When people hear the word ‘fermented’ in relation to food, usually one of two thoughts pop into their mind: either memories of a delicious beer or some unidentifiable object lurking in the back of their refrigerator. However, many people are unaware of the unending health benefits provided by preserved food, especially in relation to digestive health, allergies, weight loss and even possible cancer prevention. Today we take a look at the history of fermentation, benefits connected fermented products and some common foods associated with this ancient form of preservation.
History of Fermentation
The recent rise of interest in the Paleo Diet has sparked a desire in many to return to the simpler diets of our ancestors. Proponents of this movement will be interested to know the art of fermentation reaches back to ancient times. Evidence points as far back as around 3000 B.C. as the date when fermentation was first discovered, thanks to a few pieces of barley being rained on and left unattended too long.
Today our favorite fermented foods have deep roots in many cultures: kimchi and miso are distinctly Asian offerings while we can thank Europe for beer and sauerkraut. Many other preservation methods were born out of this time, such as pickling, canning and drying but no others provide the same health benefits touted by proponents of fermentation.
The Benefits of Fermentation
While the art of fermentation was effectively discovered out our ancestors’ need to preserve food, studies are now finding this is not the only benefit provided: when foods ferment, bacteria feed on the natural sugars found in the food, essentially making it partially digested. As an example, those who have trouble digesting lactose can often eat yogurt or kefir as the lactose has already been broken down. Simultaneously, the microorganisms go on to create alcohol, helping to preserve the food. Even in traditionally ‘non-alcoholic’ fermentations such as sauerkraut or kombucha, a small amount of alcohol will be present due to this natural process. In the last step, healthy bacteria and enzymes are able to grow in this unique condition and continue to break down existing nutrients into forms easier to digest. The result is a product that is nutrient dense and provides a concentrated amount of healthy bacteria to strengthen our gut activity.
Our guts account for almost 80 percent of our immune system, and studies are now showing that probiotics play a significant role in creating and maintaining healthy gut bacteria. The Journal of Nutrition found that probiotics could affect a range of maladies including allergies, intestinal problems, weight gain and even colon cancer.
While new studies are ever expanding, most doctors can agree that this ancient form of preservation also changes food into forms more beneficial to creating a healthy digestive system and serving as components of a healthy diet.
Common Fermented Foods
You may be surprised to know you’re probably already eating more fermented foods than you realize. While beer, wine and cheese are all among the first things we think of, many other everyday foods go through some process of fermentation. Once we recognize that not all fermented foods are stinky cheeses and effervescent kimchis, it becomes much easier to consider adding these foods to our diet. Below you’ll find some common fermented foods and our ideas for incorporating them as a healthy part of your diet.
Sourdough is made from a starter dough and is leavened through naturally occurring yeasts rather than cultivated yeasts used in other types of bread. Sourdough can be easily swapped out with regular bread for your morning toast or lunchtime sandwiches.
Yogurt & Kefir
Yogurt is a common food and chances are you probably have some in your refrigerator already. Make sure to buy versions labeled with a “Live & Active Cultures” sticker to ensure all the good probiotics are present. Kefir is very similar in flavor to yogurts but is usually a bit thinner and is a perfect addition to a smoothie or on its own.
Miso is a fermented paste created from barley, rice or soybeans. It is most commonly associated with miso soup but can also be added to many different dishes for an added layer of flavor. A little goes a long way, both in terms of taste and health benefits.
Sauerkraut is one of the most easily fermented foods and fermentation enthusiasts typically suggest those who are interested in home-fermenting start here as their first project. Made from simply cabbage and salt, sauerkraut packs a heavy dose of both probiotics and fiber. You don’t have to eat much to see benefits; next time you have a hot dog, consider adding a dollop.
Kombucha is steadily rising in popularity and can now be found in most grocery stores. We like to think of it as a healthy soda. Typically tangy and effervescent, it comes in a variety of herbal or fruit flavors mirroring popular tastes of other mainstream drinks but with no nasty additives and all the good probiotics.