What are fermented foods?
Vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes, nuts, meats and diary were first fermented as a means of preserving perishables. To get the most out of a harvest, people had to find a way to make the bounty last for winter, famine, or long distance transportation. While fermented foods were a necessary means of survival, it has also developed into an art form in many cultures. From sauerkraut, cheeses, sauces, and vegetables buried in earthen pots, these foods have been enjoyed and sustaining humans in various cultures and civilizations for thousands of years. Fermentation not only prolongs the life of the foods in a healthy, sustainable way, the food is preserved without the use of chemical preservatives, relying on microbes to do the job for us.
Fermented foods are whole foods that, with the help of microorganisms, go through a process called lacto-fermentation. The natural beneficial bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food converting it to lactic acid, which is what gives fermented foods the sour taste. This form of preserves creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotic powerhouses. This boosts levels of good bacteria to improve your overall health and balance your body’s collective microbiome, which in turn will aid your digestive system. A healthy microbiome will also increase immunity, reduce chance of disease, lower blood pressure and help maintain a healthy weight.
The typical modern North American diet is actually one of the only diets in the world that doesn’t include fermented foods. Traditional foods such as miso and sauerkraut help to aid our gut and digestion. Even root beer started out as a fermented medicinal drink. Ginger ale and root beer were so popular that the food industry caught on, and manufactured soda pop was born to replace what was once a naturally effervescent health drink. Our ancestors learned the benefits of fermentation early on, but for some reason, we’ve gradually replaced a nutritious diet with “better living through chemistry” in the last century.
You probably know that brined pickles, soy sauce, wine and yogurt are fermented, as well as cheese and sourdough bread. Did you know that chocolate is a fermented product as well, or that dry aged beef and other meats are, in a sense, fermented products, allowing microbes to break down the enzymes in the meat enhancing their flavour and texture? There are literally thousands of fermented foods across the globe. Natto, tempeh, rejuvelac, kvass, kombucha, marmite, ginger beer, brined cucumbers, miso, doenjang, lukfish, dosa, water kefir, and braga to name a few.
When a food is fermented, it encourages the growth of good bacteria, while preventing the growth of spoilage-causing microorganisms. Fermentation helps to improve the biological value of your foods, therefore increasing the nutritional value for your digestion. In the fermentation process, the food is broken down or predigested as it ferments, which makes it easier for the body to process. It also has a unique ability to ease stomach discomfort from too much or too little gastric acid by adjusting it’s acidity; this helps to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter for facilitating the transmission of nerve impulses, which aids in bowel movements and constipation.
Over-usage of antibiotics and antibacterial soaps can cause resistance, killing other good bacteria, but will allow this resistant subset to proliferate. Antibiotic use destroys the normal balance of gut flora and leaves an open field for bad bacteria and fungi to move in. Moreover, over-consumption of simple sugars & refined carbohydrates will feed the bad yeast. Once the immune system is weakened, or there are not enough good bacteria to combat the bad yeast, then it begins to grow unchecked and cause symptoms, such as “leaky gut.”
With a diet of sugars and over-processed foods, people today are also struggling to keep their bodies as healthy and happy as those who lived before us! When there aren’t enough good bacteria to aid digestion, poorly digested food can lead to putrefaction (rotting) which would encourage the growth of unwanted organisms and eliminate good bacteria.
Beneficial bacteria is a natural part of the food chain, that when coupled with active enzymes, ensures the foods we eat are broken down, effectively absorbed and utilized by our body.
Studies have shown that beneficial bacteria help balance the gut flora in your digestive system and reduce the levels of toxic pathogens that cause ill health. Additional research also suggests that the regular consumption of live lactobacilli bacteria can improve your gut flora and reduce the number of infections by reducing harmful bacteria.
When you start learning to ferment your own foods, you will begin to understand the way that microbes can actually provide better protection from pathogens than sanitation can. In fact, the lactic acid produced by the bacteria that make sauerkraut sour is so effective at killing food-borne human pathogens, the pork industry has begun using lactic acid to prevent Salmonella. (1)
Why are good bacteria important?
The word “probiotics” means pro-life, as opposed to antibiotics.
We may think of bacteria as tiny creatures that we sometimes refer to as germs - those living critters that cause nasty diseases. Bacteria are responsible for such human diseases as food poisoning and pneumonia. They can also cause seasonal allergies, migraines, and tiredness in people if your gut and digestion aren’t in good health. The gut is very important to the immune system, and an unhealthy gut can have serious implications for your overall health and well-being. Think of it as a well-working plumbing system!
Good bacteria are extremely beneficial to living things, including humans. In the soil, bacteria break down organic matter and make natural chemicals available to living organisms. Beneficial bacteria and active enzymes ensure the foods are easily absorbed, digested, and utilized in our bodies.
New studies have shown that a large number of health concerns and diseases can be traced back to an overload of toxicity from stress, an unhealthy acidic diet and excessive exposure to environmental chemicals and pollutants, which could impact your gut and digestive health.
Why is digestion so important?
The great thing about the lacto-fermentation process is that the tough cellular walls of vegetables are broken down, allowing for much easier absorption by the body. During fermentation, the vitamin levels actually increase along with enzyme levels, often by 2 to 3 times, while the levels of beneficial probiotics can exceed the numbers of any probiotic supplement. These great lacto-bacilli help to build the flora, good bacteria in the digestive tract, which in turn builds and supports the immune system.
Adults have approximately 2 kilograms of bacteria in the lining of our gut and bowel wall. Those 2 kilograms are compiled of approximately 85% beneficial bacteria and 15% harmful bacteria. Just like your vegetables in your garden, or harmony in your work or personal life, we can function well with this balance of bacteria. However stress, poor diet, malabsorption, antibiotics, or environmental and chemical pollutants, viruses or parasites can disturb this delicate balance. This condition is called ‘dysbiosis’.
What is Dysbiosis?
Dysbiosis is an imbalance in your gut flora caused by too few good bacteria and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast, and/or parasites.
You may have heard of the gut/brain connection. I am convinced that the wisdom of our ancestors, who coined the terms “gut feeling’ or “trust your gut instinct,” understood the true meaning of an emotional body response and respected their natural radar, having been hunters and gatherers. Your gut tells you when you are hungry, lovesick, stressed or have eaten something that has gone bad. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). (2)
Studies suggest that 95% of serotonin neurotransmitters and feel-good hormones come from our gut rather than our brain, and 85% of our immune system is manufactured in the lining of our gut wall. Serotonin carries signals to the nerves. It is a chemical that is responsible for mood, and low serotonin levels can lead to depression. Therefore, a compromised gut does more than interfere with digestion. It may also alter your immune system and upset your hormonal balance. A dysbiosis will also cause mental fogginess, anxiety, depression and mood swings, an increase in colds, allergies, autoimmune disorders, skin problems, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal upsets and a slower healing process.
Fermented foods are easier to digest because they're already partially broken down by the bacteria.
When fermented foods are consumed in your daily diet you will notice the health benefits including lower cholesterol, less inflammation, healthy weight, better mood and brain function and proper digestion. This may help with back pain due to stress on the lower abdominal muscles besides releasing toxicities, and building a stronger immune system. In fact, Florastor is a brand name probiotic, Saccharomyces boulardii, used in hospitals to treat diarrhea and infections. Kombucha is loaded with this particular strain of yeast.
Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction, Healing Crisis or Die-off
Knowing exactly what is happening in your body is key to your healing journey. When you consume fermented foods for the first time, especially if you have many ailments, pay attention to what your body is telling you. A reaction may arise when large quantities of toxins are released into the body as the bad bacteria die-off. It can occur during antibiotic treatment or detoxifying too rapidly. Toxins are released as the “casualties” die off faster than the kidneys and liver can process. Gastrointestinal issues may initially worsen. You may also find you have flatulence, bloating or diarrhea. Some of us may develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle pain, hives and headaches, or a worsening of allergies. You may want to introduce these foods slowly into your system, increasing the amounts slowly.
The Many Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are Mother Nature’s probiotics. They contain many live bacteria along with many other crucial nutrients. Here are some of the benefits:
Fermentation helps to increase the micronutrients of food, such as vitamin K2 (potassium), which help prevent arterial plaque buildup and heart disease. Fermented foods also create beneficial enzymes like vitamin Bs, vitamin A, vitamin C, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various other probiotics. Fermentation also eliminates anti-nutrients that interfere with absorption of nutrients. Phytic acid found in legumes and seeds can be broken down via fermentation so the minerals become available. Miso and tempeh are some of the examples of fermented legumes.
Your gut is your largest immune organ in your body. About 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut. A proper balance of gut bacteria with digestive enzymes helps to absorb nutrients in the food, which in turn, strengthens you with natural supplements and vitamins. It is your top defense system against all disease. The chronic inflammation linked to diseases can begin with an unhealthy gut microbiota.
The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods are highly potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of pesticides, toxins and heavy metals. Fermentation breaks down the nutrients in foods by the action of beneficial microorganisms and creates natural chelators that are available to bind toxins and remove them from the body. Kimchi is known to be a powerhouse detoxifier.
Fermenting is an ideal way of preserving your summer harvest as well as maintaining your overall health, from making vinegars, yogurt, kefir, jun, kombucha, and preserves to making your own fermented sauces. It is also low tech and consumes a small amount of energy to produce. What a great way to do our part for climate change, and be in touch with the natural world, microbes and all. All you need is a knife, a chopping board, some earthenware or glassware, and food from nature! No canning, slaving over a hot stove, or expensive equipment required.
Incorporating a variety of fermented and cultured foods into your diet will ensure you'll get a much wider variety of beneficial bacteria than you could ever get from a supplement.
You cannot reap the benefits of raw vegetables if your gut flora is imbalanced due to the fact that you can’t absorb the nutrients. Cultured foods are pre-digested and processed by micro-organisms, making certain nutrients more available for absorption. Fermented vegetables contain higher levels of B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. The lactic acid produced during fermentation promotes the growth of healthy flora in the intestine needed for our microbial inner ecosystem to aid the digestive enzymes. This would ensure you get the most nutrients out of all foods you ingest. Besides increasing and preserving nutrients, fermentation also reduces anti-nutrients. Phytates, which are present in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, bind to minerals, making those nutrients unavailable for absorption. Fermentation breaks these molecular bonds so the body can absorb them easily.
Traditional Ferments vs Commercial Store-Bought Ferments
Like most things in nature, “live foods” cannot be packaged or processed. Commercial “ferments,” while creating something 'safe' and with a shelf life, are usually pasteurized, which defeats the purpose of consuming them in the first place. “Live foods” are metamorphic, just like everything in nature, and their essence will somehow be lost in a superficial environment. Commercial products are usually geared for taste, not for health but for the bottom line, and filled with stabilizers, sweeteners and other additives. Commercial ferments such as yogurt have a high lactose content and are usually saturated with sugar, gelatin, and artificial flavours. Finding a “live” store-bought kefir is difficult; most are misleading even if labeled “raw” kefir. In order for Kefir to be the genuine article, it needs kefir grains, and not a powdered starter, which commercial kefir cannot do to keep a consistent product. Commercial sauerkraut, especially the canned versions, is likely pasteurized, which kills not only the bad bacteria but the beneficial bacteria as well, along with all the enzymes and nutrients. Commercial kombucha, by law, kills off yeast fermentation, thus killing off the good yeasts to avoid the alcohol content, as well as to prevent continued carbonation and the risk of bottles exploding. Many commercial Kombucha are also laden with sugar and pasteurized, negating the wonderful health benefits that are widely promoted nowadays. All in all, some commercial ferments may do more harm than good.
Besides knowing what is in your ferments, homemade ferments will always be more delicious than commercial, and more cost effective. An added bonus is picking up a skill that is technical, scientific, as well as traditional. It will open up a whole new way of seeing living things and the cycle of life.
To ensure you are getting the true taste and value of traditional fermented foods, make your own, or purchase from a small ferment company.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions about medical conditions.
(1) The pork industry has begun using lactic acid to prevent Salmonella
(2) Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS).
Rachel conducts gardening, culinary and fermenting workshops/retreats at her home on 100 acres in Northern Ontario, Canada, where she lives in creative harmony with nature. Rachel’s mission is to ensure the wisdom of our ancestors is preserved for future generations.
Images ©2002-2023 Rachel Thoo