by Kim Rush-Lynch
Many people are familiar with canning, but few people are aware of a traditional food preservation practice known as fermentation. Fermentation is the process where food is exposed to bacteria and yeasts, either through inoculation or naturally through the surrounding environment. When the conditions are favorable, these beneficial microorganisms outgrow their opportunistic competitors and consume the carbohydrates in the food. The results are pre-digested foods that are enzyme and nutrient rich!
The earliest record of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent. Almost every culinary tradition since has included at least one fermented food as a regular part of the diet. Familiar examples of fermented foods include: coffee, cheese, yogurt, kefir, crème fraiche, sour cream, cultured buttermilk, chocolate, wine, beer, charcuterie, vanilla, vinegar, sourdough bread, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee, tempeh, miso, natto, fish sauce, ginger beer, kvas and kombucha to name a few.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
So why bother with fermentation?
Because the fermentation process pre-digests food, it saves the pancreas the burden of excessive enzyme production and improves nutrient breakdown and assimilation. Any time your organs work less, it’s a good thing! Fermentation is used to increase the storage life of foods, improve flavor, texture, appearance and aroma, decrease the required cooking time, and most importantly, replenish the gut flora.
Fermented foods boast numerous health benefits. In addition to aiding in digestion, they increase both the nutrient content and number of beneficial microorganisms in the foods. Basically, the cultured foods serve as as prebiotic or food for the beneficial microorganisms in the gut. One of the most important beneficial bacteria by-products of fermentation is Lactobacillus; hence some refer to the fermentation process as lacto-fermentation. This is great news for our immune systems, as Lactobacilli produce natural antibiotics, acids, and hydrogen peroxide, which help to protect the body against infection by harmful microorganisms, including bacteria that can cause food poisoning. In addition, evidence suggests that these beneficial bacteria can help the body detoxify by chelating heavy metals, carcinogens, and other toxic substances and eliminate them from the body.
The fermentation process may also produce important nutrients such as vitamins B12 and K. It even increases the vitamin C content of foods, which is why Captain Cook took barrels of scurvy preventive sauerkraut with him on his voyages.
Finally, fermented foods have a positive benefit on metabolism. The beneficial bacterial nourish the thyroid by helping to convert 20% of T4 (thyroid hormone) into usable T3. In addition, the flora plays a role in how the body metabolizes and stores fat. Studies have shown that people with normal body weight have a higher percentage of one type of beneficial bacteria in their gut than people who are obese. Furthermore, there is a correlation between Type 2 diabetes and people with poor intestinal flora. Basically, poor diet leads to poor intestinal flora diversity, which leads to illness. Gardeners know that just as a plant doesn’t thrive without adequate microorganism diversity in the soil, neither does a human body without microorganism diversity in the gut.
Where To Get Fermented Foods
So you’re convinced that you need fermented foods in your diet, but you haven’t the foggiest notion of where to begin. Fortunately, fermentation is a fairly easy process that has been alive and well since ancient times. In fact, Ellen Siegel of the Greenbelt Co-op Supermarket and Pharmacy and I will conduct a FREE workshop on Tuesday, October 23rd at 7pm at the Greenbelt Youth Center. For more information and to register, www.greenbelt.coop. Ellen and I will show you how to culture raw vegetables, dairy products and whole grains.
If you’re not sure that you’re ready to foray into the wild world of fermentation, there are a variety of ready-to-eat products at the Co-op, including Deep Root Organic Co-op’s Raw Cultured Vegetables, yogurt, miso, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and amazake, a fermented rice drink. One note of caution, not all “pickled” products are fermented. Some are simply preserved with vinegar after using a chlorinated solvent to kill any microorganisms. Other products are traditionally fermented, but then heated or pasteurized, which voids any benefit. It’s important for your products to be raw to take full advantage of the benefits. Ellen and I can help you discern which products are beneficial and which are hype.
Kim Rush-Lynch is a health coach, nutritional consultant, PLAYcoach and the owner of Cultivating Health, a business that’s been providing coaching, education and support for individuals and organizations to learn and practice healthy eating, playing and loving life since 2007. Click here for her full bio.