People have fermented food and drinks around the world throughout all of history. Learn about how the processes behind your sourdough-bread sandwich or your morning yogurt have become a cornerstone in the history of food and our health.
The advantages of fermenting food are numerous. Fermented foods are more easily digestible, help to synthesize vitamins, preserve storage life, shorten cooking time, decrease food waste and replenish our intestinal bacteria. The prevalence of probiotic supplements in health food markets supports this. Luckily, fermentation is the natural way of getting your dose of probiotics.
Down to the Molecular Level
Fermentation is the result of microorganisms reacting with food. They are found everywhere: in the air you breathe, where you walk, and what you ingest. You share your body with vast colonies of microorganisms (bacteria, virus, fungi etc.) that live in the skin, mouth, nose, digestive tract, etc. The digestive tract is 30 feet long in a fully developed adult, and it hosts trillions of microbes. The microbes in your gut produce a large number of bioactive compounds that influence health. In addition, these microbes exchange information with the neurons in the enteric nervous system (ENS - a part of the autonomous nervous system in the human body) located in our gut, and these neurons send messages to the brain that affect our mood. Serotonin, known as the happy hormone, is produced in your gut, and research suggests that probiotic bacteria contribute to a healthy mind and gut.
Research indicates that the maintenance of a diverse and thriving population of beneficial gut bacteria is key to preventing and curing various diseases ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to mood disorders such as depression. For more information about the link between fermented foods and mental health, check out The Human Microbiome Project.
Maintaining an optimal balance of bacteria in our gut for these health benefits requires the ingestion of live bacteria, in the form of probiotics (fermented foods) and by prebiotics (the dietary fiber available in plants).
Why ferment foods?
People have been fermenting food and beverages for aeons. All over the world, different types of alcohol have been fermented throughout history – rice wine, grape wine, fruit wine, all kinds of beer and ale, champagne, cider, you name it.
In early civilizations, the transformation of foods ala fermentation was a miracle. There was little explanation for the striking, and sometimes welcomed, transformation. Fermentation would be deemed an act of the gods; Egyptians thanked Osiris for malt barley, the Greeks praised Bacchus for wine, the Japanese built shrines for their shoyu and miso breweries.
Since the wonder of fermentation was discovered, it became a practicality. Fermenting foods also makes for a longer shelf life, for instance when certain foods are not in season or to preserve food for long winter months. Early fermented foods include pickles, sauerkraut, vinegar, butter, and bread. The equipment to make fermented drinks can be as sophisticated as what you would find in a microbrewery, or as simple as fermenting with your saliva to make chicha (chewed-corn beer).
Here’s a list of some of the most popular fermented foods that you can start eating more of as part of your diet to keep your gut bacteria happy and healthy!
Yogurt is the darling of breakfast foods. It is generally thought that yogurt and fermented milk products were discovered by accident, when milk was stored in warm climates and thickened. Since around 6000 B.C. there are historical accounts of herdsmen who would milk their animals and when combined with the enzymes in their storage vessels (animal skins/stomachs), the milk curdled into yogurt. It wasn’t until 1947 until yogurt with fruit on the bottom was introduced by Dannon, closer to the way many enjoy it today.
2) Sourdough Bread
Sourdough bread can be thought of as the original grain, dating back to Ancient Egypt. Until commercial yeasts were developed, all bread was sourdough due it’s slower rise time. A reason given for the importance of unleavened bread in Judaism is that during exodus from Egypt, there wasn’t time to let the bread rise overnight.
Kombucha has been around for at least a few centuries or even millennia. In China it has been called “Sea Treasure” (海寶), “Stomach Treasure” (胃寶) and “Sea Mushroom”(海蘑菇). From Asia, it reached Russia and Europe via the Silk Road. In Russian it’s affectionately called gribok “little mushroom” and allegedly saved Nobel Prize winner Alexsander Solzhenitsyn’s life while in exile in Siberia.
Notable Kombucha scholar and author Gunther Frank has published worldwide on the success of using Kombucha to treat gout, rheum, ateriosclerosis, arthritis, obesity, diabetes, cholesterol, cancer, etc. There’s no shortage of ways to spice kombucha up, with ginger or cranberries for a festive twist!
Kimchi is the center of attention in many Korean foods. The kimchi mentioned at the beginning of this article is actually truer to the original form of the fermented vegetable dish that appeared in the Koguryo Kingdom in 37BC-668 AD, characterized by radishes as the primary ingredient. Radishes were dipped and salted in various brines. Only later on were red peppers, cabbage, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots added. Today, over 200 varieties of kimchi exist.
Natto, a staple Japanese breakfast food of fermented soybean, is the only plant source that delivers natokinase. It’s made by combining a bacterial starter with soybeans at 40 Celsius for 14-18 hours until the distinctive glossy substance covers it. It’s said that the longer the threads are when natto is lifted (and they can stretch up to 8 feet), the better the natto. Natto alone is fermented with only bacteria, and no mold unlike tempeh, tofu, or soy nuggets.
Idli is a combination of parboiled lentils and rice, ground up and left to ferment for two days before making this staple, South Indian breakfast food. The surprising thing about idli is that it’s likely not even originally Indian! Food historian K.T. Achaya estimates that the idli came to India between 800-1200 BC from what is today Indonesia, then ruled by Hindu kings.
Now that you know the history and process of fermentation, enjoy these foods knowing that they are helping to keep your gut healthy and your mind happy!
Here are some more articles on food and nutrition that may be helpful to you:
- What foods and fats to eat to lose weight
- Plant-based Diets: Practical Or Food For Thought?
- Are You Eating The Right Food For Your DNA?
- Why Food Quality Is More Important Than Quantity
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