When the average person thinks of eating bugs, we picture a certain travel show host downing things that are squirming and squiggling. This also makes me squirm a quite bit. Living in Texas, I cannot imagine for one minute eating a cockroach! Thankfully I am here to talk about a completely different type of bug; one that helps your body, one that you can’t see, one that could save your life.
Bugs might save my life, really? Yes really! We’re talking about gut bugs, the ones that make up our immune system and help our digestion work. We’re talking about beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are all the rage on tv commercials and rightfully so. We need these good bugs for optimal health. There is another even more potent way than taking probiotic pills us to make sure the good are in charge of the bad: fermented foods. Ok, ok I know you’re now thinking we went from eating bugs to eating rotten food, this girl has lost her mind! We’re not talking about a rotten food, but rather a form of food preservation that has been around thousands of years and turns an average healthy food into a super power! Fermented foods as a way to preserve nutrients has fallen by the wayside over the past 100 years as the advent of canning, refrigeration, and freezing became popular and accessible to the average person. There was no longer a reason or an understanding of the wisdom of using this traditional form of food preservation. Fortunately that wisdom is returning and fermented foods are making a comeback even becoming available in the average grocery store.
I may not have convinced you yet so let’s get into the what and why. Most of us have heard of fermentation when it comes to wine or beer. If you’re familiar with this you’re familiar with one of the most ancient recorded ferments, a honey wine called mead. It’s on record as far back as 12,000 years ago in India, Spain, and South Africa.
When by chance or intention honey is mixed with water, fermentation
happens. Yeasts surfing through the air aboard particles of dust find
their way to that sweet nutritive honey-water. When the honey is pure
it acts as a preservative and inhibits microscopic life. But honey diluted
with water becomes stimulating medium for airborne yeast to land in
feast upon, and reproduce exponentially bubbling and vividly alive.
~ Sandor Katz Wild Fermenation
A few other traditionally fermented foods include pickles, chutneys, sauerkraut, corned beef, ketchup (yes ketchup was fermented with fish sauce!), bread, cheese, chocolate and even coffee. In fact coffee and chocolate would not have their amazing aromas and flavors without the process of fermentation which is still used today!
The process of fermentation as a method of preservation differs from canning, refrigeration, and freezing by the nutrients it retains. Canning uses high heat and/or vinegar to perform its preservation. This process destroys most all of the valuable nutrients and enzymes available in the foods leaving them shelf stable and sterile but devoid of nutrition. Refrigeration and freezing both decrease the amount of nutrients available in our foods, but not to the extent we find in canning. Fermentation is either done through bacteria, which is anaerobic or not needing oxygen, or yeast which is aerobic or requiring oxygen. A traditional bacterial anaerobic ferment would be sauerkraut. Basic sauerkraut is made with cabbage and salt. The salt pulls moisture from the food and inhibits bad bacteria from growing by producing lactic acid (giving fermentation the name lacto-ferment). This produces healthy bacteria and provides an environment to grow and proliferate. Alcoholic beverages are a good example of yeast based fermentation. The process involves adding sugar to the liquid which the yeast will feed from and grow. For our purposes here we are focusing on the bacterial fermentation. This process of fermentation preserves the beneficial enzymes to help us digest our food. Enzymes are an important protein that not only aids digestion, but are critical for all chemical reactions in the body. Without enzymes our bodies would not function properly. The Pièce de résistance of fermented foods however is its ability to proliferate beneficial bacteria while keeping the harmful bacteria at bay. These bacteria aid digestion and enhance immune function, help keep harmful bacteria in check, and in some cases these bacteria also produces B vitamins and sometimes vitamin K. The average person has between 4 & 6 pounds of bacteria in the gut most of which are found in the large intestine. With 4-6 lbs worth we want to make sure the good outweigh the bad! If you find you catch every cold that comes around your immune system may need a boost. If you are dealing with dysbiosis or overgrowth of bad bugs including symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, malabsorption issues, or constipation you may benefit from increasing your good bugs. Fermented foods are a great place to start!
Good Bacteria help us in numerous ways! Here are a few points to ponder:
• Some act as free radical scavengers
• Lactobacilli (from lactic acid) create Omega 3’s
• Help remove toxins
• Neutralize phytic acids which bind to and remove minerals from the body
• Neutralize enzyme inhibitors which interfere with digestion
• Help protect from disease by enhancing the immune system
• Eating a wide range of ferments promotes biodiversity of bacteria maintaining balance
• Protect the lining of the intestine
• Help us absorb nutrients
• Produce anti-viral and anti-fungal substances
• Help peristalsis of the large intestine to help prevent constipation
Ferments can be contraindicated for those dealing with SIBO or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. This means an overgrowth of good or bad bacteria in the wrong place. It’s important to know what overgrowth you are dealing with to make sure you are not adding more. If you have an allergy to yeasts or molds, it is better to choose a bacterial ferment than yeast ferment. More on the differences in Part II.
When choosing foods for the fermentation process, quality is important. Buying fresh, local or organic will reduce the pesticides used and provide a more nutrient dense fermentation.
Generally, the fresher your ingredients, the better the result. This
often means choosing food produced locally and in season. Production
method is another: Food produced with a minimum of industrial inputs
will taste better and be better for you. Organic can help, but it is not
the whole story. The genetics of the food itself are important:
Genetically modified foods are recent creations, and there are already
signs they are not the same as their traditional counterparts.
~ Alex Lewin Real Food Fermentation
By purchasing locally you not only support your local growers, you are going to purchase a fresh product in most cases having been harvested that day. Eating traditional foods is truly about eating real food in its most available form.
Fermented foods are a simple, effective way to add a super food to your daily diet. Ferments are designed to be eaten as a condiment, so start slowly: a tablespoon with meals, and move up to ½ cup per day. We’ll be going through some recipes step by step including visuals in Part II for making your own. If you want to get started, a couple of great resources are Bubbie’s or Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut found in most health stores, immunitrition.com, or wisechoicemarket.com. Ferments are a powerful, traditional food that helps your body not only maintain an optimal level of health, but provides bacteria that offer nutrients, immune health, and healthy digestion. As Hippocrates said “All Disease Begins in the Gut” so let’s take care of it!
- Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon Morrel and Mary G. Enig, PhD
- Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin
- Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
- The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
- Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD
- The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD
- Chriskresser.com http://chriskresser.com/treating-sibo-cold-thermogenisis-and-when-to-take-probiotics
- Bodyecology.com http://bodyecology.com/articles/the-low-fodmap-diet-warning-for-ibs-and-sibo-sufferers#.VEfKQ8luo84
- mercola.com http://articles.mercola.com/fermented-foods.aspx