For thousands of years humans have fermented their food. Originally done to preserve foods because there was no refrigeration, traditional cultures intuitively used this process to make food more shelf stable, digestible and nutritious. As a means of long term preservation, properly fermented foods use a process called lacto-fermentation which results in a more nutrient dense and probiotic rich food that is beneficial to our health.
Most raw foods can be fermented: fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats. The lacto fermentation process involves bacteria called lactobacillus that break down sugars and proteins resulting in the production of lactic acid. The lactic acid inactivates the bad, putrefying bacteria that we typically think of and allows the good bacteria to flourish, thereby preserving food for days to months. Most importantly, the bacteria, yeast and other friendly organisms in the fermented food allow our colon to produce billions of good bacteria. Our gut contains 100 trillion bacteria weighing approximately 3 to 5 pounds, or about 10% of the body’s dry weight. Between 60 and 70% of our immune system resides in the colon. Consuming fermented food helps prevent infection to salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens.
The nutritional value of fermented foods is enormous, including B vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin and niacin. The activated form of folic acid is increased, which helps with cardiovascular and cancer risks (see homocysteine handout). Choline is increased, which breaks down fat in the liver and overall body and helps with constipation. In addition, fermentation increases glutathione, an anti aging amino acid, and enzymes needed for digestion and detoxification.
Listed below are some fermented foods and ideas on how to incorporate them into your diet, whether you are buying them or making them yourself.
VEGETABLES Humans are clearly designed to eat vegetables. Once food is fermented, the nutrients in vegetables become more assimilated. The Chinese fermented cabbage to make sauerkraut 6,000 years ago. The Romans used to take barrels of sauerkraut with them to keep them healthy. Captain Cooke, the famous English explorer, took 27 barrels of sauerkraut as he sailed the world and never once developed scurvy. The Koreans eat Kim Chi, Latin Americans pickled carrots and garlic. and the Japanese miso. Almost all cultures eat fermented vegetables with meals as it greatly aids digestion.
I recommend eating at least one fermented vegetable a day. You can make your own – the ideal – or buy them. Here are a few of my favorites:
Bubbies Sauerkraut and Pickles. Eden’s Sauerkraut and Vegetables.
You will find these in the refrigerated section only. Anything else bought on a store shelf has been pasteurized, thus killing almost all enzymes, nutrients and beneficial bacteria. Almost all these foods can be found at PCC, Whole Foods or most grocery stores.
DAIRY PRODUCTS Fermented or cultured dairy products improve the nutritional value of the milk and make it much more digestible. Like fermented vegetables, when raw milk is allowed to naturally sour, or bacteria is added to it, the good bacteria flourish. This pushes some of the bad bacteria out, thereby preserving the milk as well as releasing many vitamins, such as B and C and minerals like calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Another benefit is that the lactobacillus (good bacteria) in the fermented milk helps breakdown the protein and casein so humans can digest it, even if they are lactose intolerant.
Historically, traditional cultures would only drink fermented milk. Bulgarians made yoghurt, Russians Kefir (my favorite), Scandanavians longfil, Norwegians kjaeldermelk, Middle Easterners laban, Indians dahi and the Masai of Africa different types of cultured milk. Much of Europe consumes soured cream called crème fraiche. I highly recommend cheeses made from raw, not pasteurized, milk as the enzymes and nutritional value will be higher.
Kefir is by far the easiest fermented product to make at home (see YouTube website or search online for how to make it). I use only raw grass fed milk. This type of milk is nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk. If making it is not possible, I suggest the following products which are still very healthy:
Lifeway Kefir Eden’s Kefir Nancy’s Kefir Cultured butter (Strauss and Nancy’s) Cultured Cottage Cheese (Nancy’s) Cultured Sour Cream Yogurt with the cultures added after pasteurization (Nancy’s, Stonyfield, Strauss, Mountain High) Raw Milk can be purchased at Whole Foods or PCC only and at some Farmer’s Markets. Kefir grains at Whole Foods
GRAINS Traditionally, grains were never consumed the way bread and cereals are today. Almost all grains were soaked and fermented anywhere from overnight to several days. While many cultures may not have known the scientific reasons for this, they understood its importance. For example, in Latin America corn was soaked for several days in lye. The Scottish would soak oats in small amounts of vinegar and Africans would soak Torro root, a poisonous plant to humans, for several days thereby making it edible. The Japanese would never eat soy as we do now unless it was fermented for several days making tofu, tempeh or miso.
Even bread that we eat is not the bread of 100 years ago. Almost all bread consumed today is made with only one species of yeast that allows the bread to rapidly rise. Traditionally, bread was always made with sourdough, a mix of yeast and many different species of bacteria. The grain was mixed with this sourdough and allowed to sit for hours or even days to allow it to rise. In this process, the bread would react with bacteria, yeasts and other organisms in the environment which dramatically increase the nutritional value. More importantly, this slow process would break down the gluten in the grain, making it eatable to humans.
Without fermenting first phytic acid, a covering around the grain, dramatically blocks the absorption of the nutrients such as zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium. A few of the side effects of eating grains that aren’t fermented are allergies, malnutrition, indigestion, poor bone growth and problems with gluten that can mimic celiac disease.
Soaking or fermenting your own grain is very easy and takes almost no work. Take whatever grain you are going to use, such as wheat, rye, spelt, etc. and put it in a bowl the night before you are going to use it. For example, I take one cup of oats or quinoa and add two cups of warm water and then add one tablespoon of yogurt, kefir or a teaspoon of vinegar to the mixture with a pinch of sea salt. I let it soak overnight and then lightly boil it the next morning and it is ready. By doing this simple procedure, you can improve the nutritional value and digestibility of the grain.
For breads, you can make your own but many people, but me included, don’t have a lot of time. Below are listed some of my favorite sourdough breads as well as other suggestions of foods to buy that have been fermented or made with this process in mind:
Tall Grass Bakery: My favorites are the rye, spelt and dense rye breads. They take great pride in buying local grains when possible.