Traditionally, fermenting foods was used as a preservation method. Before refrigeration and canning methods were developed, salt was used to keep away unwanted microbial growth, allowing beneficial bacteria to flourish.
The process of fermentation produces alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid. These products are what give fermented foods their distinctive “tangy” flavour while also working to preserve the food and retain the nutrients. Besides tasting delicious, fermented foods offer many health benefits through their probiotic content and byproducts.
Fermentation breaks down nutrients to more digestible forms
In Asia, fermented soy products are widely available. Soybeans are a rich source of protein. However, when eaten unfermented, our bodies have a harder time to break down the proteins. Fermentation breaks down the large proteins into easier to digest amino acids. Miso, Korean doengjang, tempeh and tamari soy sauce are all examples of fermented soy products.
Milk is another commonly fermented food. Many people have difficulties digesting milk due to the presence of lactose. But, once the milk has been fermented into yogurt or cheese, the Lactobacilli bacteria naturally present break down the lactose, making it easier on the human gut.
Fermentation can produce new nutrients
Fermentation is possible due to the presence of beneficial microbes. While they are consuming the natural sugars and fermenting food, they produce several by-products during their natural life cycle. Some products created are the B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. Other products produced are digestive enzymes and omega-3 fatty acids. Thank you, probiotics 😉
Fermentation can remove toxins from food
Grains contain a compound called phytic acid, or phytate. Although naturally occurring, consuming a large amount of phytates can actually be detrimental for human health. Phytic acid blocks the absorption of important trace minerals in our body. Zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium can be blocked by phytates. This can become a problem for people consuming large amounts of grains. Luckily, soaking or fermenting grains before cooking them can neutralize the phytic acid. Fermentation has also been shown to reduce nitrites, oxalic acid, nitrosamines and glucosides – other toxic chemicals that can be found in foods.
Fermentation helps with digestion
Inside each and every one of us there is a microbiome in our gut. This microbiome can either be made up of healthy flora, or unhealthy flora. An ideal ratio of 4:1 good bacteria to bad bacteria is best. These beneficial bacteria in the gut work to help break down food and assimilate nutrients through our digestive tract. The healthy bacteria in our gut also help to keep us regular. Have you ever experienced constipation from a round of antibiotics? Or diarrhea when travelling to a new country? Taking probiotic supplements can help in both of these cases to regulate the bacterial populations in our gut and keep everything working smoothly.
The Gut Brain Connection
Did you know that there are more bacterial cells in a human gut than human cells in the whole body? These microbes not only help us in the ways listed above, but also work to influence our behaviour and cognition. When our intestinal microbiome is unbalanced, our mood, stress, behaviour and cognition can also be affected. This is why there is a strong link between irritable bowel syndrome and mood disorders such as depression.
Probiotics can Boost Immunity
Consuming probiotics, specifically the Lactobacilli strain, can stimulate macrophage activity in our immune system, therefore protecting us from harmful species of bacteria. Another strain of bacteria called Bifidobacterium has been shown to have an immunomodulatory action in the human gut, to inhibit pathogen (very harmful bacteria) growth in both adults and children and have even been shown to suppress rotavirus.
Easy and Cheap to Prepare
Besides all of the wonderful health benefits of fermented food, they are inexpensive and easy to prepare at home. Compared to probiotic supplements, probiotic foods (especially homemade) are easily affordable. In my opinion, supplements are excellent when trying to correct a major bacterial imbalance or for a specific condition. For the average person, fermented foods are all that is needed to enjoy the benefits. Starting with something simple like making sauerkraut is very easy this time of year. Fall is the best season to test out some new recipes. I know I’ll be making some goodies once I get settled into my new apartment.Plus, we can’t forget that in Korea kimchi is a staple food.
Stilling, R.M., et al. 2014. “Microbial genes, brain & behaviour – epigenetic regulation of the gut-brain axis.” Genes, Brain and Behavior 13(1)69-86 HYPERLINK http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/weight-control/health_risks_being_overweight/Documents/hlthrisks1104.pdf (accessed July 4, 2015)
Collins M.D, Gibson G.R. 1999. “Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics: approaches for modulating the microbial ecology of the gut.” Am J Clin Nutr 69(5): 1052s-1057s HYPERLINK “http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/69/5/1052s.full” (accessed August 6, 2015)
Katz, Sandor Ellix. “Wild Fermentation.” 2003. Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont