Fermented foods have sustained and nourished our ancestors for thousands, if not millions of years.
They are minimally processed and seldom change between generations. In fact, the preparation and cooking techniques are usually passed down from one generation to another, and not a fad of the current generation.
Traditional foods are not the same in every culture but are locally available.
For example, traditional food for Japanese, Hawaiian or Islander cultures includes seafood and often sea vegetables while traditional foods for mountain dwellers include meat of local animals, dairy products and a variety of plant materials.
A ‘recent’ researcher from the 1930’s – Dr Weston Price, a dentist, visited and documented fourteen primitive cultures around the world. Although a dentist, he was interested in overall health and physical presence.
In all fourteen groups from Eskimos to Africans to Irish and Swiss, all cultures were free of chronic disease, dental decay, and mental illness, were physically strong and attractive and consistently produced healthy children generation after generation.
Dr Price documented two similarities between all groups:
- Diets contained some raw foods – animal and vegetable origin
- Liberal amounts of animal protein and fats in the form of organ meats and dairy products where available, were consumed.
All traditional diets studied and documented by Dr Price included fats, meats, fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains in their unrefined state.
When comparing traditional societies with industrialized or more modern societies, Dr Price found and documented a direct relationship between refined flours and grains, canned food and sugar and:
- Infectious diseases
- Tooth decay
- Degenerative illness
- Crowded and crooked teeth
- Narrow faces
- Deformities in bone structure
- Susceptibility to a variety of medical illness
In a second more detailed study, Dr Price focused on fermented foods and bone broths in traditional societies.
Fermenting foods allows for increased shelf life and increased nutritional value due to the good bacteria created during the fermentation process.
Bone broth is rich in collagen or gelatin as well as calcium, magnesium and many other minerals vital for our health. Get Step by Step Instructions to Make Bone Broth
Why are they making a comeback?
In no period of history as a nation, have Americans been so concerned about the subject of health and nutrition. Yet if we accept the premise that our food or what we eat determines our health, we must add the observation that in no period in the history of America and other westernized countries, has our food been so lacking in nutrition. (Source: Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, Second Edition)
Although heart disease and cancer were rare at the turn of century, today:
- One person in three dies from cancers
- One in three suffers from allergies
- One in ten has ulcers
- One in five is mentally ill
- One in five pregnancies result in miscarriage
- 250000 children are born with birth defects each year.
Today chronic illness affects half of the US population. Look around you – this is half the people where you’re reading this today.
Sadly the onset of chronic disease and degenerative illness such as arthritis, diabetes, MS, digestive disorders and Alzheimer’s disease are being seen at much younger ages and in larger numbers.
With all of this information, what can we do to improve our own quality of life and health?
Learn about the benefits of traditionally prepared foods and focus on one change at a time. Did you know soaking grains before cooking makes them more digestible and the nutrients more available? Nothing fancy just some advance planning J
What are the health benefits of fermented foods?
In short – they are highly nutritious and digestible.
Fermentation pre digests foods, making nutrients more bio available and often creates more nutrients or removes anti nutrients and/or toxins. (Sandor Katz 2012 The Art of Fermentation, page 21) .
Rather than focusing on the many miraculous claims about fermented foods, let’s look at some facts.
- Nutritional Enhancement
- Live Culture
Fermentation is the digestive action of bacterial and fungal cells and their enzymes. Although preserved, the food composition is altered after fermentation.
Organic compounds become more easily metabolized or absorbed, minerals become more available and certain difficult to digest foods are broken down.
For example, converting milk to yoghurt converts the lactose into lactic acid.
And meat and fish are tenderized by the action of enzymes related to fermentation!
The most common nutritional enhancement of fermented foods is vitamin B’s – B1, B2, and B12. However, the process of fermentation can also create additional beneficial micronutrients, not present in the natural form. Fermented cabbage is a great example of this. These additional phyto nutrients are said to be anti carcinogenic according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Fermentation can also convert or remove toxins. For example, Cassava tubers in their native form are toxic, full of cyanide. By peeling and chopping the vegetable, followed by several days of soaking in water, removes the cyanide!
There are also cases of wild foragers picking a poisonous vegetable by mistake and avoided serious injury by consuming the fermented vegetable rather than in its natural state.
The most commonly touted benefit of fermented foods is their live bacteria symphony!
Good gut bacteria are more art than science.
By this I mean it is less about the specific strains of good bacteria and more about the variety. There are some bacteria strains better suited to certain conditions but variety is the aim!
Other benefits include reconnecting with the lifecycle of food, controlling food quality, decreasing cost of weekly grocery bills, decreasing number of visits to doctor, number of days off work and school, a better quality of life – who doesn’t want that?!
The basic premise of vegetable fermentation is the creation of a selective environment where vegetables are submerged in brine. This environment does not support the growth of oxygen loving bacteria and encourages the growth of acidifying bacteria.
With all this talk about bacteria, the majority of people are concerned about safety.
Fred Breidt a USDA microbiologist has been quoted as saying vegetable fermentation is not risky. And as far as I know there has never been a case of food borne illness from fermented foods. It is one of the oldest and safest technologies we know.
Two contraindications for fermented foods are sugar and alcohol content and goitrogens.
In cases of candida, compromised liver function and compromised immune systems, fermented beverages can have too much sugar and/or alcohol for safe consumption. Although the SCOBY or grains consume the sugar during fermentation, the xs sugar can be problematic. In this case, fermented veggies are safest.
Goitrogens are naturally occurring substances in plants of the cabbage family and it has not been proven fermentation removes goitrogens. If you need to avoid goitrogens due to hypothyroid or other health concerns, fermented carrots,
Difference between fermentation using salt and/whey and starter cultures
There are three different ways to create fermented foods – purchase a starter culture, use whey to speed up fermentation of vegetables or use salt.
All three processes will create fermented foods but .. cultures are what I call assisted fermentation. The culture is created in a laboratory and not the result of true fermentation. Although it guarantees a predictable result, it can be expensive and can result in mushy veggies.
The use of whey to ferment veggies is the middle ground.
It is a live culture, easily obtained from commercial yoghurt but can also be a concern for those with a lactose intolerance. In theory the lactose is consumed by the bacteria during fermentation but not guaranteed.
Using a salt brine for fermentation is cheap and easy and IMHO the purist’s approach. Dry salting is also a fermentation process that relies on salting the chopped or pounded veggies to extract water from the veggies.
With whey and a starter, the veggies can become mushy, as the process is faster than with salt. Salt keeps the crunchiness of the veggies but usually takes longer than the other two options.
Pickling vs. Fermenting
Although both pickling and fermenting preserve food, the process and flavor are different. Pickling food usually involves vinegar or lemon juice and does not have the health benefits of fermentation as it is prevented.
Tips for getting started
- Decide on your level of commitment and your budget
- Identify the source of food – best quality produce you can afford will result in a consistent product.
- Don’t give up if you don’t succeed the first time. Worst case the garden gets some extra nutrients!
How to make do without fancy kitchen equipment
One of the barriers to experimenting with fermented foods and beverages, or anything new in the kitchen can be access to specialized equipment.
In all of my classes I like to show ways to get started without fancy equipment.
This approach allows you to experiment without breaking the budget or creating unrealistic expectations while learning 🙂
For example, when making fermented veggies like sauerkraut, the veggies need to be submerged and not exposed to the air. There are expensive weights and kraut crocks for this – but I discovered water in a bottle on top of the kraut bottle does the same!!
When making water kefir, I started with mason jars and quickly learnt the carbonation can distort the lids and seals! I purchased plastic lids and seek out bottles with plastic lids for the second fizzier fermentation!
Sources of Fermented Foods
- Your Kitchen/Laboratory!!
- Sierra Vista Food Co Op
- Sierra Vista Farmers Market
- Wise Choice Market
- US Wellness Meats
- Vital Choice
- Cultured Food Life
** Some fermented beverages are available at Fry’s and Safeway
Sources of Supplies
- Friends with XS starters, grains etc.
- Online – Cultures for Health, Kombucha Kamp, Body Ecology,Kraut Source
Sources of Further Information
- Any books by Sandor Katz
- Weston Price Foundation
- Dr Kaayla Daniel
- Dr David Perlmutter
- Swiss Hill Ferments
- Cheryl Hennessy and The Wellness Balance
- Human Microbiome Project
- PubMed articles
Thanks for reading! What’s your favorite fermented food? Do you make bone broth to keep the winter colds at bay and stay healthy all year?
Let me know in the comments – I always love hearing from you!