By Emma Grace Fairchild:
I recently attended the San Diego Fermentation Festival, a great event organized by a passionate group of local fermenters who brew and bubble everything from yeasty artisan breads to mead and wine to sauerkrauts, kimchee and pickles. Since becoming involved in a raw foods diet six years ago, fermentation is a practice I have visited and revisited, always knowing there would be something good for me as well as something delicious in the tangy ferments I enjoy.
Given the high incidence of diet and lifestyle related diseases, there may be cause to consider fermentation as a food group in additional to the familiar grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, protein, fats and sugar. Fermentation is an aspect of diets around the world; however, it has all but disappeared from the average American table.
Fermented foods are any food products (dairy, vegetables, grains, even meat or seafood) that have been transformed from their original state by using a variety of naturally occurring fungi, yeast or bacteria. The living organisms found in fermented foods are also referred to as probiotics. A food that feeds the probiotic growth in the digestive system is referred to as a prebiotic, but probiotics do not have the same beneficial bacterial colonies associated with probiotics. Additionally, there are distinctions to be made when discussing fermentation and probiotics. Probiotics are specific to live culture foods, especially dairy products and vegetable ferments, and the food has living bacterial present in the food when eaten.
Fermented foods have been a part of our diets for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians brewed beer. People in other parts of the world fermented honey into mead and wine, and preserved milk by converting it into cheese or buttermilk, the byproduct of butter. Prior to understanding and manipulating fermented foods, overripe fruit turned into alcohol, honey and water fermented to make mead, and dairy curdled and turned sour. All of these examples and more are instances of living bacteria playing a common role in the human diet. By way of illustration, that stinky blue (bleu) cheese served with fruit or on a salad owes its color, flavoring and consistency to the unique ecosystem cultured on dairy to result in a creamy, pungent and recognizable flavor. Some fermented foods common in American diets include yogurt, sour cream, beer and wine. However, compared to many societies around the world, Americans eat a disproportionately small amount of cultured foods.
Bacterium, fungi and yeasts associated with fermentation recently have been the focus of attention as scientists and consumers consider the role of diet in optimal health. There are many implications of increased health with consumption of probiotic, which comes directly from live-culture fermented foods.
Certain probiotics found in fermented foods have shown to contribute to healthy digestion. The human digestive tract relies on a variety of naturally occurring bacteria to digest our food and may contribute to greater nutrient absorption and healthy bowel movements. Probiotic foods also can help reduce diarrhea and other digestive ailments. This is especially important in areas of the world where such illnesses are common, especially regarding infants and small children. A study in which children were fed a fermented gruel when weaning from breastfeeding showed they experienced diarrhea and other digestive upsets only half as often as children fed a non fermented gruel.
Specific bacterial strains also have benefits discovered upon isolation, such as potential for antioxidant effects. Bacteria isolated from a variety of Asian traditional fermented foods, such as Tibetan kefir and sauerkraut from China, were found to have significant antioxidant effects and anti-aging benefits. Bacterial species found in dairy are also associated with anti-aging effects: centenarians in the Balkan regions of Europe, between Greece and Russia, have a cultural association with eating probiotic rich yogurt and kefir. The probiotic L. bacilli when isolated has shown to contribute to the people’s extensive age and overall health.
Consistently, fermented foods prove to contribute to a variety of health benefits. And all of the aspects of health that probiotics benefit, when condensed, suggest that fermented foods strengthen the immune system. Eco-immunonutrition is the understanding that our immune system functions in a holistic way, using a complex ecosystem of symbiotic organisms — including probiotics found in fermented foods — and healthy bacterial levels in the human body, and is strongly associated with strengthened immunity.
The existence of traditionally fermented foods for thousands of years is a testament to the cultural, culinary and health ties to probiotics in fermented foods. Modern science is beginning to provide information to support what cultures have known for generations — the benefits of ecosystems of bacteria on the human body are many.
If you’re interested in becoming more familiar with fermenting delicious foods for their probiotic benefits, Sandor Katz has written the fermenters’ bible, called Wild Fermentation, as well as its thicker, more detailed companion The Art of Fermentation. There are many local groups that meet to share recipes, cultures, and to build community. Have a look-see if there is a fermenters’ club in your town.