Many of today’s health conscious consumers will have likely noticed the media attention over the last few months, reporting the health benefits of consuming fermented foods. Rather than it being a modern fad, the consumption of fermented foods dates back thousands of years and is by no means a new-fangled idea.
Fermentation actually dates back as far as 6000 B.C and although back then it was mainly used as a form of food preservation, the science behind it has developed rather a lot since then and we now know that fermented foods could have a part to play in improving and sustaining health, especially gut health.
In many parts of the world, especially in many parts of Asia, fermentation of food is part of the country’s cultural heritage where the process of fermentation is a traditional way of life and has been for generations. From fermented vegetables and meats, to fermented dairy products, it is estimated that around 3500 global fermented foods and beverages are consumed regularly as part of peoples’ staple diet.
So what exactly is fermentation and what are fermented foods?
Fermentation itself is a totally natural process, but when we talk about fermentation in relation to foods, we are talking about a process that we have manipulated slightly to suit our needs, whether that be for the purposes of preservation or for the purposes of health benefits or simply a flavorsome taste. In a nutshell, fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance, for example food, by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, states that fermented foods are “the flavorful space between fresh and rotten.” This may not sound too delicious, but it does sum the process up quite well and also emphasizes that the fermentation process creates foods that are highly flavoursome and often strong tasting (so not always loved by everyone).
The most common type of fermentation is called lacto-fermentation. The simplest example of this is the fermentation of vegetables. When vegetables are soaked in either salt water, or just their own juices, after a time bacteria starts to grow. This bacteria starts to feed on the sugars and starches found naturally in the vegetables and over time produces lactic acid. After a time you are left with fermented vegetables that have a very unique sour / tart taste containing a high concentration of the ‘good’ bacteria called Lactobacillus, of which there are many different strains.
So why should we be eating fermented foods?
Increasing research shows that consuming fermented foods has specific health advantages that should make them a food of choice for your weekly menu. The process of fermentation can actually increase the availability of certain vitamins and minerals in the food, meaning more essential nutrients are available for our bodies to absorb and utilize.
The process of lacto-fermentation described produces the ‘good’ bacteria called Lactobacillus, which has been deemed through extensive research as ‘probably effective’ for a variety of common conditions including eczema, hayfever, bacterial vaginosis, high cholesterol, IBS and rheumatoid arthritis.
One of the biggest health benefits of fermented foods is that they are rich in a variety of different probiotics, which are ‘good’ bacteria. These probiotics are essential for the proper functioning and overall health of
our gut and the intestinal flora that thrives there. In fact, making sure our intestinal flora is thriving with good bacteria is super important, because it is directly related to our immune system. 70-80% of our immune function is found in the digestive system, so keeping your gut healthy is essential if you want a strong immune system. Consuming probiotic rich foods, in the form of fermented foods, therefore helps us fight off disease causing microbes and makes us more robust, ready for the winter months ahead. If you are a regular user of antibiotics, or have taken them recently, fermented foods can be especially great as their high concentration of probiotics will help restore the gut flora, which is largely destroyed after a course of antibiotics.
Fermented foods can be very useful for people suffering with ongoing gut problems such as bloating, excess gas or IBS type symptoms because very often fermented foods are easier to digest. This is because during the process of fermentation, the sugars and starches in the foods are broken down so at the time of consumption are far easier to digest than foods that have not been fermented. One example of this is lactose in milk. Lactose is the sugar found in milk, which during fermentation breaks down into simpler sugars called glucose and galactose. This can result in some people who suffer with lactose intolerance (NOT allergy), more easily digesting the milk and milk based products such as cheese and yogurt, so fermentation can be very helpful in these circumstances.
As stated previously, there are hundreds of fermented foods available and you can easily make your own at home too. They all have their own unique tastes so try some and see what best suits your pallet. Below are some of the more common fermented foods that you can easily start to incorporate into your diet.
Kefir is a fermented milk product that can be made from cow, goat or sheep milk. It is a cultured, creamy product, very similar in consistency to yogurt but slightly thinner. It is made by adding ‘kefir’ grains to milk, which are actually cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that when mixed with milk and left for 24 hours, cause the microorganisms in the kefir grains to multiply and ferment the sugars in the milk turning it into the ‘yogurt like’ kefir.
Kefir is one of the most potent sources of probiotics there is
Kefir is one of the most potent sources of probiotics there is, as kefir grains contain around thirty different strains of bacteria and yeasts, making it a very rich and diverse probiotic source. One of the probiotics, unique to kefir is called Lactobacillus kefiri, which has been shown to have anti-bacterial properties as well as being potentially effective at treating gut inflammatory disorders.
You can easily make your own kefir using Delamere Dairy’s delicious goats’ milk and buying kefir grains from high street health food shops or online. There are many instructions online on how to make kefir, but all you really need is Delamere Dairy goats’ milk, kefir grains, a plastic strainer, a glass jar, a spoon and a bit of patience to wait about 24-48 hours for your kefir to form. Once done, you will have made a delicious goats’ milk kefir, packed full of probiotics and goodness that your body can’t help but thank you for. The good thing is you can actually re-use the kefir grains multiple times to make more kefir, you just need to remember to keep buying more Delamere Dairy goats’ milk!
This is basically fermented cabbage and can easily be bought in supermarkets, or if you are feeling adventurous it is also an easy food to ferment yourself.
Sauerkraut is a rich source of fibre and is a good natural source of calcium and phosphorus. It also contains enzymes which help break down the foods we eat into smaller parts making digestion easier, which can help people who suffer with digestive symptoms and bowel irregularities.
This is a traditional Korean dish that is made from a variety of pickled vegetables that have been seasoned with sugar and all sorts of different spices and herbs such as ginger, garlic and chilli.
Many Kimchi dishes can also contain fermented fish. There are many different varieties and flavours of Kimchi, depending on what vegetables and spices are used, so why not try making your own using a selection of different vegetables, which will vary the type of probiotic strains and maximize the health benefits.
Traditional Sourdough bread is often known as one of the healthiest breads around and this is because it is a fermented food. Sourdough undergoes the fermentation process, which breaks down the bran of the flour grains resulting in easier digestion.
Although we don’t get the benefit of the live cultures found in sourdough, as it is baked at high temperatures, we do get the advantage that it is easier to digest compared with other breads and the nutrients are more readily available to us.
Apple Cider Vinegar
This may be something you already have in your kitchen cupboard and something that many people consider a bit of a magic elixir. You only have to have a quick Google of it to find that it has been named as the supposed cure for a whole variety of ills, but despite the high praise, the research behind it remains relatively small. It is however a fermented food and has been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is why it is so often used as one of the main natural cures for candida.
Unlike many other fermented foods discussed above, apple cider vinegar does not contain probiotics, but it does contain pectin. Pectin is a soluble fibre, which is a prebiotic, which is something that nourishes the ‘good’ bacteria already in the gut and helps it to thrive and keep us in optimum health.
With so many fermented foods to choose from, you are bound to find one or two that you enjoy. You can enjoy experimenting at home and try fermenting a range of different vegetables and other foods, or make
kefir with Delamere Dairy goats’ milk. If you start now you will have given your immune system a good boost before the schools start back when germs can often be looking for a host.
We would love to hear about your fermentation exploits, so write in and tell us about how you got on, or even better send us a picture of your handy work!