“It’s the microbes that will have the last word.” – Louis Pasteur (1)
Everyone seems to be into probiotics these days, and for good reason. There’s been a growing awareness in the health community with regards to the importance of our gut bacteria and how they contribute to our well-being.
Fermented foods, however, are far more than just the latest health trend.
The benefits of fermented food for the human body are incredible, and fermentation is also one of the most effective ways to store food for long periods of time.
Different cultures around the world have extensive traditions of using fermentation methods to preserve their food and enhance nutrition. Many holistic systems of nutrition and lifestyle, such as macrobiotics, place fermented foods front-and-center in the daily diet.
OK, so what’s all the hype about?
In the fermenting process, sugars in food are converted into lactic and/or acetic acid by microorganisms. As a result, this prevents the food from going bad while also making it more digestible for the human body.
As author Sandor Katz states in his landmark book Wild Fermentation, it’s essentially a process of transformation.
There’s almost no limit to what can be fermented: fruit, vegetables, grains, milk, and even meats have all been popular subjects of this beneficial transformation for thousands of years. (1)
The common process of lacto-fermentation is facilitated by the presence of a form of bacteria called Lactobacilli, a “good” bacteria that can perform wonders for intestinal health and protect your gut from the presence of “bad” bacteria.
This is really the key thing to understand about the importance of fermented foods: they naturally contain probiotics, living cultures of bacteria that enrich and purify the gut microbiome and thus ensure the health of our entire digestive system. (2)
Once you understand this, it becomes clear why there are so many benefits of fermented food.
As icky as it might sound, your body hosts a population of over 100 trillion bacteria. (1) These microorganisms play an enormous role in the health and proper functioning of our bodies (whether or not we want to visualize their existence!).
Eating a moderate amount of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, ensures that your ecosystem of bacteria is balanced and flourishing.
Although this form of preparing food has been deemphasized in Western societies, it’s important to remember that fermentation has been with us since the beginning of human culture. (1)
“The science and art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture.” - Sandor Katz (1)
Man has always enjoyed the tart, distinctive flavors served up by microscopic beings. Mead and beer, fermented forms of honey and grain respectively, reach all the way back to the origins of settled societies.
Many scholars, including Katz and Terence McKenna, have made the case that we owe the development of culture to the discovery of fermentation. (1) Only in today’s age of global consumerism do we see the displacement of fermented foods in favor of mass-produced commodities...
It’s a sad reality: fermentation is efficient and sustainable, and the extensive benefits of fermented food are undeniable.
Fermentation goes well beyond what you find on the shelves of your liquor store, too. It’s actually astounding how every culture around the world has its own tradition of fermented foods.
In Korea, the tangy dish of fermented Chinese cabbage known as kimchi is a long-time national staple, whereas sauerkraut is its traditional European cousin.
The Japanese are famous for the soothing miso soup.
Fermented milk products, such as cheese, butter and kefir, have a long history across Eurasia (3).
Even in Thailand, the fermented fish sauce nam pla has been a popular condiment for quite some time. (1)
When you start to look at the international spectrum of fermented dishes, the validity of the quote above becomes more apparent.
While fermentation is popularly thought of solely as a method of preservation, it has also been used by different cultures as a method of food detoxification.
In Africa and across the Americas, for example, the root of the cassava plant can only be eaten after a period of soaking, as the fermentation process eliminates the cyanide that would otherwise make it fatal to digest. (1)
Who says eating fermented foods isn’t an evolutionary advantage?!
The benefits of fermented food can be tied directly to probiotics, as the balance of intestinal flora is a major factor in maintaining our overall health.
There are many negative factors that can contribute to an imbalance in our intestinal flora, including high fat diets, fluoride in drinking water, antibiotics, and environmental toxicity.
Because these are all very common conditions in today’s world, the ingestion of probiotics has, arguably, never been more important. (2)
The word probiotics is a Latin/Greek hybrid and roughly translates to “for life”. (4) Probiotics are commonly thought of as microorganisms that benefit the functioning of our gut, partly by competing with “bad” bacteria and minimizing their influence.
Nobel laureate Illya Illyich Metchnikoff was the first to point out that microbes from fermented foods were responsible for improving the health of intestinal flora. He cited a community of Bulgarian peasants who ate fermented yogurt everyday and often lived up to one hundred years as evidence.
This is where the probiotic species Lactobacillus bulgaricus gets its name. (5)
If we aren’t careful, our habits can make the conditions of our microbiome more amenable for bad bacteria to flourish, which can lead to other health issues.
By constantly introducing probiotics into our microbiome through fermented foods and letting them “colonize” our digestive system, we minimize the influence bad bacteria can have on our overall vitality. (5)
While scientists have met some difficulty in getting consistent results from lab tests on probiotics, there hardly seems any reason to doubt that these microbes are, indeed, “for life”. (6)
There are so many good reasons to treat yourself to a fermented delicacy! Fermentation...
On top of all of that, there is research suggesting that the microbiome may have a considerable influence on brain health, as well.
Studies show that gut bacteria communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, which has considerable implications for how our diet influences our mental well-being. According to a group of researchers in the published review Gut Microbes and the Brain: A Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience, changes in our gut flora could very well influence brain functioning. (2)
It appears that the benefits of fermented food extend beyond the physical and overflow into our mental and emotional well-being. When it comes to your next meal, it might be best to “go with your gut!”
This delicacy of fermented cabbage is far more than just an ingredient in your Reuben sandwich. Among the most popular fermented foods in the world, sauerkraut is also known to be among the most beneficial.
Back in the 1700s, Captain James Cook was trying to figure out how to protect his crew from scurvy. On his second round-the-world voyage he took 60 barrels of sauerkraut aboard. Remarkably, not one of them succumbed to the illness! (1)
More recently, a group of Finnish researchers published a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry stating that the process of fermenting cabbage produces disease-fighting compounds known as isothiocyanates.
These compounds are not present in regular cabbage, once again emphasizing the wonders of fermentation. (8)
The fermentation of soybeans goes back to early Buddhist monasteries in southeast Asia, where vegetarian monks were experimenting with different meat substitutes.
The practice spread to Japan, where miso gained its first widespread popularity in the 12th century thanks to an especially health-conscious shogunate. (1) It has since become part of the daily Japanese diet.
Miso has been tied to a number of incredible health benefits.
One of the most significant is its ability to heal the body from exposure to radiation and heavy metals by virtue of an alkaloid that expels heavy metals from the body.(1)
Because of its wealth of probiotics, it naturally aids in digestion and can help relieve bloating. And like sauerkraut, miso has also been shown to have disease-fighting properties via its high antioxidant content. (9)
The benefits of fermented food find their fullest expression in a steaming bowl of miso soup!
Arguably the most successful fermented food on the market, yogurt is another rich source of living probiotic cultures. (10)
There’s no shortage of yogurt choices in the supermarket, but it’s important to avoid yogurt diluted with low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, which has been shown to be a dangerous neurotoxin and not suitable for frequent digestion. (11)
Why sweeten your yogurt anyway, especially when you can chop up some yummy fruits like strawberries or mangos to give it that extra flavor punch?
With everything yogurt can do for your health, it might as well be a nutritional secret weapon. Among other things, yogurt can help reduce blood pressure, reduce gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea, prevent osteoporosis and help women avoid vaginal infections. (10)
For many people, yogurt is the most convenient way to enjoy the benefits of fermented food.
Well, it turns out jiaogulan isn’t the only Chinese drink of immortality! Kombucha, a favorite drink of humans for only a couple thousand years, was known as the “Immortal Health Elixir” in China. (12)
A ferment of black tea, sugar, and just about any other herb or spice you’d like to mix in, kombucha has been known for its super powers for quite some time.
Kombucha is chock-full of antioxidants that relieve inflammation in the body. It also contains high levels of B-12, which contributes to a sunny mental state-of-being. This can be especially vital for vegans deficient in B vitamins.
Kombucha arrives in your stomach bearing many friendly microbes, as well.
They specialize in counteracting bacteria pathogens and repopulating the gut with essential amino acids (and good vibes!). (12)
Kombucha is another convenient way to enjoy the benefits of fermented food on a daily basis because it can be taken with you on the go more easily than most fermented foods.
In Korea, kimchi isn’t just a popular dish, it’s a way of life.
According to the Korean Food Research Institute, the average Korean consumes up to a quarter pound of kimchi everyday. (1) That’s a lot of kimchi!
It’s prepared by fermenting Chinese cabbage with garlic, red chili pepper, ginger, scallions and other vegetables, creating a distinctive flavor that you won’t soon forget. (1)
Kimchi brings a lot more than social hype to the kitchen table, however.
It’s especially high in vitamins A and C, and like other probiotic-rich foods, it’s linked to boosting the immune system, populating the gut with good bacteria, fighting cancer, relieving constipation and even enhancing the health of the brain. (13)
And remember, a little bit goes a long way: that stuff is hot!
American writer and activist Wendell Berry has described man today as being “in exile from biological reality.” (1)
Our acceptance of the values of an over-commodified world has led to a situation in which we are becoming further estranged from natural forms of sustenance, local community, and the environment itself.
As we move deeper into an equally exciting and uncertain future, can we really afford to become disconnected from the time-honored traditions that got us here?
When we ingest fermented foods, we’re not only investing in the health of our bodies-we’re also reconnecting with the forces of life and reclaiming the culture of our ancestors.
Humans are meant to live long lives; why get away from what works now?
“The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest, and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and most revolutionary act.” - Vandana Shiva (1)