While the thought of eating food that’s passed its sell-by date and pickled in alcohol may cause you to wrinkle your nose in understandable scepticism, the funky smell of fermented foods hides a multitude of wonders.
Humans have been fermenting and pickling foodstuffs since 7000 BC in some parts of the world! While the early process mainly involved the production of beer and wine, fermentation was used from very early on to extend the shelf-life of products with a distressingly low holding quality: dairy. The first yoghurts may have been accidental, but yoghurt and cheese have been staples of the human diet for millennia.
Pickled and fermented foods have continued to play a critical role in the way we eat, thanks chiefly to their extended life-spans and the fact that they don’t need refrigeration. But in the early 1900s, we began to understand more about the health benefits of fermented foods, and the obsession for fermentation has only been growing in strength since.
But what exactly are fermented foods? And why are they so good for us?
Fermentation: breaking it down for you
Fermentation is a chemical process involving bacteria, yeast or other micro-organisms, and carbs. The bacteria break down the carbs, for example sugar or starch, into gases, alcohol or organic acids. Since fermentation is an anaerobic reaction, meaning it doesn’t result in the production of oxygen, early scientists like Louis Pasteur referred to it as ‘respiration without oxygen,’ because it’s the bacteria’s way of generating energy and growing.
Fermented foods are therefore products which have undergone controlled microbial growth, and the acids and alcohol which result from fermentation give them their distinctive aroma and taste. You can pretty much ferment any whole foods, from fruit and vegetables to dairy and meat products, or even nuts and seeds! As well as prolonging their shelf-life, the fermentation process can bring out additional health benefits in already nutritious foods.
Benefits of Bacteria
These days, it’s widely understood that ‘good’ bacteria, or probiotics, play a crucial role in our physical and mental wellbeing. They thrive in our guts but impact a myriad of biological processes: from hormone regulation to nutrient absorption and immunity, probiotics are the superheroes of our general wellbeing. However, they co-exist with harmful bacteria which thrive off of processed foods and sugars.
A healthy gut is one where the ratio of probiotics to other bacteria is favourable to our physical and mental health - that is, biased towards the good guys. A gut in dysbiosis, where the balance is shifted towards harmful bacteria, results in issues such as cravings, weight gain, hormonal problems, digestive issues, gas, fatigue, frequent illness and lacklustre skin, amongst others.
Diet is vital in maintaining a beneficial balance of bacteria. Focussing on whole foods rather than processed foods means you’ll be feeding the good bacteria, not the mean ones, and consuming a varied diet increases the diversity of probiotics which will thrive in your gut. It’s also essential to include prebiotics in your diet! Prebiotics are food ingredients which probiotics feed on, so they contribute to the stability and growth of a healthy gut environment.
While most vegetables, fruits and legumes contain prebiotics, here are some products which are particularly good sources of non-digestible oligosaccharides, fructans and galactans - the most researched and beneficial prebiotics.
- Jerusalem artichokes
- milk (human and cow’s milk).
This is all well and good, but where do fermented foods come into it?
The fermentation process results in a slew of new compounds and molecules, which are actively beneficial to many areas of human health. The bioactive peptides, vitamins and other compounds produced by the bacteria are all known to have positive impacts on our bodily functions. They’re involved in regulating blood health, nerve function, and immunity, amongst other things.
The specific nature of a fermented product’s health benefits depends entirely on the type of bacteria involved. For example, research has shown that yoghurt consumption correlates with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, but fermented milk is linked with decreased muscle soreness.
Additionally, fermented foods tend to be rich in probiotics, especially if they contain live cultures at the time of consumption. This means you’re actively supporting the probiotic population of your gut! Look for products with a ‘naturally fermented’ label to make sure you’re selecting those with the most probiotics.
Fermented foods are also easier to digest than whole foods because the process of breaking down nutrients has already begun. For example, fermentation breaks lactose down into glucose and galactose, just as digestion does. So fermented dairy products can be consumed by lactose-intolerant people!
One of the many long-term benefits of consuming more fermented foods is that, over time, your cravings for processed sugars will decrease. By feeding only your probiotics with whole or fermented foods, you are in fact starving out the harmful bacteria, which reduces your cravings for the products that they thrive on.
Here’s a list of some probiotic powerhouses you can add to your diet. Enjoy the tasty journey to good gut health!
- sourdough bread