There are a lot of things in life that I love, but at the top of the non-people, non-animal category proudly sits fermentation. I don’t remember how it started, but I do know that without it, my life would lack that bit of magic that ferments bring. Is this over the top? Probably, but fermenting foods has given me the child-like wonder we all possessed at some time. It constantly surprises me with new flavours, the versatility, and the bubbles.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is the process of breaking a substance down into a simpler substance which is usually done with the aid of micro-organisms like bacteria and/or yeast, and will create foods like bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt and drinks like beer, wine, and kombucha.
In the case of sauerkraut, lacto-fermentation is the name of the process used to preserve it. The term ‘lacto’ comes from the name of the bacteria that will be doing the work, lactobacillus. Do not be afraid fellow vegans. While the name suggests that is it made from or has something to do with dairy, the truth is that it was first discovered from a dairy ferment and just named after it. No animals will be harmed!
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.)
Lactic acid is a natural preservative that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. If you find mold on top of a ferment or if it has a putrid smell, you still need to throw it out, but these are obvious and easy to avoid.
Mother Nature has got us covered!
Another type of fermentation is the alcohol/ethanol variety which is responsible for beer, wine, and kombucha. This uses the same idea as above, but the outcome will be ethanol and carbon dioxide (aka – alcohol with bubbles).
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
Fermentation has been a part of most ancient civilizations throughout history. If you want to look to past cultures, you will find fermentation as part of their day-to-day lives. It is hard to find one that didn’t use it. People in Japan have been eating natto, a fermented soy product, for thousands of years; poi is made by mashing the underground plant stem of the taro plant and then fermenting by the Hawaiian people; garri is the popular West African fermented food made of cassava tubers. Alcohol, yogurt, cheese, and sauerkraut are also ancient ferments.
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.
It is pretty interesting to find that we really do not know how fermentation began or who discovered it. Some of the theories are funny though – getting drunk from fallen berries and transporting milk across the desert in a sheep’s stomach and having cheese at the end of the journey.
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.
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Over the last few years, I have noticed that fermentation has become pretty popular. There are classes popping up in cities to teach you how to start your own kefir or salsa; more people are talking about it and trying it at home; and the internet is full of information, recipes, and videos on how to ferment.
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
I really know how to get a party started!
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
Ahhh, mass production. Without me ranting on for days about this, I did want to get it out there that mass production and lacto-ferments do not go hand in hand. Food processors want things to be made fast and cheap, so this means that vinegar and sometimes other ingredients are used to make foods like sauerkraut and pickles. This is not lacto-fermentation. These foods do not contain the benefits listed above, even though they will have you believe they do.
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.
An exception to the above is yogurt (coconut, almond). It contains probiotics and there are some brands out there that have very few ingredients, BUT when you buy flavoured yogurt – vanilla, strawberry, etc. – the amount of sugar contained in it negates any good the probiotics can do. This is because the bad bacteria in the gut (of which we all have) feeds and multiplies with the sugar the flavoured yogurt contains. They basically cancel each other out. It’s sad news, but the plain stuff is pretty darn good too!
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Bacteria is a part of our lives whether we like it or not. They are on our skin, a part of our digestive tract from one end to the other, as well as a part of the ecosystem of our vagina. By increasing our intake of these superfoods, we will be naturally regaining the balance we so badly need with these little guys.
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.
To learn more about all things fermentation, I suggest the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. It is a great resource for anything you would ever want to know. He writes in a way that makes you think you can ferment anything successfully. It’s empowering.
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!