The modern world is only just starting to really explore what traditional societies have known for thousands of years: the old ways of preserving food through fermentation not only give you a great-tasting result, these techniques also add concentrated nutrition and amazing probiotic benefits. Today, you can take advantage of these traditional methods in your own modern-day kitchen, using simple ingredients and common household utensils.
What’s So Great About Fermentation?
Traditional fermentation techniques for most food products rely on something called lactic acid fermentation. In this process, naturally-occurring bacteria are encourage to grow in a container with the food product and transform some or most of the sugars in the food into organic acids. The acids produced by the bacteria are one reason why fermented foods generally have a tangy or sour flavor.
1. More Nutrients Available
The acids take the place of the sugar, making the food healthier, but they also make it easier to digest. In a sense, the bacteria are pre-digesting the food for you, and when you eat it your body will be able to get the nutrients from the food in less time. This is particularly important when it comes to tough vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi, and for foods like lactose-rich dairy products, which many people find hard to digest.
The fermentation process makes more nutrients available, and also adds important vitamins and minerals to the blend. For example, when milk is cultured to make yoghurt or kefir, the level of vitamin B-complex in the finished fermented product is much higher than in the milk itself. When vegetables are cultured, there is more vitamin C in the cultured food than in the raw vegetables, and also an increase in the amount of amino acids available. These amino acids are crucial building blocks to keep your body in good repair.
The natural antimicrobial action of many of the cultured ferments keeps away toxins from the food, and that same protection happens in your body when you eat or drink fermented foods. These foods help produce natural barriers to inflammation and invading germs, “cleaning” your system so that your body doesn’t have to.
2. Food Safety
The acids produced by the bacteria also play an important role in keeping the food protected from potentially toxic bacteria and molds. When there is a lot of acid naturally produced by the “good” bacteria, the pH of the food and/or the liquid around it goes down. A pH of 4 and below produces an environment in which most toxic bacteria, mold, and other pathogens can’t survive. For fermented foods where the pH isn’t that low, traditional methods generally add salt to the mixture. The combination of the salty brine and the organic acids in the mix will protect the food from spoiling.
Food safety continues inside your body as well. Digestive problems are often linked to systemic illness, because long-term inflammation pushes your body to continually produce white blood cells. When your immune system is constantly switched on and in high gear, your body will be worn down more quickly, and open to infection. Fermented foods are easier to digest, which means that your intestines will have less work to do. There’s also a lower risk of having undigested food caught in your intestines, something that can create pockets of toxic material that create an increased risk for cancer.
Fermented foods in general are powerful detoxifying agents. They provide crucial nutrients, including vitamins and minerals that your body needs to stay healthy. The probiotics in fermented foods rejuvenate your body, helping you balance your immune functions and your digestive system. They can boost your metabolism so that you not only get more nutrients, you process them more completely and efficiently.
3. A Bacterial Balance
Today’s hyper-sanitized world is far from the one your great-grandparents knew. Even when people started moving into towns and cities, and away from the natural world of the farms and forests, they were still eating fresh vegetables and drinking raw milk that were full of bacteria. There are trillions of bacteria in your body, and trillions more around you all the time – and that’s a good thing. What’s not good is when you cut yourself off from the natural world, and its bacteria, completely.
A 2009 study in Brazil showed that the forest-dwelling Yanomami native peoples have on average 50% more biodiversity in their “gut flora” than the average American. A rich blend of different bacteria in your system actually helps you cope with the bad bacteria that cause problems! No matter what the advertisements for antibacterial soaps want you to believe, the only thing that eliminating all bacteria will do is make you less healthy in the end. What’s more, using antibacterial soaps doesn’t kill all of the bacteria, it just makes them stronger. You might have clean hands for a few minutes, but what you’ve washed down the drain is a colony of bacteria that hasn’t been killed, and which is in the process of developing resistance to the compounds in the soap. In a few weeks, months, or years, those bacteria will be back, and they won’t be as easy to get rid of.
Eating naturally-fermented foods helps boost the number of good bacteria that you have inside you. These good bacteria do the work of helping you digest your food, and also fighting off toxins. You could take probiotic supplements to get new populations of healthy bacteria in your diet, but that’s an expensive solution for an easy-to-solve problem. Instead, why not start making fermented foods at home? Three of the healthiest are also the easiest to make: kombucha, kefir, and fermented vegetables.
Kombucha: The Tea of Long Life
Kombucha was once called “Immortality Tea” and even to this day, it’s been linked to a longer lifespan. The fermentation process involved in making kombucha tea includes the actions of the Lactobacillus group of bacteria (producing lactic acid) but depends primarily on the work of two other bacteria strains, Gluconobacter and Acetobacter. The acetic acid produced by this second strain give kombucha tea its typical sour flavor, which people often compare to apple cider vinegar.
All of the organic acids produced by the action of the kombucha SCOBY (the Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) during the fermentation process are vital to good health. Fermented kombucha tea also has a lot of B vitamins and probiotic nutrients. Personal stories and medical research alike prove that there are many health benefits of kombucha. The long history of kombucha includes documentation and anecdotes showing kombucha’s amazing ability to improve health.
Antioxidants in fermented kombucha tea boost your immune system and help you fight off seasonal colds and allergies.
Vitamin B-complex compounds in kombucha tea include B1 (which helps you metabolize fats), B2 (helpful in reducing blood pressure), B3 (crucial for keeping connective tissue in good shape), and B12 (required to prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
Antibacterial compounds produced by the yeasts help prevent infection, and work to detoxify your liver, kidney, and circulatory system.
Organic acids produced by the bacteria help regulate the acid/alkaline balance in your body. A too-low level of acid in the bloodstream has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
You can make kombucha at home using just three ingredients, two utensils, and one hour of your time. If you’ve been buying bottled kombucha in the store, you’ll enjoy saving money by making fermented kombucha tea yourself. And you’ll also enjoy how easy it is to add different flavors to kombucha when you’re making it yourself.
Kefir: The Prophet’s Gift
No one knows exactly how far back the history of kefir goes, but it’s been documented back at least 800 years. One of the many legends around this fermented dairy product says that the Prophet Mohammed gave the first kefir grains to one of the tribes migrating up from the Middle East to the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, in the Caucasus Mountains. These herders of cows, goats, and sheep would put the grains in wooden buckets, clay-fired pots, or bags made out of animal skin, fill the containers with fresh milk, and leave them in the sun to ferment. The milk became slightly sour and lightly curdled as the colonies of Lactobacillus microorganisms converted the lactose in the milk to lactic acid.
Other than the animal-skin bags, the technique you use when making milk kefir at home is the same one that was used centuries ago. You’ll end up with a tart and slightly fizzy drink that’s full of active bacteria and nutrients. When you drink kefir, you’ll enjoy a wide range of health benefits, including:
- a boost in B vitamins like biotin, thiamin, and folic acid
- a dose of bone-building calcium and magnesium
- a shot of phosphorus, a mineral essential for a healthy metabolism
- a helping of easily-digested proteins
- a supply of amino acids that you need to keep your cells repaired
The active bacteria help repopulate your “gut flora” and keep your own internal microbial colonies in the right balance. When you include kefir in your diet, you’ll find that your digestive system is improved, something that helps you get more nutrients out of the other foods you eat.
If you can’t eat dairy products, don’t worry! You can use milk kefir grains to make non-dairy kefir out of things like soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk. There’s also a different type of bacteria/yeast colony that creates something called water kefir. When you make water kefir you’ll end up with a similar nourishing and probiotic-rich drink, but without the dairy.
NOTE: If you don’t have a strong dairy intolerance or lactose-related allergy, you might find that you’re able to drink kefir without any negative reaction. The bacteria and yeasts in the kefir grains convert the lactose into organic acids and other byproducts, which means that there is not much lactose left in the kefir by the time you drink it.
Fermented Vegetables: The Ongoing Tradition
Another tradition that has been handed down for centuries is the process of making fermented vegetables. At one time, this was one of the only ways to store fresh vegetables so that they could be eaten and enjoyed for months after harvest. Now that we have cold storage and commercial refrigeration, fruits and vegetables can be stored for months and even years, especially when extra chemicals or preservative gasses are used in the storage container. However, the produce won’t retain all of its nutrients, and if you’re trying to get away from artificial chemicals, you’re probably looking for a better way to eat your fresh veggies, even in the dead of winter.
Fermentation solves this problem. When you add fresh vegetables to a saltwater brine and let the natural action of the Lactobacillus bacteria create the acidic environment that fights off pathogenic molds and bacteria, you end up with well-preserved produce that retains all of its original nutrients, and that lasts for months if properly stored.
When you eat fermented vegetables, you’ll get all of the health benefits of the live cultures and bacteria added to your own digestive system. The bacteria break down some of the compounds in the vegetables that make them harder to digest when raw, so fermented vegetables are not only delicious, they’re easier on your system. If you’ve had a bad reaction to cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, or broccoli, but still want to get the vitamins and antioxidants that make these vegetables powerful healing foods, try fermenting them first.
Here are some examples of fermented vegetables you can make at home:
Kimchi. This is a standard in every Korean household, and many people have kimchi fermenting crocks and recipes that their families have used for generations. It’s usually spicy due to hot chile peppers, but it can also be milder. The standard ingredients are green cabbage, salt, hot peppers, garlic, and ginger, but many other vegetables can be added to the mix.
Sauerkraut. Another way of preserving cabbage for the winter is by making sauerkraut, a staple in Germany, Belgium, and much of Northern Europe. The lactic acids and salty brine break down the sugars and the tough fibers of the cabbage, leaving a crunchy but silky smooth pile of shreds that can be eaten just as they are, or cooked with other ingredients like apples, sugar, and sausages.
Curtido. In Central America, people ferment shredded cabbage, carrots, and onions and then spike it with lime juice to use as a side dish for heartier foods like cornmeal fritters, boiled yuca root, and roasted or fried pork.
Pickles. You can use lactic acid fermentation and salt brine to pickle almost any kind of vegetable, and people around the world do just that! Unlike vinegar pickles, lactic ferment pickles have a richer flavor without the bite of acetic acid (vinegar).