The Power of Live-Culture Foods for Optimal Health
by Stacey Tress
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.”—Ann Wigmore, ND
As far back as recorded history, humans have eaten fermented foods. While these foods may have ancient roots, they are emerging as today’s power foods for health and nutrition. They have been shown to be beneficial for a number of health conditions, including IBS and digestive difficulties, allergies and autoimmune illnesses, sugar/carb cravings, and other inflammatory disorders. Science is starting to show that our modern lifestyle of eating pasteurized foods, and the over-use of hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and antibiotics is actually making us more, not less, susceptible to illness and allergies. Regular consumption of fermented foods in your diet helps your body naturally combat bad bacteria, helps you assimilate vitamins more optimally, detoxify chemicals and food additives and turn back the clock on cell deterioration.
The word fermentation may be new to you but you may be surprised to learn you have been consuming fermented foods for years! (Beer, wine, bread, cheese, and vinegar are all products of fermentation.) Many cultures have a distinctive fermented food that’s a fundamental part of their diets: sauerkraut in Central Europe, kimchi in Korea, miso in Japan, olives and cured meats in the Mediterranean countries, yogurt and chutney in India, pickled herring in Scandinavia, Vegemite in Australia, tarama (fermented roe) in the far Eastern countries, and pickles and sourdough bread in North America.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation happens when micro-organisms (natural bacteria and wild yeasts) feed on the sugar and starch in food, converting them into lactic acid in a process known as lacto-fermentation. From a biochemical perspective, fermentation involves the metabolic breakdown of a nutrient anaerobically (without oxygen). This breakdown produces ethanol, acids, gases, and other molecules. Lacto-fermentation creates beneficial bacteria, enzymes, vitamins, and a whole whack of probiotics.
Fermentation preserves food in a much more beneficial manner over pasteurization. While pasteurization detracts from a food’s nutritional value—mainly by killing off enzymes, as well as friendly and useful bacteria—fermentation actually increases it. An added bonus, by fermenting your own foods you can then purchase local raw foods and store them for future use without worrying about spoilage. The best part really is the ease in which fermentation allows you to preserve foods—some require a bit of a “learning” curve, as with any new skill but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be adding fermented foods to all your meals!
Fermented Food Classification
Not only does fermentation contribute to a diverse diet, but it also preserves, enriches, and detoxifies foods. It is the life force—that is, live bacteria, yeasts, and moulds—behind fermented foods that confers its beneficial impact on your health. The sheer number and variety of these micro-organisms is what creates the great diversity of fermented foods, which can generally be broken down into seven categories.
- Cultured Vegetable Protein. This usually refers to soybeans which are used to produce tempeh, an Indonesian staple dating back two thousand years. Tempeh is made from cooked, hulled, fermented soybeans bound together with a mould that makes soy easier to digest. The result is a pressed cake, often used as a meat substitute, that can be sliced, grated, chopped, or even slipped onto a skewer for the grill.
- High-salt-content, Meat-flavoured Fermentation Pastes. These usually consist of salt and savoury meat-flavoured, protein-bound grains and legumes, such as soybeans, that are soaked, mashed, cooked, and left to ferment to make pastes and sauces. Most of these fermentations originated in Asian countries. Examples are soy sauce, miso, shoyu, Vietnamese mam, Indonesian trassi, and Malaysian belachan.
- Alcohol Fermentation. These appear in biblical reference as fermented wine. We make wine by fermenting the natural sugars found in grapes (or any fruit really). Rum is produced by fermenting sugarcane, and whiskey, vodka, and beer are all produced by fermenting grain.
- Vinegar Fermentation. Vinegar is produced by a group of bacteria called Acetobacter, which convert the alcohol into acetic acid, or vinegar. You many have experienced this type of fermentation if you’ve ever left a bottle of wine open for too long, or have let your Kombucha go too long. Examples include apple cider vinegar, wine vinegars, coconut water vinegar, and African palm vinegar.
- Alkaline-fermented foods. These are less common foods made from various raw ingredients that are predominantly consumed in Southeast Asia and African countries. Examples include Japanese natto, made from cooked soybeans, and ugba from African oil beans.
- Leavened breads. These are made from fermented grains, such as wheat or rye, which use naturally occurring wild yeasts and Lactobacilli (a beneficial bacteria) to raise the dough and create sourdough. The history of making leavened breads dates back to ancient times, with records as far back as six thousand years!
- Lactic acid fermentation. This is probably my favourite way to ferment, with making sourdough a close second! Lactic acid fermentation occurs when bacteria convert sugars present in the food into cellular energy and lactate, or lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria. Examples of lactic acid fermentation include sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, olives, kimchi, yogurt, soymilk, buttermilk, milk and water kefir, kombucha, cheeses, and tofu.
The earliest form of lactic acid fermentation is believed to have been milk fermented into yogurt, kefir, cheeses, and buttermilk. Raw milk, which is unpasteurized, sours quite rapidly due to the natural fermentation conducted by lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria convert lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid, which serves as a preservative. Lactic acid is a natural antibiotic that keeps spoiling organisms away from the naturally preserved foods that contain it.
The benefits of lacto-fermentation do not stop at preservation. Lactobacilli—the most important lactic acid–producing bacteria—proliferate during the process of fermentation, making fermented foods so healthful. Lactobacilli increase the digestibility of the foods we ferment by providing their own natural enzymes. This way our bodies do not have to completely rely on the digestive system to metabolize foods. A good example of this is cabbage. When you eat cabbage you many find you get “gassy” or bloated, but when you eat sauerkraut you do not. (The same goes for regular bread vs sourdough.) These bacteria also increase the natural vitamin content of the foods we ferment and produce antibiotics and cancer-fighting agents. Lactic acid also facilitates the proliferation of healthy gastrointestinal tract flora that are so integral to our well-being.
Cortido (Latin American Sauerkraut)
Makes 2 quarts
1 large cabbage, cored and shredded
1 cup carrots, grated
2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and very finely sliced
1 tbsp dried oregano
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (I omit the flakes as I grow a “spicy oregano” and use that!)
1 tbsp sea salt
4 tbsp whey—if not available, use an additional 1 tbsp salt
This is one of my new favourites, as it’s so yummy and versatile. I always add a few tablespoons to my fresh garden salads (instead of dressing) or use it as an impressive and healthy condiment to top a sausage on a bun; it also goes so well with grilled fish or a bean salad!
In a large bowl, mix cabbage with carrots, onions, oregano, red chile flakes, sea salt, and whey. Pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer for about 10 minutes to release juices. Place in 2 quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jars and press down firmly with a pounder until juices comes to the top of the cabbage. The top of the cabbage mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jars. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 3-7 days (look for bubbles as a good sign of fermentation occurring) before transferring to cold storage. This recipe, like most, tastes better with age as the flavours blend and mellow—if you can wait that long!
Makes 1 quart
1 pound carrots, grated
1 tbsp peeled, minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup whey (I hardly use whey so instead for this recipe I just add an extra tbsp of sea salt into the vegetable mix before pouring the brine over it)
1 quart basic brine *Brine recipe - two tbsp of salt per quart of water—a quart of water is four cups. Boil it for 5 minutes, and let cool.*
In a bowl, mix the grated carrots with the ginger (and salt if not using whey). Pack into wide-mouthed mason jars, leaving at least 1-inch room. Cover with brine—make sure the brine completely covers the vegetable mix. Let the vegetables ferment for 3 to 5 days (again, look for bubbles!) then move to cold storage.
Enzyme-potent Papaya Kombucha Smoothie
Makes 1 quart
2-1/2 cups diced papaya
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp locally harvested raw honey
1-1/2 cups kombucha tea
Place the papaya, cinnamon, and honey into the blender and process until all the fruit has been pureed. Add the kombucha and blend until well mixed.
Fermented Food for Health, Deidre Rawlings
Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
Stacey Tress, a Holistic Nutritional Therapist (HNT), lives in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, with her husband and two daughters. She is the owner of Garden Therapy Yorkton which offers skill-building workshops, design work, organically-grown produce, and more! To learn more, please contact Stacey at 306-641-4239, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gardentherapyyorkton.ca, or on facebook.