Fermented foods are simple to make at home, generally use inexpensive ingredients, and greatly improve the nutritional intake and health outcomes of people that consume them regularly.
Long before probiotics became a buzzword, lacto-fermented (lactic acid fermented) foods were producing beneficial bacteria to aid digestion, improve nutrient absorption and support immune function throughout the world. In fact it is difficult to find a culture on Earth that does not have its own fermented delicacy, whether it is fruit, grain, vegetable, legume, dairy, fish or meat based. Hippocrates (c450 BC- c380BC) famously prescribed yogurt to his patients to cure diarrhoea and other intestinal disorders. We now know that the beneficial microorganisms or probiotics that flourish in fermented goods are largely responsible for these health benefits.
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms or bacteria, which in the body reside in the gastrointestinal system (mouth, stomach, intestines and colon) as well as the vaginal canal. Externally, microorganisms are everywhere and consist of both beneficial bacterial species (probiotics) and pathogenic bacterial species (listeria, e.coli, salmonella etc). By ensuring regular consumption of the beneficial species and a fertile environment for them to thrive in we can ensure that the pathogenic species do not take over and cause negative health effects.
This is where fermented foods rather than probiotic supplements really come to the fore. 20-40% of selected strains of probiotics make it through the stomach into the gut, with the main obstacles being gastric acidity and the action of bile salts. Recent research shows little evidence that probiotic bacteria adhere to the mucosal walls in the intestine, so they only temporarily work on the gut before being eliminated. Fermented foods are thus a practical, simple and affordable way to regularly consume beneficial probiotic cultures.
In addition to the well-documented probiotic benefits of fermented foods, fermentation also greatly increases the digestibility and bioavailabilty (ease of absorption) of the nutrients within the ingredients making them powerhouses of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Fermented vegetables also increase the amount of beneficial fibre in the diet. Dietary fibre is an important factor in many aspects of health, particularly lowering blood cholesterol levels; improving glucose metabolism (to provide sustained energy release and avoid sugar cravings); prevent constipation (by supporting appropriate gut motility); and providing a hospitable environment for endogenous (made within your body) beneficial bacterial species to thrive and outcompete pathogenic species.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, yoghurt, kombucha etc are now readily available at most grocery stores. However if you would like to learn how simple, cheap and fun it is to make your own, please consider booking into my next fermenting workshop at Northcote Natural Therapies on 13th June.