“I fed my sourdough this morning.”
“What? What sourdough? Who’s got sourdough? I want some!”
“Liza got it for me.”
“Oh! That reminds me, Liza, can I get some more kefir grains?”
“And, Liza, I need more kombucha SCOBY, I killed mine…again!”
“Murderer. No SCOBY for you!”
That’s more or less a word-for-word transcription of a conversation among some colleagues of mine a few years ago.
It turns out I’d become a dealer—in fermented foods. Sadly, I stopped making bread and missed out on the sourdough boom of the lockdown. I could have really profited….
Bacteria all the way down
The earliest record of fermented foods is more than 8,000 years old, and just about every culture (haha) lays claim to at least one type of fermented food or beverage:
- Vegetables: sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles
- Dairy: yogurt, kefir, cheese, some butters
- Soy: miso, soy sauce, natto, tempeh, fermented tofu
- Grains: sourdough, beer, kvass
- Fruit: wine, cider
If you’re grossed out by the idea of bacteria entering your system (anyone read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down?), you may want to stop reading now, although I hope you won’t because we all have beneficial bacteria in our gut, and they need to be nurtured! And the best way to do that is with fermented foods.
The gut microbiome is made up of the entire ecosystem of bacteria in your intestines. In recent years, studies of the gut microbiome and how it connects our physical, mental, and emotional health (also known as the gut-brain axis) have made fermented foods extremely popular again—a welcome resurgence, unlike that of bell bottoms and a wide variety of other fashions that should never have seen the light of day the first time around, much less made a comeback!
Fermented foods are functional, biologically active foods that can increase health or reduce disease. Fermenting foods is also a way to preserve them without refrigeration or canning through a process called lacto-fermentation—what Michael Pollan humorously reduces to “controlled rot.”
You’ve been warned: if you don’t have a strong stomach, you won’t enjoy this article.
Then again, if you don’t have a strong stomach, you will really benefit from this blog post, and here’s why: during lacto-fermentation, living bacteria in the food start the digestion process for us, consuming starches/sugars in the food and creating lactic acid, a natural preservative. Upon being eaten, the bacteria repopulate the good bacteria in our gut and build up the intestinal tract’s lining by creating mucus as a byproduct of their digestion.
For a deep dive into the science behind gut health, I highly recommend The Good Gut, written by two scientists who not only explain the gut biome in terms the average non-science type can understand—they also provide practical tips for improving gut health from the perspective of the daily life of two parents with children to feed as well as themselves.
More good info can be found in the chapter on fermentation in Michael Pollan’s Cooked.
Why eat fermented foods?
Scientifically speaking, eating fermented foods is considered to have a host of benefits:
- Fermentation enhances the enzymatic content of food: each metabolic reaction in the body is started, controlled, and terminated by enzymes, which can be created in the body or ingested from raw, unheated food.
- It increases bioavailability of nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals, which means that these nutrients are more easily absorbed into the body than if they are ingested without fermented foods.
- It produces a variety of beneficial compounds and reduces harmful compounds in food and so can potentially have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral properties.
What does all that mean? Scientists are now looking at eating fermented foods as a way to improve outcomes for the following conditions:
- blood disorders: anemia
- cardiac disease: hypertension, high cholesterol
- chronic fatigue syndrome, low energy
- dermatological disorders: eczema, acne, allergies, psoriasis, wrinkles
- digestive issues, including IBS/IBD, constipation, diarrhea, ulcer, reflux, hepatitis, colitis, leaky gut, canker sores
- genitourinary disorders: yeast infections, Candida
- immune system: autoimmune disorders, AIDS
- musculoskeletal disorders: arthritis, gout, osteoporosis, rheumatism, collagen maintenance
- neurological/psychological disorders: depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), migraine, sleep disorders
- respiratory disorders, asthma
- weight loss
What? That’s crazy! Have we discovered a panacea?
It sure seems that way, and supplement manufacturers were not long in jumping on the probiotics train—because that’s what fermented foods provide: probiotics, compounds that are good (pro) for your internal ecosystem (biota).
And of course, our contemporary mentality is that if a little is good, a lot is better, right?
Psssst. Before you go out and spend your kids’ inheritance on pills, though, know that the probiotics you get from fermented foods are much more easily digested and a whole lot cheaper.
And that’s because probiotic pills contain just that, probiotics. Fermented foods contain probiotics and something called prebiotics—the sustenance that those little bugs need to survive all the way through the intestinal tract and actually do their job while down there: I’ve read somewhere that it’s like sending them to work down under with a little lunch box of snacks to sustain them!
Another reason to favor food-based probiotics rather than supplements is that we are all unicorns—nobody else’s gut bacteria are the same as ours! Whole foods that are fermented are much more likely to have some matching strains than are supplements, which are really just scientists’ best guesses as to the most common strains.
Making fermented foods at home
Food manufacturers have started to make more fermented foods—something that is somewhat complicated by our obsession with pasteurization, which is normally required of foods sold to the public and, unfortunately, kills off the (bad and good) bacteria in them.
And of course, because fermented foods are suddenly “a thing” again, they are expensive to buy!
Making fermented foods at home is not difficult—you really need more patience than skill.
Oh, and counter space. You need counter space. My husband often complains that our counter space, which is considerable, feels small because of “all your science experiments!”
Depending on what you plan to make, you may also need a starter, also called a “mother” or sometimes a SCOBY (which stands for “symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast.”) The best ones come from a personal connection—and of course, you can also find them online!
Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions has (mixed in with quite a bit of ranting) a lot of recipes. There are also lots of resources and recipes online, but if you want to get started right away and for less money, I highly recommend trying your hand at making fermented vegetables.
Yes, improperly handled fermented food can make you sick—and so can improperly handled food in general. By downloading this recipe, you agree to take 100% responsibility for the outcome of your experiment!
Use your senses and your common sense:
- Fermented food should not smell or taste awful, have visible mold growth, or feel slimy.
- If you’re not in the habit of eating fermented foods, start slowly and don’t ferment too long—your palate and your digestion will adjust.
- Start with a few ounces of beverages or about 2 T of vegetables. Add more gradually until you find the right amount for you—you will probably notice a marked increase in your bowel movements!
- Beverages can be taken without food as a tonic.
- Fermented vegetables make a great condiment at every meal, including savory breakfast!
- Balch, Phyllis. Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Revised and Updated 5th Edition. New York: Avery, 2010.
- Campbell-McBride, Natasha. Gut + Psychology Syndrome, Revised and Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, England: Medinform Publishing, 2010.
- Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions, Revised 2nd Edition. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, Inc., 2001.
- Katz, Sander. Wild Fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003.
- Pollan, Michael. Cooked. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.
- Sonnenburg, Justin + Erica. The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health. New York: Penguin, 2015.
WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.