Our niece recently gave my husband a fascinating book: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
He’s already an enthusiastic yogurt maker, bread baker, beer brewer and kombucha fermenter (is that a word?). But this book has increased his knowledge and his projects several-fold, and by extension I’ve learned a lot about the health benefits of fermented foods, too.
Fermented foods include, but are by no means limited to, pickles, sourdough, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, soy sauce, kimchi, sour cream, cheese, beer, wine, cider, tempeh, kombucha, kefir, and saki.
Most cultures have some kind of fermented food and drink as part of their traditional diets.
Fermentation pre-dates our modern food industry by hundreds of years. Fermented foods were not only inexpensive to make, but could be made in bulk and did not require refrigeration or chemicals to eliminate germs.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Fermentation requires microorganisms, and it’s those good bacteria, or probiotics, that give fermented foods their many health benefits.
Katz writes in the introduction:
Every living creature on this Earth interacts intimately with its environment via its food. Humans in our developed technological society, however, have largely severed this connection, and with disastrous results.
With respect to food, the vast majority of people are completely dependent for survival upon a fragile global infrastructure of monocultures, synthetic chemicals, biotechnology, and transportation.
Health benefits of fermented foods
A lot of researchers have put forward the theory that our lives are too sterilized now. We sanitize everything!
Our homes are cleaner than ever, and our foods are pasteurized, radiated or treated with chemicals to reduce bacterial growth.
Certainly there are bacteria that can make us sick, but maybe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
A scientific report I read a few years ago said we were losing touch with microbial “old friends” and that was “a fundamental factor underlying rises” in asthma, allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases.
WebMD has a good page on fermented foods that states:
If you’re consuming a diet rich in fermented foods, you’re essentially bathing your GI tract in healthy, food-related organisms.
An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms make a home in your gut, and they play a big, though not yet fully understood, role in your health.
“If the good bugs in the gut outnumber the bad bugs, you’re less likely to develop some of the conditions that we know are highly associated with obesity and certain cancers and a whole host of things,” says Cleveland Clinic dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick.
Other mentioned health benefits include:
- increased nutritional value of fermented foods, especially the B vitamins
- better nutrient absorption
- improvements in common GI problems, such as diarrhea, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Add some fermented foods to your diet
I know we can get probiotics in a pill, but it’s not the best way.
One, it’s expensive! Two, a probiotic capsule only has a few strains of bacteria at most, but our guts are home to hundreds of different strains. And which strains we have really depends on where we live and the food we eat.
The healthiest diets will include naturally-probiotic foods–fermented foods–that are made locally.
What could be more local than your own home? Many fermented foods are actually easy to make and inexpensive, too. YouTube is another great resource for DIY fermenting.
And if you make these foods or drinks yourself, you can control the flavors and the amount of sugar.
Kombucha, for example, is really popular in stores right now, but it’s expensive and some brands contain quite a bit of sugar (read the labels!)
Since reading Katz’s book, my husband has experimented with several fermenting techniques. A few of my favorite results are:
- tonic beverages made from the whey leftover from his yogurt making and mixed with sugar and fruit
- ginger beer made from fermented ginger, aka a “ginger bug”
- effervescent water kefir made with kefir “grains” (which he bought on Ebay) and flavored with fruit
- sauerkraut made with nothing more than cabbage (super cheap!) and a little salt
- fermented oatmeal, our new breakfast favorite, made by mixing 1/2 cup old fashioned oats with 3/4 cup milk and 2 T of whey and then left to ferment on the kitchen counter overnight
We’ve had a lot of fun with this over the summer!
If you prefer to buy fermented foods, check the labels for sugar content and make sure the product contains live cultures or bacteria.
Farmers’ markets are a great place to find locally-produced fermented foods!
Here are some other great books on fermented foods and their health benefits: