Fermented Foods

What are fermented foods? What are the health benefits? Any downsides? What/where do I buy? Can I make at home?

Some folks are a little unsure about what fermented foods are.
This is a little surprising given that some of the western world’s most regularly consumed food and drinks all have some element of fermentation: namely bread, wine, coffee, tea, cheese, chocolate, yoghurt, soy sauce… without knowing it, you could be a rusted on fermentation fan (I know I am)! Of course in most of the commercially prepared products the amount of good bacteria remaining is generally minimal due to the pasteurisation process.

I think the first fermented foods I remember eating were polski ogorki (pickled cucumber), by the jar full and corn relish. My parents might have been on to something. It’s not like those foods were forced on me as a child but they were just ‘around’ and eventually, I consumed them. With gutso.

Why eat fermented foods?

While these days most of us appreciate fermented foods just for their flavour, historically ferments were used as a preservation agent and extended the life of produce.

Foods may be fermented in an anaerobic (that is, made without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) environment. The standard fermentation process produces lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus plantarum, L. pentosus, L. brevis, L. acidophilus, L. fermentum, Leuconostoc fallax, and L. mesenteroides 1.

The composition of bacteria in our gut may be influenced by the foods we eat (or don’t eat!) and psychological stress may decrease beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli 3.

The beneficial bacteria produced by fermenting foods may also:

• inactivate toxins in foods (i.e. cyanide in cassava),
• increase digestion of food and nutrient bioavailability including those difficult to source nutrients such as vitamin K2 in Natto,
• improve barrier function at the epithelial layer3 which reduces ‘leaky gut’ or intestinal permeability, which provides better host defence to food borne pathogens1
• produce immunoregulatory molecules which further modulate and improve our innate immunity1,2
• decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines3
• decrease oxidative stress3
• have the potential to positively improve mood, particularly in those cases where emotional symptoms and inflammation are linked, such as depression and chronic fatigue syndrome3
• modulate gut motility which may be of use in diarrhoea, constipation or small intestinal bowel overgrowth (SIBO)3
• be of particular interest to me as Naturopath who has focussed on digestive disorders, as fermented foods provide a cheap, readily available source of’ good bugs’ to crowd out less desirable species and supercharge our microbiota.

Are there any downsides?

As with most things in life, moderation (especially in the beginning) is key. Some may experience bloating or worsening digestive symptoms with the introduction of fermented foods and if this occurs I suggest you stop until these symptoms have improved. Start again with a smaller amount and/or a different type of ferment and gradually titre up your intake.

Still experience digestive discomfort eating these foods? You may have a gut disorder such as SIBO that needs treating prior to the introduction of certain probiotics and fermented foods.

Make a booking to see me if your digestive issues continue to worsen post the introduction of fermented foods.

Despite your best efforts some ferments may spoil.  My best advice is to go with your gut – if it smells right and tastes right, you have reached the right level of fermentation and the food can then be stored in the refrigerator (which retards the fermentation process). Conversely if the culture has morphed from a ‘sour’ aroma to something nasty smelling with a greeny black mould like a weird science project you will need to bin and start again!

From time to time you may notice a fine white mould on the top of some ferments such as sauerkraut – this is not harmful but all material containing this should be removed and binned and only submerged food consumed.

I find fermenting a little like gardening. And like gardening, some ferments are more hardy (read: Sam proof) than others. Some ferments are (or can be) ‘continuous’ like a sourdough starter, kefir or kumbucha that you make, use, feed, and repeat. You can also use left over spare liquid from one ferment to start or ‘oomph’ another.

What/Where do I buy?

Fermentation requires clean, non-reactive materials (such as glass or ceramic) which generally results in a collection of jars, bowls, specific vessels such as fermenting crocks (these look cool!), valves which let air out to allow venting and some cheesecloth or thin clean tea towels.

Some probiotic cultures, Kombucha scoby’s and kefir grains may be purchased online – either through select stores or eBay suppliers. Message me if you would like further info on this.

Of course, fermenting is a generations old, global community and sharing excess sourdough starters, scoby’s and kefir grains etc is a great way to introduce friends and family to this pastime.

This week I’ll be making a number of ferments and I’ll share recipes with you.

I want to start by introducing you to what I think is the easiest ferment, which is sauerkraut.
 Check out Sandor Katz in this short clip making sauerkraut:

Some additional resources
I think Sandor Katz has produced ‘the’ book on fermentation. Not strictly a recipe book but incredibly informative: http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Fermentation-Exploration-Essential/dp/160358286X

Also a smaller, more recipe like than tome: http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Fermentation-Flavor-Nutrition-Live-Culture/dp/1931498237

Wild Fermentation website: http://www.wildfermentation.com/


(1) Ouwehand, A. C.; Salminen, S.; Isolauri, E. Antonie Leewenhoek 2002, 82, 279.
(2) Reid, G. Int. Dairy J. 2008, 18, 969.
(3) Lakhan, S.; Kirchgessner, A. Nutr. Metab. (Lond). 2010, 7, 1.

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