Fermentation: What Is It?
Fermentation is a process that allows molecules of food to break down and decompose when deprived of oxygen. We can use fermentation in the kitchen to help preserve foods, but it also happens naturally in our gut. This is because the absence of oxygen allows good bacteria to thrive… and this is why eating fermented foods and probiotics (which, are chocked full of healthy bacteria) is good for your gut health.
Fermentation: A History
Fermentation is an amazing process, and there is tremendous value in understanding more about it, as well as its potential benefits.
Before refrigerators and freezers, and before heavily-processed foods were packaged to extend shelf life, fermentation was one of the main methods used to preserve food… and for good reason. Fermentation has been around for thousands of years, and our ancestors used the process to extend the shelf life of perishable foods, such as cheeses, dairy foods, vegetables, and alcohol. While modern times and modern appliances have led to a decline in its use, there has also been a renewed interest in fermentation… particularly in its ability to improve gut health, which affects other aspects of our health, including immunity and mental health.
It is likely that fermentation was discovered by accident, but increasing the shelf life of foods led to its continued use. Even before the process of fermentation was fully understood, our ancestors used the process to make some of the most commonly known fermented foods including, wine, mead, cheese, and beer.
Almost every culture has used fermentation, and most of those cultures have their own types of fermented foods and beverages they are known for. While some of the most commonly known fermented foods include wine, mead, cheese, and beer, it is interesting to note that fermented foods often play an integral part of national cuisines… think German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi.
There are different types of fermentation that can occur in food and liquids: alcoholic fermentation, acetic acid fermentation, and lactic acid fermentation.
Alcoholic fermentation is possibly the most well known of the three types of fermentation. It gives us wine, beer, and kombucha.
Lactic acid fermentation gives us yogurt, kefir, cheese, pickles, and kimchi.
Acetic acid fermentation starts where alcoholic fermentation ends. It gives us vinegar.
While fermentation has been a popular means of food preservation across many cultures over centuries, there is a renewed interest in fermentation as it helps facilitate a healthy digestive system. Incorporating a variety of fermented foods into our diets helps support overall health and nutrition.
Fermentation is important for many reasons:
- It aids in digestion and absorption of nutrients and vitamins. The process may even make the foods themselves healthier in some instances, increasing the nutritional content of food. In some cases, it also helps make food easier to digest.
- Consuming probiotic-rich foods improves gut health, which in turn supports the immune system. For example, if you have recently taken a course of antibiotics, probiotic foods are particularly helpful. Basically, evidence suggest that if the good bugs in the gut outnumber the bad bugs, it translates to improved health and a stronger immune system.
- Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, is produced in the gut. Improved gut health helps support improved emotional and mental health. Researchers are particularly interested in gut health as it relates to mood, happiness levels, and stress management.
- Fermentation lengthens storage life so that food can be kept for longer periods of time.
- Fermentation can improve the taste and texture of some foods.
Adding Fermented Foods to Your Diet – If You Weren’t Eating Them Already
It’s a good idea to start introducing fermented foods into your diet slowly to see how your gut reacts. You may experience gas, bloating, and maybe even some changes to your bowel habit in the beginning, as your stomach adjusts to the changes in your diet. If you experience any of these symptoms, they should only last a week or two.
How Much Fermented Food Should You Eat?
Everyone is different, so it basically comes down to trial and error. People who eat a single serving a day tend to have healthier levels of gut bacteria. Some dieticians often recommend two to three servings of fermented foods per day. Ultimately, you have to listen to your body. If you are experiencing stomach discomfort, just scale back your servings a little.
Even knowing the health benefits, some fermented food simply will not be to your liking, so pick and choose. You may prefer yogurt to sauerkraut, but if you do some taste testing, hopefully you’ll find some fermented foods that you enjoy eating.
Whether you ferment your own foods or you buy fermented foods at the store or at a restaurant, just be mindful of added salt and sugar, which are often used in fermented products. If you are consuming more salt and/or sugar in your fermented foods, just decrease the amounts you’re consuming during other meals and snacks.
If you’re buying your fermented foods from your local market, check the refrigerated section. Some brands advertise that their products contain live organisms… and those are the ones to choose. Look for the term “live cultures” on your fermented products. This indicates that the bacteria is still alive and active. Jarred and canned sauerkraut, and other fermented foods, undergo heat processing and/or pasteurization for food safety, which kills most, if not all of the beneficial bacteria.
Whatever suits your tastes, to get the full benefits from fermented foods with live microbes that aren’t available in the store, one workaround is to do the fermentation yourself. If you’re game and able, follow recipes – from chefs, cooks or dietitians you trust – to make fermented foods to your liking.
If you’re interested in making your own fermented food, classic guides, such as Sandor Katz’s ‘Wild Fermentation’, as well as numerous online tutorials, can teach you what you need to know. Your local community college may also offer courses.
If you are new to fermented foods, food experts suggest trying these, if you haven’t already:
- Kimchi (a traditional-style Korean cuisine of fermented vegetables)
- Tempeh or miso (made from fermented soybeans)
- Kombucha tea
A word of caution for anyone who is immune-compromised—anyone who may be sick, elderly or pregnant, for example—should take a more cautious approach, even choosing to eat foods that have been pasteurized. Check in with your doctor just to make sure you don’t have any reason to be immune compromised, but otherwise, most people will be safe making their own or buying fermented foods with live cultures.
Explore our blog to find some fermentation recipes. You're sure to find something to suit your tastes!
Good luck and enjoy!