What are fermented foods? Chocolate, coffee, cheese, and ketchup don’t often come to mind when thinking of fermented foods however, that’s exactly what they are. We owe those amazing rich flavors not to food technology but to mother nature. Term fermentation has been used to describe anaerobic metabolism; the production of energy from nutrients without oxygen. It is ancient, the cheapest, and most energy-efficient way of preserving foods.
It contributed not only to our culinary diversity but also to our cultural distinction over millennia.
Consider wine, beer, yogurt, and sourdough; all of these products are distinct not only by the substrate used in their production (ingredients) but also by the environment in which they were created.
Because, as you can see, it all depends on the specific environment bacteria present in grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as in the air of the specific location. As we all know, wine from Toulouse in France will taste nothing like wine from Peru, Spain, or California. Sourdough baked in San Francisco will differ from that baked in New York, and there are more yogurt varieties than Greek and Bulgarian.
Bacteria responsible for those miraculous transformations, mostly known as lactic acid bacteria are very protective over their food sources, and in exchange for sugar (glucose), they produce acid that is inhabitable to other pathogens. Luckily for us humans, they made a deal with our ancestors and offered to extend this protection to our bodies, therefore you can find them everywhere on the surface and hidden deep inside of us.
They are on our skin, in our mouths, noses, and most importantly in our digestive tract helping us assimilate nutrients from food and regulating the balance between energy use and storage. They produce certain nutrients, including B and K vitamins, provide defense from opportunistic pathogens and modulate the expression of some of our genes, including immune response. There’s a growing body of research suggesting that they directly impact your mood and mental health. There are 100 trillion of them in our intestines only and there’re called the gut microbiota. They outnumber our human DNA cells 10 to 1, which makes some people wonder who’s the host and how many species we are considering our genetic landscape. The collection of genetic material contained in those microbes is called MICROBIOME.
Have you ever wondered how changes in our food-producing practices could have impacted our state of health? How come we see the heart and auto-immune conditions skyrocketing in the last 20 years? Why are the epidemic of diabetes, ADHD, autism, and other modern diseases not slowing down providing we have all the pills for it? The answer to those questions is complex and multi-layered but one thing I know for sure is that most of us survive on a nutrient-deprived diet and the food we consume is processed and sterilized.
Modern-day biotechnology developed not only faster and cleaner methods of food production but also gave us a multigenerational germ phobia. Sterilized and highly processed food is starving our microbiota of genetic stimulation and live-culture (fermented) foods that are rich depositories of bacterial genes are part of human cultural legacy. Through dietary changes, we can eat a variety of bacteria-rich living foods to build that genetic reservoir in our intestines, and enhance our metabolic capabilities and immune function.
12 health benefits of fermented food
Let’s talk about health benefits now! Did you know that your mood-regulating chemical messenger serotonin is also responsible for regular bowel movements? Did you know that 80% of it is produced in the gut by no one else but the gut microbes? Serotonin is a metabolite: a by-product produced by a specific microbe. It’s not the most important the types of microbes that inhabit our intestines but the metabolites they produce. These include neurotransmitters (like serotonin), endocrine signaling hormones, mentioned before vitamins, and short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, acetate, and propionate. Those are energy sources for the cells of our intestinal lining. They will increase the sense of satiety in the brain and signal the enteric nervous system to move things along through the digestive tract.
1. Feeding your microbiota and increasing its diversity through fermented foods will support healthy digestion and weight loss. There’s another mystery to it: lacto – bacteria feed on sugar therefore the overall caloric value of the fermented product is lower than with the same raw product.
2. Fermented food offers more bioavailable MINERALS (keep in mind to use sea salt or Himalayan salt for your ferments, both rich in minerals) while decreasing some antinutrients like oxalic acid and nitrate. Mineral bioavailability is also increased by a reduction of phytates: mineral-binding acid found in grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. In spite of the acidic taste fermented foods are actually ALKALIZING due to high mineral content and bioavailability.
3. Fermented foods encourage INTESTINE MOTILITY and therefore help with the prevention of constipation
4. Fermentation stabilizes vit C.
No, it’s not true that sauerkraut has more Vit C than a cabbage, but considering that vit C degrades rapidly (heat, oxygen, and light sensitivity) there’s only minimal loss of this nutrient during the fermentation process.
5. Fermented foods are a great source of ANTI-OXIDIZERS since fermentation stabilizes vit A and E known for their anti-aging properties.
6. Fermentation biodegrades certain pesticide residues on vegetables.
7. Fermentation increases the availability of the essential amino acid lysine in cereal grains.
8. Fermented foods can help with lowering cholesterol levels mostly because some of the bacteria transform it into sterol.
9. Blood-sugar regulation thanks to the high amount of fiber slowing down glucose absorption.
10. Our chief neurotransmitter ACETYLCHOLINE is created in the lacto-fermentation process. It’s responsible for heart function (vasodilator), and peristalsis but also is crucial for memory, and learning and stimulates secretion by all glands that receive parasympathetic nerve impulses.
11. Natural source of PRO and PREBIOTICS. We may argue forever about the pros and cons of adding lab-selected, store-bought probiotics to your supplement regime, however, there’s no doubt that adding those created by mother nature will improve your gut health dramatically. In contrast to a supplement, we don’t know the amount and diversity of the microbiota we consume. If it’s locally fermented it must contain all the life-sustaining bacteria available in your area, and that’s all we need.
PROBIOTICS stimulate the production of the antibody immunoglobin A (IgA) and activate macrophages, lymphocytes, and dendric cells.
12. Fermented food is PRE-DIGESTED, its composition is altered by the digestive processes of the organisms involved. Certain hard-to-digest compounds are broken down like gluten in wheat or lactose in milk.
I can see nothing but the benefits of consuming (and making your own) fermented foods, however, there are groups of people that should be cautious with such food intake:
· Due to high salt content, people suffering from high blood pressure should avoid daily intake. Once the main issue is addressed with dietary changes they can safely get back to their favorite live foods.
· People with histamine intolerance may have ugly consequences from eating pickles or anything fermented for that matter since those are high histamine products.
· Due to the high amount of vit K people taking anticoagulants should avoid fermented products.
· Stomach ulcers may get exaggerated due to the acidity of ferments.
For people with hypothyroid issues: unfortunately, fermentation does not reduce goitrogens, but you can always try fermenting other veggies like carrots, cucumbers, and onions.
I honestly think live-culture foods have saved my life.
I grew up in a place where food preservation was more natural than grocery shopping. I obviously didn't appreciate it enough as a child, but thanks to some of that ancestral wisdom, I learned to eat seasonally and have respect for my food sources (no strawberries in January kind of situation).
I only got to understand the power of food fermenting when I was faced with health issues of my own and my loved ones. Cutting myself from my roots turned my guts into a desert which was immediately reflected in a plethora of digestive issues, hormonal dysregulation, mood swings, brain fog, and low energy. For a long time, I wasn't a happy camper.
I am not saying live-culture foods are a remedy for all but combined with nervous system regulation, nutrient-rich foods, restful sleep, and a few other healing modalities they are a useful tool in a healing journey.
Getting back to food fermenting is crucial for me because, after having lived in many places it connects me with the land I live on. I literally harvest the microbes out of thin air for my sourdough bread, giving my body the ability to get familiar with all the new environments "inside out".
It gets me into a seasonal rhythm (have an eye out for locally produced veggies, grow my own in hopes I'll get to keep some for winter) and gives me a routine and grounding in a very disconnected world. I'm so grateful for having to carry this knowledge and for learning more as I go.
I know that culture and social learning shape our perception, therefore not so many people love sour flavors as much as I do. Start small: yogurt, kefir, vinegar, kosher dill pickles, sauerkraut. Use in moderation but as often as you can.
Fermentation Workshop Invite
The best part is…you can learn to make fermented foods at home cheaply and easily, and I promise to show you how in my upcoming workshop on August 6th. (Click here for details!)