In the search for the ever-elusive ‘silver bullet’ or a quick fix, sometimes a ‘solution’ right under our nose can get ignored. One such is the age-old tradition of fermentation as the most cost-effective method of food preservation. Ancient cultures across the globe made virtue out of many a necessity. What could be more simple and elegant than discovering a way to eliminate spoilage and at the same time making the food healthy, simply by reasserting a harmonious balance? In fermented foods, the ‘good bacteria’ are enabled to outnumber the ‘baddies’ that are responsible for putrefaction and consequent diseases. Like alchemy, the fermentation process simply lets food ‘age in tight-lidded containers, while having some fun playing around with a few environmental conditions. Adjusting the quantity of oxygen, sunlight, temperature and salt levels, aids anaerobic (absence of oxygen) fermentation, which magically converts sugars into acids. This is commonly called ‘souring’, ‘curdling’ or ‘curing’. Uncontrolled ageing, in contrast, leads to putrefaction, due to denatured and toxic proteins and fats. The world rediscovered fermentation benefits thanks to Élie Metchnikoff, a Russian biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for work on the Immune system. In his book, The Prolongation of Life, he makes a strong case for the regular consumption of fermented foods produced by bacteria, yeasts and moulds. Unfortunately, the full impact of fermented foods did not register until several decades later. This is partly because the pendulum was still swinging heavily in favour of our (then) newly found penchant for antibiotics, which can nuke all bacteria – the good along with the bad. The easy access to highly processed, over-refined, high fat or high sugar foods did not help matters either. All these ‘modern’ and ‘industrial’ practices, combined with sedentary lifestyle choices, wreak havoc on the delicate balance of microflora in our gut. This weakens the Immune system, leaving the door wide open for chronic diseases to enter. And the heavy medication that follows also knocks off some more good microbes. Not surprisingly, this leads to a vicious cycle of chronic ill health.
It is only in recent years that we are, for the first time, perhaps fully appreciating the benefits of purposeful fermentation in food and beverages - not just for preservation benefit, but also for helping improve palatability and nutritional value. A recent report by the FAO concludes: ‘Fermented foods play an important role in providing food security, enhancing livelihoods and improving the nutrition and social wellbeing of millions of people around the world, particularly the marginalised and vulnerable’. The reframing of our perspectives on good health is helping us get such deeper understanding. We now refer to the human body as a ‘microbiome’ – an inter-linked community of 100 trillion cells. Within this community, bacteria outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 is to 1! Most bacteria reside in the gut and account for about 70-80% of the Immune system, which protects us against disease and premature ageing. In addition, these microbes help counter inflammation and oxidative stress, which is the root cause for several chronic diseases. The critical role of ‘Probiotics’ is being seen in a whole new light. Most experts now agree that maintaining the right balance in the gut microflora is imperative to our maintaining good health. Good bacteria (probiotics) must significantly outnumber bad bacteria. And this fight can be greatly helped by fermented foods. Not only does the regular consumption of fermented foods aid digestion, but it can also help prevent obesity (by helping you feel full) - which in turn affects cardiac and kidney health. A 2014 study by Cambridge University indicates that the benefit could be even upto a 25% reduction to the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Interestingly, emergent studies are also indicating huge potential benefits in the area of mental health - specifically an increasing resilience against anxiety and depression. Fermentation can also enhance the Vitamin B content in the final product.
Tip of the Week
The benefits from Naturally Fermented Foods may not be available from all highly refined packaged foods, which tend to kill off all bacteria during processing, or use chemically produced yeasts or acetic acid for preservation. When buying packaged products, it helps to look for labels such as ‘Organic’ and ‘Contains Live Bacteria’.
Nature’s Wonder Food(s) of the Week: Naturally Fermented Foods
In addition to the traditional fermented foods consumed locally in each region of the world, there is increasing interest in the cross-fertilisation of tastes. People are discovering that there are almost unlimited ways to add these simple yet healthy foods to our diet. Care should however be taken to choose the right strains of bacteria. For example, Lactobacillus are best for boosting the Immune system and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are most effective in concentrating the Vitamin B content. Lacto-fermentation is one of the easiest to experiment with at home. Salt plays a pivotal role in traditional fermentation, by creating conditions that favour the bacteria, preventing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, pulling water and nutrients from the substrate and adding flavour. Some interesting recipes can be found on : http://www.culturesforhealth.com/.
For Education purposes only; always consult a Healthcare Practitioner for medical conditions