jar. This is “live” food!
Unfortunately, our modern culture calls for speed, consistency, and convenience. Commercial food manufacturers developed techniques to help standardize yields and expedite production. Say with sauerkraut, after the cabbage has been fermented, manufacturers employ high-heat pasteurization to halt the fermentation process, resulting in the destruction of all bacteria. By doing so, the sauerkraut becomes shelf-stable and has a much longer shelf-life. Or, instead of taking the time to actually ferment the vegetables and fruits, manufacturers merely add vinegar to achieve the desired acidity.
Nowadays, you can easily find “fake” fermented foods in jars and cans on the shelves of grocery markets. They probably also contain sodium benzoate or some other forms of preservative that further extends their shelf life. One wonders why we have become so vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisms even though our sanitary practices have improved leaps and bounds. Have we compromised our intestinal health by abandoning fermented foods in our diet?
All truly fermented foods with live cultures are found in the refrigerator section of grocery markets and health food stores such as Whole Foods. It is also very easy and economical to make your own fermented vegetables at home.
Examples Of Fermented Foods
Consumption of fermented foods has long been an integral part of the human diet. Therefore, try to incorporate some of these foods in your daily regimen, especially the fermented vegetables and cultured dairy products which can be rather high in probiotic or bacterial count.
Beer, coffee, cultured buttermilk, fermented milk, fermented tea, kefir, kombucha, lassi (Indian yogurt drink), sake, and wine.
Coffee from beans which have gone through wet mill (versus dry mill) processing have been fermented. Wet milling is more costly of the two techniques and produces higher quality coffee. Arabica coffees are generally wet milled except most Arabicas from Brazil, Ethiopia, Haiti, Paraguay, and some from India and Ecuador. Almost all Robusta coffee (which are cheaper than Arabica) are dry milled and not fermented.
Fermented teas are a class of teas that have undergone an open-air fermentation, from several months to many years, to improve their flavor. In general, white, green, and black teas are not fermented. Most of the fermented teas are from China and they are often referred as “dark” tea. The best known are pu-erh tea and liu’an tea.
Kombucha is a type of fermented tea produced by placing a culture of bacteria and yeast in a sweetened tea, as sugars are necessary for fermentation. Black tea, green tea, white tea, or yerba mate (a tea from South America) may be used.
Cheese and other dairy products
Many different kinds of cheeses including blue, cheddar, feta, goat, cottage, cream, and ricotta cheeses, Crème Fraîche, cultured butter, sour cream, and yogurt are fermented.
Yogurt is usually made from milk inoculated with Streptococcus thermophilus and either Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lactobacillus bulgaricus. All yogurt is not equally beneficial. Sometimes additional cultures may be added. Sometimes, manufacturers pasteurize the yogurt after the cultures are added, which literally kills off everything.
Therefore, the amount of beneficial bacteria can vary tremendously. Check the label to see if the manufacturer specifies a certain amount of live and active cultures, such as XXX million or X billion cultures. As the product ages and gets closer to the expiration date, the probiotic count also declines, sometimes quite significantly.
Watch out for sweetened yogurt products, which contain a high amount of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. These are practically junk food disguised as health food to lure uninformed consumers to spend their money.
Cacao seeds must be fermented, dried, and roasted before being used for making chocolate. Hence, chocolate is a fermented food. (Raw cacao is partially fermented to remove the bitterness and bring out the chocolate flavor.) Always look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cacao. Milk and white chocolates have very low cacao content.
Cured salmon and trout are popular in Scandinavia.
Used in Asian cooking.
Fermented cabbage from Korea, usually found in the refrigerator section of health food stores.
Fermented or cured sausages, French saucisson, French charcuterie, Spanish chorizo, Italian salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, and air-dried beef.
Most of these meats have sodium nitrite or nitrate added as a preservative. Since studies have implicated them as cancer-causing agents, it is best to opt for some healthier cured meats that do not contain these additives.
Fermented soybean paste used in soup and flavoring in Japanese cooking. Best to buy organic as most soybeans are genetically-modified.
Usually eaten with rice, natto is a stringy, slimy fermented soybean dish from Japan. Natto is also very high in vitamin K2.
Olives that come in cans and jars have been pasteurized and do not contain any live bacteria. However, the olives in the self-serve olive/antipasto bars in grocery markets are more likely to be traditionally lacto-fermented.
Only the traditionally fermented pickles have beneficial bacteria, not the ones that come in jars, which are simply packed in salt and vinegar, or pasteurized. Look for real fermented pickles in the refrigerator section of health food stores.
Soy sauce or tamari
Organic is always preferable.
Only the unpasteurized sauerkraut contains live culture. It is usually found in the refrigerator section of grocery markets.
Sourdough bread is made by a long fermentation of dough using naturally occurring Lactobacilli and wild yeasts. In comparison with breads made quickly with cultivated yeast, it usually has a mildly sour taste because of the lactic acid produced by the Lactobacilli. Sourdough bread generally has less carbohydrates and a lower glycemic index than regular bread.
Fermented soybean cake originated from Indonesia.
Mature vanilla pods go through the process of fermentation to produce their unique aroma and flavor. When you buy a bottle of vanilla, make sure it is pure and contain only 3 ingredients – vanilla, alcohol, and water.
Vinegar consists of mainly water and acetic acid, which is produced from the fermentation of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) by acetic acid bacteria. Vinegar is antimicrobial and was used to treat infections in ancient times. The active ingredient, acetic acid, can effectively kill mycobacteria and even highly drug-resistant strains. Therefore, vinegar, apart from its culinary purpose, can also be used as an inexpensive and non-toxic disinfectant and household cleaning agent.