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Fermented foods are trendy right now. Kimchi, kombucha and crusty sourdough breads are all prevalent in natural food stores. What’s all the fuss about? Can ferments really live up to all the health-food miracle hype? Let’s look at the facts.

What does it mean when food is fermented?

Fermentation is the chemical process through which sugars (glucose, fructose and sucrose) are converted into cellular energy by yeast, forming carbon dioxide and/or alcohol. The metabolic byproduct of this process is lactic acid, which in turn produces digestive enzymes and feeds the bacteria that makes for a healthy gut. Defined more broadly, fermentation is the bulk growth of microorganisms on one medium. Fermentation is such an important process – there is a whole field of science dedicated to it called Zymology.

Historical origins of fermented foods

Wine barrels in a winery

Wine-making – the oldest form of fermentation

The art of fermenting food has been practiced since ancient times. Used as a food preservation technique all over the world, fermentation is a culinary form deeply rooted in tradition that also enhances the nutritional content of food.

Winemaking, discovered over eight thousand years ago, is the oldest form of fermentation that records exist for. Multiple cultures seem to have discovered the benefits of drinking alcohol simultaneously, including people groups in Iran, Babylon, Pre-Hispanic Mexico and Egypt.

Though alcohol may have been the most prevalent way historically to ferment, it is by no means the only one with cultural significance. What would Germany be without sauerkraut, or Korea without kimchi? The benefits of fermented foods go beyond their health impacts and have caused them to become essential parts of many food cultures throughout history.

Where have all the fermented foods gone?

If fermented foods are so healthy and culturally significant, why is the American diet severely lacking in them? Unfortunately, the increase of industrialized food preparation in recent years has caused the amount of probiotics and enzymes in the average diet to nose dive towards zero. Pasteurized milk has replaced raw milk and yogurt, vinegar-based pickles have replaced lacto-fermented ones, and sauerkraut is rarely touched. Even grains, which often used to be sprouted or fermented, are largely eaten in highly processed forms that strip them of their nutrient potential.

In the span of a few decades, generations of time-honored traditional fermented foods have all but been lost to the general public. This is a tragedy.

Why should you introduce fermented foods into your diet?

It turns out modern society is pretty bad for your belly. Between sterile foods stripped of their nutritional content, chlorinated water and antibiotic drugs, a contemporary lifestyle is fighting an ongoing war against your gut bacteria. This is bad news, because having a bacteria-filled digestive tract is an important part of total-body health, and eating fermented foods full of healthy bacteria will give your system the ‘oomph’ it needs.

Health benefits of fermented foods

Without a healthy flora of gut bacteria to help you digest your dinner, you won’t be getting the maximum benefits out of your food.

  • Restored gut health: The fermentation process produces lactic acid that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestine. Many common ailments, including lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, constipation, yeast infections, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and allergies, have all been linked with an unhealthy shortage of good bacteria in the digestive tract.
    Because fermentation essentially begins the process of digesting your food before you eat it, ferments can be helpful for people that can’t handle foods in their natural state. For example, lactose intolerant people can often enjoy yogurt because the fermentation process for milk causes much of the problematic lactose to be consumed by sugar-hungry bacteria.
  • Increased vitamin levels: Lactic acid makes foods easier to digest and increases the levels of Vitamin A and C that are accessible. Fermented dairy products are known to have increased levels of folic acid, pyroxidine, B vitamins, riboflavin and biotin, depending on the strains of bacteria.
  • Removes toxins and helps fight cancer: The beneficial microorganisms in fermented foods help to break down the nutrients in food and create natural binding agents (chelators) which bind to and remove toxic ingredients from the body. Recent studies have shown that vitamin K2, which is commonly found in fermented foods, also has proven beneficial for reducing your risk of prostate cancer.
  • Cuts out sugar: The fermentation process requires sugar to work, meaning it gets gobbled up by bacteria before you eat it.

Culinary benefits of fermented foods

A bowl of kimchi

Kimchi – a traditional Korean side-dish

Not only are fermented foods healthier, they also taste great and have some big benefits for anyone trying to live a more natural life.

  • Longer lasting: Partially digested foods don’t spoil as quickly. Milk goes bad after a few weeks, but kefir and yogurt can last far longer. Fermenting is a great preservation option for garden produce that you don’t have time to eat right away: turn your bounty into sauerkraut, pickles and salsa!
  • Inexpensive: As far as hobbies go, this one is pretty simple. No fancy equipment is required, and the cheapest vegetables can all be fermented. Even kombucha can be made for just a few pennies once a SCOBY is procured.
  • Increased flavors: Why are aged wines and stinky cheeses so popular? Humans love the rich, pungent tastes that the fermentation process brings to our foods.
  • Safer to eat than raw vegetables: This goes against popular thought, because many people are scared of homemade goods and are far more trusting of anything produced with regulations in a factory. In fact, fermented foods are safer to consume than raw vegetables. While raw vegetables can get contaminated with E. coli, the fermentation process kills off any vestige of this harmful bacteria.

Easy ways to get fermented foods back in your diet

You don’t need a Whole Foods membership plan to incorporate fermented foods into your diet. There are plenty of easy, affordable ways you can make your own right at home.

Brew kombucha

Made from black tea and sugar, kombucha is a fizzy, slightly alcoholic drink that has been shown to assist with treating arthritis, depression, heart burn, low energy levels and Candida. Chock-full of probiotics, a few sips of kombucha a day will give you a healthy boost.

The simplest way to brew kombucha is to mix one gallon of black tea (about 5 tea bags should do it) with one cup of sugar. Let the sugar dissolve and wait for the mix to cool to room temperature. Pour the tea in a glass jug (glass is important, as metal and plastic can interfere with the bacteria) and simply add a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, found at most health food stores) to the top. Then cover the opening with a cheesecloth. Let the kombucha sit in a safe place for two weeks to a month, or until you are happy with the tangy taste. Look here for more detailed instructions.

Ferment your veggies

Fermenting raw vegetables is a great way to make produce from your garden healthier, and it can be a convenient way to use some up when you have too much at once!

All you need is a cutting board, a bit of an inoculant, some spices and a glass jar or fermentation crock. Chop up your vegetables as appropriate, keeping in mind that greater surface area speeds up fermentation. Add a little salt, whey, or a starter culture to the vegetables and put them in the crock, leaving them in a room temperature place for one to three weeks before moving them into cold storage. You can use this basic recipe to ferment just about any vegetable, or try making a tried and true recipe like beet kvass, kimchi, or fermented pickles.

Experiment with dairy

Dairy products can make for delicious fermented foods. Cheese, yogurt and sour cream are the most prevalent, but kefir is making a comeback. Similar to a liquidy yogurt, kefir is tangy and full of more probiotics than any other dairy product. Simply add kefir grains to milk and let it sit out for 12 to 40 hours until the fermentation process is complete. You can rinse your kefir grains and use them again. For the full nutritional benefits, make kefir out of raw, organic milk.

In summary

Fermented foods should be considered an important component of total body health. Rich in gut healthy probiotics, ferments keep your internal systems regulated and provide numerous nutritional and culinary benefits. Easy and inexpensive to make, you have no excuse not to try making fermented foods yourself. Do your digestive system a favor and eat some fermented foods today!

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.