Humans have consumed fermented foods in different forms for thousands of years, mostly for preservation and convenience, but they also happen to be incredibly good for us. Although they are not typical of the modern Western diet, fermented foods are experiencing a resurgence thanks to widespread interest in the various health benefits they provide. The complex flavours and range of textures they bring to the table have also proven to be a big draw. In fact, not only are we eating up huge amounts of fermented foods these days, people are actually buying the old-school ceramic crocks to make their own. From celebrity chefs and food trucks to holistic nutritionists and school cafeterias, fermentation is the real deal in culinary arts and natural health.
With this new popularity comes an endless supply of fresh recipes to try but here are a few examples of fermented foods consumed throughout history and around the world:
Wine dates back 8000 years to the country of Georgia, and it’s believed that ancient people consumed fermented drinks in Babylon circa 5000 BC, Egypt circa 3150 BC, Mexico circa 2000 BC and Sudan circa 1500 BC.
Long-fermented sourdough bread sustained Roman soldiers between battles.
The Inuit ferment whole seabird carcasses by wrapping them in seal pelts and burying them underground for months.
Fermented delicacies in East and Southeast Asia include kimchi (fermented cabbage), fermented fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. Meanwhile, Central Asians consume variations on fermented milk including kumis (mare milk), kefir (milk fermented with kefir grains), and shubat (camel milk).
Europeans prepare fermented foods such as sauerkraut (cabbage), crème fraiche (cream soured with bacterial culture) and rakfisk (salted trout).
Raw cacao beans have a bitter, astringent flavour due to tannins, but fermenting cacao removes the tannins, giving dark chocolate a richer, more appealing taste that many of us crave.
Fermentation, also referred to as lactic acid fermentation, lactic fermentation, or lacto-fermentation, occurs when bacteria and/or yeast act on a carbohydrate, encouraging the growth of good bacteria and destroying the bad. Controlled fermentation is when you start with something that already has good bacteria (called a bacterial starter) and allow it to ferment with other ingredients. Wild fermentation does not include a bacterial starter and uses the microorganisms in the air and the food to ferment on its own. Lacto-fermentation usually involves the use of salt, with high quality coarsely ground sea salt being the most recommended.
Here’s a look at the potential health benefits offered by fermented foods:
Digestive and preventive health: Research suggests that probiotics in fermented foods may also have (antioxidant potential), meaning these probiotics could help reduce the oxidative damage associated with the development of cancer, heart failure and many other less serious health concerns. Studies also suggest that probiotics and prebiotics may also help (protect against colon cancer) and that probiotics may help relieve (rotavirus diarrhoea and lactose intolerance) (the latter because the fermentation process breaks down the lactose and casein). It’s also believed that probiotics in fermented foods can help (treat or prevent yeast infections).
Oral health: Several studies show that consuming probiotics could have a positive impact on oral health. A (study of children) between one and six years old showed that children given a certain probiotic bacterium over seven months were less likely to develop cavities or tooth decay. A (literature review) published by the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association cites several studies showing that probiotics may also help reduce halitosis and periodontal disease.
Absorption of nutrients, vitamins and minerals: The enzymes and probiotics in fermented foods can aid digestion, and this improved digestion can help the gut absorb more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Of course, fermented foods are also rich in their own nutrients, vitamins and minerals. A traditional Japanese fermented soybean, called Nattō, is an excellent source of vitamin K2, which (supports skeletal health), among other benefits. Several fermented foods consumed as part of the (Paleo Diet) and (Primal Diet), such as grass-fed raw milk cheese, butter, and liver are very nutrient-dense and contain high levels of K2. That’s because cows eat greens that are rich in vitamin K1 and the fermentation process in the their guts produce the K2 form that is most beneficial for us.
Sounds great, right? The trouble is that many commercially available fermented foods don’t offer these benefits because they’re not prepared using the techniques perfected by our ancestors long before preservatives and refrigeration. Store-bought, mass-marketed sauerkraut and pickles are typically pasteurized and preserved in vinegar instead of naturally occurring lacto bacterium. Sadly, our modern “fermented” products are missing the health-promoting benefits described above.
To ensure that you and your family are consuming probiotic and enzyme-rich lactic acid fermented foods, you can easily make it yourself in a ceramic fermentation crock pot. From kefir to kombucha, fermentation offers a huge variety of foods and flavours. You can make your own yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, hot sauce, fermented veggies and more, similar to how people have enjoyed the taste and wellness benefits of fermented foods for thousands of years.
Sources & Additional Resources
Dave Asprey’s (Bulletproof Radio podcast interview) with Jill Ciciarelli, author of “Fermented: A Four Season Approach to Paleo Probiotic Foods” and founder of the health blog (First Comes Health).
(Mark’s Daily Apple), a blog by Mark Sisson, author of “The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy.”
(56 fermented food and drink recipes) from Girl Meets Nutrition, a blog written by Katie Peters.