The process of lacto-fermentation is common in traditional diets in all indigenous cultures throughout the world. Each culture has its own cultured foods that are passed down from generation to generation. These foods are unique to the people that make them. We live in a world that is full of bacteria and fungi and we live in a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria and could NOT exist without them. We are slowly beginning to realize this. Sandor Katz (The Art of Fermentation) says that it is a “biological imperative.” We evolved with bacteria and they are essential to life.
Originally fermentation provided a unique way to preserve foods for extended periods of time. During fermentation sugars in the foods are converted into lactic acid by lactobacilli bacteria. These bacteria are all around us and when used in this way not only preserve the food but increase nutrient levels, make nutrients more available and are easier to digest, because in a sense they pre-digest the food. Even when these foods have been heated they are more easily assimilated by the body. These bacteria also make it impossible for dangerous bacteria to exist because they change the ph of the food. Pathogenic bacteria like to live in a ph environment of anywhere between 4 and 10 depending on the bacteria (for example botulism likes a ph of 4.8 or higher). Fermented vegetables are much more acidic – usually below 4. This makes fermented foods very safe to eat.
When a food is fermented many beneficial bacteria are produced. These helpful bacteria, or probiotics, play a huge part in keeping us healthy. They make many B vitamins and Vitamin K in the intestinal tract, detoxify harmful chemicals, prevent inflammation of the intestinal wall, protect us from pathogenic microbes, breakdown fiber, maintain the appropriate ph of the part of the body that they live in and prevent toxins, hormones and cholesterol from being reabsorbed into the blood stream. They also play a role in filtering what is absorbed through the intestinal wall.
There are hundreds of species of microorganisms living in our body, and this equals about 3 lbs of weight or about 30% of the contents in the colon! Probiotics are the key to a balanced and healthy immune system. Some things that can cause problems within this delicate balance are overuse of antibiotics (antibiotics kill all bacteria, not just the bad ones), alcohol, large amounts of sugar, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), radiation, chlorine, fluoride, bacterial dysentery, stress, high meat & high fat diets, antacids, and other anti-bacterials (even natural ones like oregano oil). Eating fermented foods on a regular diet will help to bring your intestinal flora back into balance.
Some examples of foods high in beneficial microorganisms are naturally fermented yogurt, buttermilk, most cheeses, apple cider vinegar, kefir, miso, amazaki, kim chi, kombucha, sauerkraut, gundru and tempeh. There are many more as well. These food items, if purchased in the grocery store have usually been made non traditionally with artificial flavours and non cultured vinegar (as in pickles and sauerkraut). They have also been subject to pasteurization which kills any of the beneficial bacteria that may have been there. The exception would be miso or yogurt. Read labels to find out if the foods contain these symbiotic micro~organisms or check with your local whole foods store. Some stores carry naturally fermented apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut and/or pickles in the refrigerated section. Heathyway Natural Foods Market carries most of the foods mentioned above.
I recommend that you try your hand at making your own fermented foods. It’s highly rewarding and really very simple! Check out these books and websites to get more information:
The Art of Fementation by Sandor Katz
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, by Sandor Katz
Nourishing Traditions, The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. By Sally Fallon and Mary Enig
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods by Wardeh Harmon
By Kira Neumann, RHN
Kira Neumann is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist on staff at Healthyway. She also does private consultations and runs nutrition E-Classes throughout the year. Check out www.foodworksnutrition.com for more information.