Fermented Foods 101: Why You Need To Be Eating Bacteria

yogurtPhoto: Courtesy of Fage.
Foodie Underground, a project curated in part by Anna Brones, explores our relationship with the origin of our eats. Motivated by an unwavering belief that food should never be complicated or pretentious, Anna — author of vegetarian and GF primer The Culinary Cyclist, is serving up everything from the best veggie BBQ to a beginner's guide to pesto. Hungry yet?
In your stomach, you have a colony of bacteria, commonly referred to as “gut flora” or “gut bacteria.” This is made up of over 400 bacterial species. Probiotics — which literally means “for life” — are the good bacteria that help you maintain the natural balance of organisms. These probiotic bacteria (also known as lactic acid bacteria) help to promote a healthy digestive tract. And, nowadays, because of their links to health benefits, they have become as popular as food supplements.
Ingesting bacteria might seem odd, especially in a culture that does everything possible to get rid of bacteria. But, studies have shown that taking antibiotics often kills off not only the bad bacteria, but also the good stuff. In fact, some doctors have even argued that the overuse of antibiotics may be fueling the increase in illnesses like allergies and irritable bowel syndrome — which is why many recommend taking probiotics during an antibiotic treatment, so that you don’t completely purge your system of the good bacteria that it needs to function.
Often consumed in the form of fermented foods, probiotics have been proven to be beneficial to health in a variety of ways, from their improving of the intestinal tract to boosting your immune system. There has even been a link between probiotics and stress levels.
If you’ve recently been reading a lot about fermented foods, it may seem like they are having a bit of a comeback, but they’re nothing new.
coffeePhoto: Courtesy of Lavazza.
“Almost all the fermented foods and beverages we know of are so ancient that they predate recorded history. Humans could never have settled many regions of the world without the benefit of fermentation, and agriculture would not be possible without it.” Sandor Ellix Katz a self-proclaimed “fermentation revivalist” and author of Wild Fermentation , the original “bible” on fermentation, and his most recent book The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. explains, “How could people ever begin to invest their energy in crops that are ready at particular times of the year if they didn't have techniques for preserving the harvest to get them through the rest of the year?”
It’s true: In a world before refrigerators, people had to preserve their food somehow, and often fermentation was it. Those preservation techniques are still used in cultures around the world today, from miso in Japan to cheese in France, and while fermented foods might sound like a fad, you’re probably already eating them. Coffee? Fermented food. Chocolate? Fermented. Wine? Also fermented. In fact, as Ellix Katz points out, “most people in most parts of the world eat or drink products of fermentation every day.”
One of the best parts about incorporating fermented foods into your diet? Many of them can easily be made at home. “I always recommend starting with fermenting vegetables. They require no special equipment or starter cultures; they are extremely safe (statistically, fermented vegetables are safer than raw vegetables); they are very easy; you can begin to enjoy them within a few days; and they are delicious and supportive of good health,” says Ellix Katz.
KefirPhoto: Courtesy of Lifeway.
Whether they are in solid or liquid form, fermented foods are foods that “go through a chemical change caused by enzymes produced by bacteria, microbes, or yeast,” explains Mary Karlin, author of Mastering Fermentation.
She uses sauerkraut as an example: “This is one example of a simple food (cabbage) transformed by the mere introduction of salt to encourage the development of beneficial bacteria (raising acidity to create an unfriendly environment for undesirable bacteria). The process softens the cabbage, amplifies the taste, and renders it bioavailable (more digestible). As a benefit, the nutritional and healthful value is greatly increased through fermentation,” says Karlin. And sauerkraut is just one of many fermented foods out there.
Fermented foods have a variety of benefits, from being easier to digest to providing added nutrients, as fermentation is known to increase vitamins like riboflavin and niacin in the final food product. Think about it this way: Many people have trouble digesting lactose, so drinking milk is a problem. But, as soon as you ingest something like kefir or yogurt, that lactose has already been partially broken down by bacteria — which use the sugar as food — making it easier for your body to digest.
kimchiPhoto: Courtesy of Mother In Law.
“Did you know that eating a small amount of a fermented condiment alongside a serving of animal protein will aid in the digestion of that protein? Even a few tablespoons of real fermented sauerkraut, sweet & salty pickled vegetables, or a fermented dill pickle as an accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken, or steak will help your digestive system to process that protein,” says Karlin.
That said, as Karlin points out in her book, if you’re new to fermented foods, go easy. Consuming too many all at once may not make your stomach feel so good, as your body needs time to adapt to the organisms. Often, after taking antibiotics, there can be a buildup of a family of yeast called Candida and when you introduce good bacteria back into your system, you may experience everything from bloating to belly tenderness. But, incorporating a bit of fermented foods into your everyday diet? That’s definitely doable, and particularly if you’re interested in doing some home fermentation.
kombuchaPhoto: Courtesy of Brooklyn Kombucha.
So, you’d like to start adding fermented foods to your diet? Here are a few simple ones to start with, including ones that can easily be made at home.
This is one of the most common fermented foods consumed in the U.S., but often it’s loaded with sugars and processed flavors, which can detract from the benefits, so make sure you buy the natural stuff containing only milk and cultures. You can also make your own at home, as simply as in a crock pot.
If you want to get started with home fermenting, sauerkraut is an easy place to start, because it can be as easy as just fermenting it with the help of salt. Here's a recipe to start with.
Because it has become a popular drink, kombucha is also expensive, but it’s simple to make at home as long as you can get your hands on a scoby, also known as a kombucha “mother.” Check out this how-to guide for brewing your own. You can even start playing around with it and making your own flavors like Apple Cider Kombucha.
Pickled Vegetables
Kimchi, the traditional Korean fermented side dish, is a great example of pickled vegetables. But, as long as you have the right fermentation down, you can pretty much pickle any vegetable you like, like cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, and beyond. Here’s a good recipe to start out with.
Sourdough Bread
If you've ever bitten into a good, rustic loaf of sourdough bread, you know the dynamic flavor that can come from fermentation — in this case, the wild yeast (as opposed to commercial) used to make your sourdough starter. It takes a few days to make your first starter, but after that you can keep reusing it to make loaf after loaf.

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