Fermented food and drinks are alive! They are rich in bacteria that perform essential functions in our bodies, improving our digestion, our immune systems and even our psychological state. Fermented foods contain live probiotic cultures (if not heated/cooked after fermentation).
Did you know that in our bodies, bacteria outnumber our own cells by more than 10 to one? While they are on/in all parts of our bodies, most of these 100 trillion bacteria live in our gastrointestinal tract.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation refers to anaerobic metabolism, the production of energy from nutrients in the absence of oxygen. It is carried out by bacteria (such as lactobacillus, lactic acid bacteria), yeast, fungi and their enzymes. It happens in nature, for example when a fruit falls from a tree and begins to turn into alcohol as it rots on the ground. Many of our favourite foods and beverages are fermented, and some were most likely discovered by happy accident. Think of sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, traditional pickles, yogurt, cheese, sour porridge, condiments (such as traditional mustard, tomato sauce, hot sauces, vinegar and soy sauce), chocolate and vanilla, cured olives, tofu/tempeh, and wine, beer, kombucha or kefir and even coffee and some teas.
Benefits of fermentation
The good bacteria in fermented food and drinks provide many health benefits:
- Breaks down the food we would not otherwise be able to digest and makes nutrients more (bio)available.
- Produces certain nutrients, such as B and K vitamins.
- Removes antinutrients (compounds that block nutrient absorption).
- Outcompetes pathogens in the gut.
- Influences immune responses in the gut and other parts of the body.
- Influences mood or psychological state (depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc.).
In addition to the health benefits, fermentation develops complex flavours: the sourness of pickles, the sharpness of the cheese, the pungency of kimchi, the umami of soy sauce or miso. In some cultures, fermented foods accompany almost every meal.
And did you know that fermentation was one of the earliest ways for humans to preserve and store food surpluses, through a process of acidification (usually lactic acid)?
Fermentation helps food to resist microbial spoilage and toxins and makes it less likely to transfer pathogens. This extends the life span of the food, without a need for high energy technology or chemicals.
So, if you want to contribute to a healthier gut microbiome and experience the many health benefits this brings, try adding more fermented foods and drinks to your diet.