Benefits of Fermented Foods

Photo by Monika Grabkowska 

In the 21st century, with the refocusing on health and superfoods, ferments have transitioned from an artisanal oddity to a somewhat mainstream product. It's more common to see raw sauerkraut, kombucha , beet kvass and raw cheeses even in big box stores like Costco, Walmart, and Kroger.

I grew up in Eastern Europe in the eighties and nineties, and fermentation was still one of the popular ways to preserve food, along with canning and curing (mostly meat). I grew up helping my parents make sauerkraut and wine. My grandparents and great grandparents also made fermented vegetables, pickles, and sourdough bread. Unfortunately, with the convenience of modern foods and the popularity of refrigeration, the art of preparing these foods has been lost to our generation.

What is fermentation?As defined by Sandor Ellix Katz in his wonderful book "The Art of Fermentation" : 
...fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria,fungi, and the enzymes they produce. People harness this transformative power in order to produce alcohol, to preserve food, and to make it more digestible, less toxic, and/or more delicious. ....
Sounds amazing already. It seems like the benefits of fermented foods are predetermined by it's definition. But let's take a closer look.

Photo by Alexander Maasch

Fermentation is a very safe way to preserve food. By-products of fermentation -  such as alcohol, lactic acid, acetic acid, and carbon dioxide - help maintain an environment which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria and supports food preservation.

Fermentation increases bioavailability of nutrients. Bacteria pre-digests food , thus releasing additional nutrients and/or removing anti-nutrients and toxins.
...In the process of pre-digestion, many ferments accumulate increased levels of B vitamins, including thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin ( B3), as compared with raw ingredient prior to fermentation....

 People who have food sensitivities often respond well to fermented versions of the same foods they are sensitive to. For example, I am never able to drink plain milk or even put cream in my coffee, but i do well with aged raw cheeses and homemade plain yogurt. The process of fermentation makes these foods low in lactose and starts an enzymatic process which further helps with digestion when they are consumed. 

 Fermented foods are live foods. They play an important role in gut health and our overall immunity. There was some debate recently about the fact that taking probiotics or eating probiotic rich foods (like ferments) might not permanently populate our guts with beneficial bacteria, as previously thought. Even if this is true, the benefits of eating live, fermented foods are still recognized. Live bacteria present in these foods not only helps us digest better, but also produce compounds in our intestines, which inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and allow "good" bacteria to proliferate, thus increasing our gut microbial ecology .

Photo by Klara Avsenik

  Fermented foods can have an alkalizing effect on our bodies. This is mostly true for plant food ferments like sauerkraut, cultured veggies, raw apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kvass, kimchi, etc. The process of fermentation releases minerals (which are alkalizing for the body) and makes them more bioavailable. 

Research shows that fermented, live foods can be beneficial for multiple gut related diseases, such as IBS, diarrhea, IBD, and others. A well established gut flora is shown to help with many autoimmune and mental health problems, as well as in lessening the severity and duration of the common cold and flu. 

Fermented food have shown to have a positive effect in detoxing our bodies, especially from substances like pesticides, toxins naturally occurring in the raw foods, and even mercury . In traditional societies, foods like fatty fish and certain roots ( like taro,which is toxic) were often fermented before consuming.

Fermented foods are a staple in our house and I believe that consuming them is one of the easiest ways to help our immune systems and our whole bodies thrive. A healthy bacterial environment in our guts can translate to proper digestion and food assimilation, good oral health, good vaginal health and a positive mental attitude.
 Of course, fermentation is not panacea and it is only one (very important) factor of self care. If you are new to fermented foods, you might want to take it slow and add one type, and a few tablespoons at a time. This way you can figure out what you like best, and what might not work for your body( especially if you have any severe food allergies).

 If you wonder, where to start, here is a few examples of the staple ferments in our household:

  • Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (with the mother) - use it in salad dressing, to make mineral rich broths, and as a condiment ( I make infused vinegar, which we add to soups).
  • Sauerkraut - We loooove sauerkraut!My husband adds it to almost every meal he eats and we often use the juice on our salads instead of dressing. It is great to add as a condiment to heavier dishes, as it helps with digestion.
  • Kombucha  - I make kombucha with green tea, rather than black , and I like to double ferment it with some fruit juice to produce different flavors. We enjoy it with meals, instead of soda or plain juice. I also like to drink ginger kombucha when I feel like I have a stomach bug or any indigestion.
  • Sourdough Bread - I love freshly baked,fragrant,crusty bread! Sourdough bread is low in gluten and it is very easily digestible. People with gluten intolerance can often consume sourdough bread made with ancient grains like spelt or einkorn. 
  • Yogurt - I think yogurt should be homemade. I have not found many brands of yogurt which don't have thickeners or sugar added to their products. I like to make my own yogurt and I try to purchase raw milk or the closest to it (which is non-homogenized, low temperature,pressure pasteurized milk) available. We eat yogurt for breakfast, snack, or as a base for cold summer soups and sauces.
I hope you will be inspired to experiment in the kitchen and enjoy the enormous benefits these traditional foods can bring. Share your experience with us. I am always happy to learn 😃😃😃

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