Fermented Foods: Their Important Place in the Human Diet

Fermentation has been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years.  It most likely started as an accident and humans perfected the art of fermentation through trial and error.  Every culture in every part of the world has some form of fermented food in their diets.  Europe is known for its sauerkraut, kvass sprung out of Russia, South America has spicy fermented cabbage called curtido. Kimchi comes from Korea, tibicos (water kefir) is a fermented beverage of Mexican origin. Dairy loving cultures like those in Scandinavia produced many different kinds of yogurts. Fermentation not only preserves food from harvest to harvest but it also enhances the nutritional value of the food, adding vitamins, increasing the bioavailability of vitamins and aiding in digestion.

The use of fermented foods over the last century has seemed to have become less and less popular.  New methods of preservation like canning, refrigeration and freezing replaced the need for fermentation. With the global distribution of food year round, the need to ferment to preserve the harvest isn’t as vital since a trip to the grocery store is all that is needed.  The advent of pasteurization and the germ theory introduced a fear of germs resulting in people wanting to sterilize everything, including their food. Fermented foods seemed to drop out of the human diet in modern cultures; but with recent interest in gut health, they are making a comeback.

Fermentation occurs when the naturally occurring bacteria on foods are allowed to proliferate.  This group of bacteria, known as lactic acid bacteria, is tolerant of salt and thrives in an anaerobic environment.  Ancient people groups found they could preserve vegetables under a salty brine and found that keeping the air out improved the flavor and texture of the food and the length of time they could keep it.  Burying jars of cabbage or using crocks with simple water airlocks allowed them to create the perfect atmosphere for the lactic acid bacteria to reproduce and create a fermented food.  Storing the ferments in a root cellar kept the foods at 45-55F which is the perfect temperature for storing many fermented foods for a year or longer or until the next harvest.  Dairy ferments like yogurt, kefir and cheese are created by adding a bacteria culture to milk and letting it set for a few hours to a day or so.  Fermenting dairy not only lengthens its shelf life but it improves the digestibility of the milk and adds B vitamins.

Why is reclaiming this lost art so important?  After more than a century of germaphobia, more and more people are experiencing digestive health issues such as Celiac disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and GERD.  The human microbiome consists of bacteria and yeast of which outnumber human cells 10 to 1 [1].   The majority of the population in modern societies has been on an antibiotic at some point in their life.  Antibiotics not only kill the germs doing harm but also the germs needed to keep people in good health.  Gut flora is passed on from mother to child through the birth canal.  Birth is the first inoculation of bacteria a person gets.  If the mother had a gut dysbiosis caused by an over use of antibiotics, she will pass that dysbiosis on to her children who will then pass it on to their children.  Not to mention the 34% of births in the US that end in cesarean section never get that first inoculation [2].

The second inoculation is through breast milk.  Breast feeding rates are on the rise now, but that wasn’t the case with the previous two generations.  It has been found that a child fed with formula forms a microbiome, gut flora, which is drastically different than that of a child fed with only breastmilk [3].  The situation may sound bleak, but the tide seems to be turning.  Reintroducing fermented foods is one way to help fix the cycle of gut dysbiosis.

In a modern kitchen, we are able to replicate the ancient way of fermenting in a much simpler manner.  No more digging holes in the backyard!  Using traditional fermentation crocks or airlock systems designed after home systems for brewing beer and wine making simplify fermentation for the busy homemaker.  Sauerkraut is just a matter of shredding up cabbage, adding salt, pressing it into a vessel until it’s submerged under its own liquid; just weeks later one has sauerkraut.  Pickled whole vegetables, such as brine pickled cucumbers, are as easy as packing cucumbers in a fermentation vessel, adding spices, and pouring a brine solution over the top.  In about a week at room temperature, the pickles are ready to eat.

Adding fermented foods back into your diet is a great way to begin to reverse generations of damage done to your gut flora.

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=human-microbiome-change

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/19/c-section-rates-reach-all-time-high_n_903012.html

[3] http://journals.lww.com/jpgn/Abstract/2000/01000/Analysis_of_Intestinal_Flora_Development_in.19.aspx


Photo By: Creative Commons License Kim Knoch via Compfight

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Melanie Hoffman is a homeschooling mom to 4 boys with a passion for nutrition. She runs a blog at http://www.picklemetoo.com that features a weekly fermented food as well as recipes and articles about nutrition. Her passion started when her oldest was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and she began researching diet and nutrition in healing gut issues that so many with autism experience. You can read about her family's experience with diet and autism here, http://www.picklemetoo.com/2011/11/our-journey-with-autism.html

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