Microorganisms dominate the world. They can adapt and thrive in almost any environment. Bacteria have been found in the cold icy region of Antarctica or near the hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean. They have become experts in adaptation. They are constantly disrupted by changes in environment, a shifting food supply and attacks by specialized viruses.
Some microbes have cooperated with the competition, to form symbiotic relationships. Examples of this would be Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus working together to convert milk into yogurt or the thirty or more strains of bacteria and yeast working together in Kefir, the traditional fermented drink of the Caucasians.
Our ancient ancestors lived in a non-sterile environment. They ingested the numerous microbes that were naturally found in their food. Some were beneficial to them while others caused disease. At some point they found themselves allied with certain species that took up habitation in their intestines. The bacteria got a home and plenty of food while our ancestors received beneficial nutrients and help in defending off pathogens.
About one thousand years ago our ancestors began to experiment with fermenting their own foods with beneficial strains of bacteria to prevent spoilage, fight infections and increase absorption of nutrients. Fermented milk products were being consumed way before that, probably 3,500 years before. This deepened the alliance our bodies had with the world of microbes.
The one thing that microorganisms do well is detoxifying things. There are hundreds to thousands of different bacterial species in any teaspoon of soil. “You could go out in your back yard and if you really put your mind to it, you could find a thousand new species in not much time,” states John Holt, a microbiologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Many of these bacteria live off of the contaminants in the soil. These microbes help to purify the earth. They can help to clean up oil spills or sewer plants and detoxify our food and water.
For centuries the Europeans used wine as a clean lasting source of water. Bulgarians perfected the art of preserving milk and transforming it into cheese or yogurt. The Caucasians used kefir grains to detoxify milk into kefir. Vegetables were fermented to preserve them and became, for example, pickles or sauerkraut.
There is a fierce competition between microbes. The good bacteria that normally inhabit our intestinal tract will fight off pathogens. They are seen as our first line of defense against infection. Many substances that are produced by lactobacilli or lactic acid bacteria, and have been found to inhibit harmful microorganisms, have been documented by scientists. One example is Lactobacillus acidophilus produces substances, while fermenting milk, such as acidolin, acidophillin, lactobacillan, and lactocidin. These substances have been shown to inhibit pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, without harming other lactobacilli or human cells. These bacteria are found in fermented milk, but not always in a probiotic pill. In the year 2000, Dr Chitra N. Wendokoon of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, led a study, which showed that fermented milk products such as yogurt and kefir can kill the ulcer causing bacteria Heliobacter pylori, but not the beneficial bacteria alone. This means that probiotics in a pill would have no effect on the H. pylori.
This shows that when you purchase a probiotic pill it may be lacking in the ability to kill harmful bacteria. They only offer convenience to a certain degree. Once you start eating fermented food and incorporate them into your diet it becomes just as easy and if you ferment your own food at home it can also be fun.
Another benefit of fermented food is that it is a good source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes. In ancient times, sauerkraut was used by armies, most notably the Mongolian army, to ward off scurvy. Fermentation also increases the bioavailability of the foods.
There are two warnings in regard to fermenting food. The first is fermentation must take place outside the body. If you ingest food and eat a lot of sugar, the bacteria will ferment the food inside of you. But an overgrowth of fermenting bacteria inside of you can lead to many health issues, which include candidiasis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ankylosing Spondylitis and Crohn’s Disease. So the rule is ferment your food before you eat it.
The second rule is to not eat fermented food that is spoiled. In rare cases, fermented food can be overtaken by mold or become spoiled. If this happens, please throw it away.
The key to fermenting vegetables is to make sure your vegetables are submerged in liquid. If not, they will just mold. Usually the liquid is salty water, which is called brine. Other liquids, which are used, are whey or wine. Pretty much any vegetable can be fermented.
When you make your own fermented food you have the ability to control what you eat. You can pick organic foods that are good quality. You can use raw milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized.
How do you know how much salt to use? Traditionally food has been fermented with lots of salt. It enables vegetables to be stored for longer periods of time. But if you like you can use less salt. The rule is to start out with 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of food. More salt can be added if you like. If you put in too much salt, just add some water. The more salt you use the longer the fermentation process. Ferments with less salt will be prone to have mold on the surface. Any vegetable that floats to the top and become exposed to the air will mold.
As far as what kind of vessel to use, it’s best to stay away from metal. The best vessels are crocks or glass. Crock-pots make good vessels as crocks tend to be expensive, unless you are lucky and you find a good buy at a flea market or rummage or garage sale. Plastic could be used in a pinch, but they tend to leach toxins.
As far as how long to ferment food, it is ultimately up to you to decide. Many recipes will say ferment until ripe. Longer fermentation leads to a tangier flavor, while less will result in a milder flavor. By experimenting you can conclude how long to ferment.
Fermented Food Benefits Health
The major benefit of fermentation is that it preserves food. The fermentation organisms produce lactic acid, alcohol and acetic acid, which are all natural preservatives that help to prevent spoilage and retain nutrients. Fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and fish are all highly perishable. Our ancestors discovered techniques to preserve food when it was plentiful to be consumed at later times when it wasn’t so plentiful.
In addition to preserving nutrients, fermentation also breaks down food into a more easily digestible form. One example is soybeans. They’re rich in protein but mostly indigestible without first being fermented. The fermentation process breaks the proteins in the soybeans down into amino acids, which are readily digestible. The products of fermented soybeans are traditional Asian foods like miso, tempeh and tamari (soy sauce).
Milk also is difficult to digest for many people. Lactobacilli (lactic acid bacteria) ferment dairy products and transform the lactose or milk sugar into easier digestible lactic acid. Fermented wheat too is more digestible than unfermented wheat.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which promotes fermentation as a crucial source of nutrients worldwide, fermentation improves the bioavailability of the minerals that are present in food. Fermentation also creates new nutrients. Microbial cultures, as they go through their life cycles, they create B vitamins which include folic acid, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and biotin.
Some ferments have been shown to act as antioxidants, which scavenge cancer precursors that are known as free radicals from the cells of your body. Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for cell membrane and immune system function as well as heart and brain health.
Fermentation removes toxins from foods. A great example is seen with the cassava, an enormous tuber that is native to the tropical regions of the Americas and has also become a staple food in the equatorial regions of Asia and Africa. Certain varieties of cassava contain high levels of cyanide and therefore are poisonous until they undergo soaking fermentation. The fermentation causes the cassava to become edible by eliminating the cyanide.
All grains contain a compound called phytic acid. The phytic acid can block the absorption of calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and other minerals, which can lead to mineral deficiencies. Soaking and fermenting grains before cooking them will neutralize the phytic acid creating a far more nutritious grain. Other toxic chemicals found in foods that can be eliminated by fermentation include oxalic acid, prussic acid, nitrites, nitrosamines and glucosides.
Eating fermented foods in a live state is an extremely healthy practice, because it supplies your digestive tract with living cultures that are essential to breaking down food and assimilating its nutrients. But beware, it’s very important to read food labels carefully. Many commercially available fermented foods have been pasteurized, which means they have been heated to the point where the beneficial microbes will die. Examples are yogurt, which is pasteurized after culturing. Look for the statement “contains live cultures”. Another example is sauerkraut, which has been pasteurized or canned to extend the shelf life, but the result is that the beneficial microorganisms are killed. Even miso is dried and sold in a powdered lifeless form.