Home » What’s So Great About Fermented Foods?

What’s So Great About Fermented Foods?

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Perhaps, in an effort to learn more about health and nutrition, you’ve been reading more books and seeing more shows online (even TV commercials) praising the benefits of eating yogurt or making your own kefir. Perhaps you’ve never really thought twice about that “pickled cabbage stuff” that comes on your Reuben sandwich, or why your Chinese grandparents chose to include that fermented bean paste in their special dishes. Or perhaps you’ve recently noticed that something called “kombucha” has overtaken a whole section of your local health food store, and you’re beginning to wonder just what the big deal is all about?

Each of these foods are representative of a centuries – and in some cases thousands of years – old practice of preserving and caring for foods, called lactofermentation. More of an art than a predictable science, this bio-active invitation of live cultures into our foods not only helps to predigest hard-to-assimilate foods, making certain key nutrients more bioavailable by removing anti-nutrients and toxins, but it also engages with the beneficial bacteria that is ever present in our environment to build enzymes, produce essential b-vitamins, omega 3-fatty acids and several strains of pre and probiotics. These in turn go on to support our immune system and general sense of well being. Although not a panacea by any means, live-culture foods are one way to begin to feeling better all around.

In our modern day American food culture, however, we’re looking down an increasingly long road of less-than-optimal food resources. Highly processed and highly palatable “high-convenience” foods may make the day go a little easier at dinner time, but it certainly isn’t doing our gut any favors. Stripped of nutrients, enzymes, and minerals, only to be replaced with non-organic compounds (to extend shelf life, etc.), we see more and more food allergies and sensitivities popping up than there ever were in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Couple that with the over-zealous use of antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines, not to mentioned the amount of antibiotics used in conventional meat and dairy production, and we’re looking at a perfect storm when it comes to  a less-than optimal environment inside our human microbiome.

It seems like nearly everyone you run into these days has some problems going on with digestion: sensitivities, elimination, assimilation, brain fog, headaches, or immunity. And then we find that the more we remove from our diet due to gut inflammation, behavioral modifications, and digestion issues (most of which we never had one, two, or ten years ago), the worse it seems to get and the more restrictive we’re required to become. With studies and articles popping up about the gut-brain connection, and whether “probiotics are the new prozac” –  is it any wonder that fermented foods are seeing such resurgence?

Perhaps this is why so many traditional food cultures around the world have maintained their inclusion in their daily eats. They must be onto something right?

Every culture has them in some form:

Did you know that the earliest signs of wine cultivation dates back 8000 years ago? Or that the great empires of Babylon, Egypt and Mexico were fermenting beverages more than 4000 years ago — not to mention the milks, cheeses and breads found all over the region right on through Roman times? This is a very old human practice. So whether we’re talking about salumi, sourdough bread, raw milk cheeses, wine, vinegar, and olives in the Mediterranean, or beer (and any hard liquor to boot), soured creams, sauerkraut, and kvass in eastern Europe, or kim chi, nama shoyu or shrimp pastes, pickled vegetable, koji, tempeh, or natto in Asia: these are all examples of traditionally fermented foods. Not to mention yogurt, or poi in the Hawaiian islands, chutneys in India, teas and coffee, or even chocolate (that’s right, turns out that those lovely hued cacao beans actually benefit from a little fermentation first in order to turn it into the lovely food so much of the world loves deeply).

In America, and other countries that rely on industrialized foods, many of the familiar forms of these foods have fallen out of favor, or are simply not produced in the way they used to be (for shelving purposes and cost), negating all their good bacteria-rich benefits. While, technically anything brined in salt stock for a predetermined amount of time is considered “fermented” commercial food processors disliked the inconsistent nature of true lactofermentation. Today, most foods in the supermarket have been subjected to high-temperature pasteurization and vinegar solutions to slow or halt completely the fermentation and enzymatic processes. Fermentation is a living process that does not cease once the product has become “ripe”. This is why all “shelf-stable” versions of these foods have been pasteurized. Otherwise there would be a plethora of exploding jars in every grocer as their various cotents continued to ferment, produce CO2, and thus expand. Today, authentic, artisan versions of these foods will most likely be under refrigeration in your local health food store. Then again, they’re actually not difficult to make in your own home.

What most people seem in need of these days is a re-inoculation of good lactofermented foods!

3 Good Reasons to Eat Fermented Foods:

1. Probiotic value aids in digestion and absorption in addition to their rich in enzyme activity. When our digestion is functioning properly (meaning, we are absorbing and assimilating all the nutrients we need) our immune system tends to run smoothly and happily, and is in fact better prepared to fight disease and illness.

2. Natural methods of food preservation, without the need for pasteurization, chemicals, dyes, or harsh preservative. The entire function of lactic acid fermentation is based on the capability of lactic acid bacteria to produce acids, which in turn inhibit the growth of non-desirable organisms.

3. Boosts immunity by fighting off harmful bacteria and even cancer cells. Some of the good bacteria common to lactic acid cultured food, are Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, L. plantarum, L. caret, L. pentoaceticus, L brevis and L. thermophiles. Studies have concluded that inclusion of these helpful “bugs” provide protection from colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease, provides a reduction in cavities (especially in children), and even relief from lactose intolerance that may sneak in later in life.

What’s the best way to venture into these new foods?

We recommend starting with some of the most tried and true basics, like: kombucha, sauerkraut, homemade dill pickles, yogurt, and miso soups. Know that these might taste different than what you’re used to, with richer, more complex flavors due to the naturally occurring bacteria, although you might be surprised to find that they’re not nearly as tart, sour or acidic, and all around much tastier without the modern practice of adding vinegar or preservatives.

We hope this was helpful! Enjoy your fermentation experimentation! And please note, here at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating we do NOT endorse or promote any particular diet or nutritional lifestyle, but we do believe there’s a nugget of wisdom to be found in just about any diet that’s been designed with care in mind for people and planet.

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