Funky Ferments (and why they’re so good for us)
I always think of food as a process in my home. There’s always something happening –– kombucha in the pantry, kimchi or sourdough fermenting on the bench; seeds sprouting or bread rising; broth slowly simmering away on the stove (great on the wood stove all through winter) or in my slow cooker…
My children have always joked about my “demented” foods as they like to call them and my “pets” (living foods that I have to feed and look after – my sourdough jar was even given its own sunglasses - sticker). And these are what I want to write about today because fermented foods are incredibly good for our health… and a bit of fun to make too (and as far as homeschooling – there’s some interesting science to delve into as well as the history of fermenting and fermented foods in different cultures around the world).
Fermented foods are really trending at the moment, but unlike some trends it’s not all hype – they really are incredibly good for us. And although it seems a new trend, people have been fermenting food as a means of preservation for centuries.
But what are “fermented” foods? Sounds a bit funky right? Fermentation is defined as
“The chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat” (Lexico.com).
There’s a bunch of websites that go into the science well (I’ll list some at the end) so I don’t really want to do that today, other than to simply explain that when we talk about fermented foods we are referring to foods that have undergone a process of preservation called lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation takes place when beneficial bacteria (lactobacilli), which are found in our environment (in the air, on our soil and on the surface of all living things – especially leaves or roots of plants growing on or near the ground) - converts the starch and sugar in our foods into lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria.
Fermenting foods has more benefits than just preserving them however. Unlike other methods of food preservation, fermenting food doesn’t lose or even just retain the nutrient value of the food, but actually increases it. Sauerkraut for example, can have 20 times the amount of vitamin C as unfermented raw cabbage! The reactions that take place during fermentation also produce B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, as well as vitamins A & K2. Fermenting food increases its antioxidant content and probably most known is its probiotic content. Fermented foods contain a vast diversity and large numbers of beneficial microbes.
The fermenting process also increases nutrient availability of foods in a few ways. The bacteria feeding on the sugars and starches in the food, pre-digest the foods, making it easier for our bodies to absorb the nutrients. It also breaks down anti-nutrients like phytic acid (to read more about phytic acid, see my post on sprouts : https://www.facebook.com/ShalomHealthNaturopathy/photos/a.900853756920204/1178800925792151/?type=3&__tn__=-R ) which increases our absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Perhaps the most important benefit of fermented food (and the most well known) is that it is a living food - full of probiotics (beneficial bacteria). Probiotics and our microbiome is far too large a topic for this post. Although naturopaths have talked about the importance of the gut micriobiome for a long time now, it has recently exploded as a young emerging science in what we are just beginning to learn and understand in regards to its relationship to our health. It is relevant to all areas of health, but what especially excites me is the part it plays in mental and immune health. Eating fermented foods (and taking targeted probiotic supplements) helps to crowd out the unwanted bacteria in our gut, and allows for the beneficial bacteria to proliferate, as well as having specific therapeutic benefits.
You've probably heard about the gut-brain axis, but now we’re really starting to talk more about the gut-brain-immune axis. Our microbiome greatly affects both our immune and mental health. These are areas I will definitely cover further in future posts but here’s a few quick facts:
The number of microbial cells in our body matches the number of human cells (or even a bit more) & weighs approximately .2kg which is similar to our liver (our largest internal organ).
70-80 % of our immune system is housed in our gut.
Serotonin and GABA (a couple of our neurotransmitters important for mental health) are produced in our gut.
Our microbiome is an important influencer on emotional behaviour.
It has been found that depressive symptoms can be transferred through fecal transplant – which really just shows how much our microbiome influences our mental health.
Probiotics reduce inflammation (which is the driver of chronic health complaints and very much so in autoimmune disease and mental health).
Enhancement of the gut microbiome may have a modulatory effect on the brain and central nervous system.
So how can you make your own fermented foods? One of these days I might start running some fermenting food workshops, but for now rather than give a list of instructions, I’ll just say that there are loads of websites that do this. I’ll list a few at the end that you can have a look at.
I really love this book: https://www.bookdepository.com/Fermented-Vegetables-Kristen-Shockey/9781612124254 and have just discovered that they have a bunch more which I'm excited to check out. I have also just discovered that these guys have a free 7 day fermentation e-course. The free e-course looks great and in lesson 1, they give a nice little science lesson. Check out their website https://ferment.works/.
I recommend starting your fermenting journey with something simple like kombucha, water kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi, but once you’re used to the process, experimentation is lots of fun. You can ferment all sorts of fruit & vegetables, dairy & make your own condiments.
Just a little note on taste... fermented foods are naturally sour. In this day where our taste buds have become so accustomed to refined and sugary foods, fermented foods may need a little getting used to, but once the taste is acquired, you will most likely find you really enjoy them.
The bottom line is that fermented foods are a great example of using food as medicine and I encourage people to include fermented foods in their diet daily. You don’t need to have huge servings to get a lovely dose of probiotics and nutrients.
Some good website resources:
The Science of fermentation (plus a bit of history and cultures):
How to ferment foods: