What is Fermentation?
Lactobacillus bacteria are actually found on all plants, especially on the ones that grow close to the ground. This means that there is no need to add any starter to your ferments when working with plants.
Concerns about the safety of fermentation are always raised, but the truth is that the Lactobacillus bacteria convert sugars to lactic acid so fast in an anaerobic environment, that the bad bacteria never have time to get to dangerous levels (more on this under Botulism.)
Mother Nature has got us covered!
I recently started making apple cider vinegar, and the first step involves making apple cider. It took only a few days for the apples, water, and sugar to get me a little tipsy!
A Brief History
While the ancient civilizations, and even the more modern ones, may not have understood what was happening to these foods, they knew they liked the taste, it made them feel good, and the food would last longer when put through this process.
I don’t know if the origins really matter. What matters is keeping this priceless knowledge alive and not letting it die along with our ancestors. There is a reason every culture in history has been fermenting as long as historians can say – truthfully there are many reasons why we need fermented foods.
A lot of times in our modern culture, certain ideas tend to be held on to pretty heavily whether true or not, and this happens with food every day. For example, the 1980s favourite of all fat being bad for you or that low-fat or low-calorie foods are good for you. We put up with a bunch of garbage.
Fermentation kind of falls under this category just because I have heard some pretty outlandish claims about these foods. Don’t get me wrong, fermented foods are great, but they are certainly not a panacea. Check out the list of what these special foods can do:
(This list includes the benefits of lacto-fermentation specifically. Alcohol fermentation doesn’t have the same effects.)
- Improve digestion – by breaking down the food, the micro-organisms are in a sense pre-digesting it for us. This makes it easier for our digestive tract to further break them down and get the nutrients out of it.
- Improve nutrient and enzyme bioavailability – (enzymes are needed by our gastrointestinal tract to help speed up reactions relating to digestion. We need enzymes to digest and assimilate foods.) This one is related to the note above. The bacteria creates nutrients that are easier for our body to use.
- They contain a lot of probiotics – some experts say that fermented foods contain more probiotics than the expensive, store-bought pills. Food is always better for the body than the artificial, man-made stuff. We cannot compete with nature!
- Lactic acid promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut – a healthy gut means a healthier immune system; a decrease in food sensitivities; healthy, regular bowel movements; increased production of B vitamins and vitamin K in the intestines; increased serotonin production (because 80% of the body’s production of this happy neurotransmitter is produced in the gut) which leads to improved moods… This list does go on!
- Detoxification – fermentation can actually remove toxic compounds from foods. For example, some common foods contain phytates which bind to minerals to make them unavailable to the body. The process of fermentation can remove phytates, as well as other toxins, from foods.
- Decreases occurance of yeast infections – a yeast infection is an overgrowth of bad yeast in the vagina. By eating more fermented foods, the number of good bacteria and yeasts will crowd out the bad, keeping our ecosystem balanced.
- Food preservation – lactic acids makes food resistant to toxins and spoilage.
- Cheap – this is a fantastic way to get your probiotics rather than buying the supplements – if you can. Buy the vegetables you want to ferment when they are in season to save more money.
- Flavour – the delicious tangy flavour of fermented foods is hard to miss and is one of my fave advantages!
A Quick Note on Botulism
The safety of fermented foods often comes up because we can make this at home and it contains bacteria and this makes people out there nervous.
Fermentation has been around for centuries in all parts of the world. Botulism showed up right around the time canning was invented. Interesting. Clostridium botulinum is the strain of bacteria that produces a toxin responsible for botulism.
When fermenting, lactic acid creates an environment too acidic for pathogenic bacteria to develop. By comparison, when canning, heat is applied to attempt to kill off micro-organisms. Unfortunately, when C. botulinum is exposed to heat, it can release spores that have a very high tolerance for heat. If the spores survive the high temperature, they would be part of an environment with no bacterial competition and they will flourish.
Be careful when you are canning.
Mass Production And The Ferment
Others can say the product is fermented, and maybe it was, but the products need to be pasteurized for shelf stability. The process of pasteurization will destroy any live cultures.
This is a huge area of research right now, and it seems like we will be hearing some pretty cool things about the micro-organisms that make our body their home. It’s an exciting time.
Have you ever tried to make your own ferment or do you have any questions about this topic? Let me know in the comments below. I love talking fermentation!