We are all made up of trillions of living microorganisms. Although it may sound surprising, this is good news. We need these microorganisms to keep us alive and well: They live inside our bodies and on our bodies, and the largest colonies reside in the digestive tract, which is the core of our immune system. When we make these microorganisms welcome within us, they flourish. And when they do, they help our bodies break down the foods we eat to absorb their nutrients. They also bolster our immunity to keep us strong and well.
One of the most important ways we have of replenishing and strengthening the population of microorganisms inside of us is by eating living foods, also called fermented foods. Fermentation is as old as humanity. The process transforms our food, preserving it and making it more nutritious and digestible. The food then transforms us.
Around the world, fermented foods are prized for their contribution to good health and long life. Our modern American culture, however, has lost much of its connection to these foods and its appreciation of their many benefits. Living fermented foods can be hard to come by, and where they are still found, we often don’t recognize them or value their importance.
Put simply, living fermented foods matter. They have the potential to impact our well being in such a significant way that they are worth getting to know. They're also worth appreciating for their power to support a level of good health that is vibrant, deep, and lasting.
Defining Living Fermented Foods
Fermentation gives us chocolate, wine, beer, bread, salami and sauerkraut. It also transforms milk and cream into yogurt, cheese, cultured butter, and buttermilk. For more adventurous eaters, fermented foods may include tempeh, miso, kimchee, fermented vegetables, beet kvass, kefir and more. In truth, nearly all of the foods we consider “gourmet” are the product of fermentation.
It’s important to know that not all fermented foods are still alive when we consume them. To be “living”–that is, to provide us with the benefits that living microorganisms offer–they must not have been heated to the point at which microorganisms die. So, sourdough bread is alive before it’s baked, and even though it can be highly nutritious, it is not a living food when we eat it. Similarly, fermented foods like pickles or sauerkraut that are bottled and heat-processed to remain stable on a shelf are not living foods. And sauerkraut or pickles made with vinegar may be tasty, but they are more correctly preserved foods; they are neither living nor fermented.
Some fermented foods bear tell-tale signs that they are alive. Miso and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchee and pickles will be refrigerated when you buy them. Fermented vegetables will also contain herbs, spices, and salt as their only other ingredients; vinegar will not be listed on the label. Yogurt, yogurt shakes and buttermilk will say “contains live cultures” on the container. For all of these to remain potent living foods, you need to refrain from heating them.
The Many Ways That Living Fermented Foods Improve Our Health
Before our ancestors had refrigerators, fermenting was their primary means of preserving milk, cream, vegetables, fish, and meat. Fermentation worked as a natural preservative by using microorganisms to break down foods, a process that happens to be toxic to food-spoiling microbes. Now that we have refrigeration, there are other reasons to treasure living fermented foods; the overarching one is that fermentation is a living process capable of changing, in important ways, the character of our gut and the foods we eat. More specifically, fermentation:
- Improves digestion. Most of us have used or consumed antibiotics, processed foods, sugar, and chlorinated water. All of these make it difficult for the diverse population of microorganisms within us to flourish. Fermented foods, on the other hand, dramatically improve digestion by promoting the growth of healthy intestinal flora. This enables us to absorb more nutrients from the foods we eat so, over time, we get a higher level of nutrition from the same quality and quantity of food.
- Makes foods more digestible. Fermented foods are essentially pre-digested, which makes it easier for us to absorb their nutrients. Some people who don’t tolerate milk, for example, can eat yogurt without difficulty.
- Makes foods more nutritious. Fermentation creates new nutrients in foods. More specifically, as the microorganisms in fermented foods mature through their full life cycle, they create vitamins that were not present before, including B vitamins like folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin.
- Strengthens immunity. Since 70%-80% of our immune system resides in the digestive tract, a healthy digestive system is the key to a properly-functioning and robust immune system. It's also our first line of defense against disease.
- Removes toxins from food. Fermentation reduces or eliminates toxins in food. Cassava, for example, contains cyanide until it is fermented. Many whole grains and beans contain phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient that limits our ability to absorb and retain minerals. Soaking, which is a form of fermentation, neutralizes phytic acid.
- Makes foods more flavorful. Fermentation changes the flavor, aroma, and texture of foods in wonderful ways. Consider how milk becomes tangy yogurt or the way fresh, crunchy cucumbers turn into sour dill pickles.
Living fermented foods are ideally taken as condiments, and a small portion a day seems to be enough to reap their many benefits.
What About Probiotics?
A high-quality probiotic supplement may be useful for a period of months if you are ill, have been on antibiotics, tend not to remember to eat fermented foods regularly, or have weak digestion.
Our grocery store shelves are also lined with foods and drinks that have probiotics added to them, but these seem to be a costly marketing ploy. They approximate old-fashioned living fermented foods that contain diverse microorganisms, but the fermentation process is missing, and the process is the point. If you need a probiotic supplement, it would be better to find a good one and take it as “medicine.”
Living fermented foods are natural probiotics. They sow your inner garden with seeds that have been used for all time and, unlike manufactured foods, have always been a part of our culinary tradition.
Finding Living Fermented Foods
Fermentation is generally not an industrial process; it can’t be in our litigious society where foods have to be sterilized with chemicals or heat to remain stable during transport and for long periods on store shelves. Further, making fermented foods is as much an art as it is a science, which makes the process difficult to standardize; each batch is unique. For these reasons, living fermented foods are best made at home or on small farms by people who care about quality and tradition.
The best way to obtain living fermented foods is to look for them at farmers’ markets or in the refrigerated sections of local health food stores. You can also make them yourself, which is not difficult. You might look at making your own fermented foods as a way of embracing the living energy in your own environment, building inner well being out of the living forces around you.
My favorite book on this topic is Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz. If you are at all intrigued by the idea of home fermentation, you will want to have this book on your shelf. And if you decide to give fermenting a try, consider starting with yogurt. When you make it yourself, which takes little time, the quality and flavor are superior to that of even the best commercial yogurt.
Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul