Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen (an anaerobic environment), and in the presence of beneﬁcial microorganisms (yeasts, molds and bacteria) which obtain their energy through fermentation. During the fermentation process, these beneﬁcial microorganisms break down sugars and starches into alcohols and acids (lactic and acetic.) What you’re left with is a food that has been transformed into a more nutritious version of itself, and which can be stored for much longer without spoiling. Fermented food goes far beyond sauerkraut–you can actually ferment almost every food group. You didn’t even know it, but you likely consumed some sort of fermented food today!
- Fermenting grains gives you sourdough bread and beer
- Fermenting meat gives you salami
- Fermenting dairy gives you yogurt and cheese
- Fermenting veggies gives you pickles and sauerkraut
- Fermenting fruit can give you cider and wine
- Honey to mead, hells bells!
Humans have been practising fermentation in various cultures all around the world for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic drink, made from fruit, rice, and honey, dates from 7000 to 6600 BC, in the Neolithic Chinese village of Jiahu.
It’s said that many fermentation methods were perhaps ﬁrst discovered by accident. Stories of the ﬁrst cheeses usually include a traveling nomad using a primitive canteen made from re-purposed animal stomachs, which naturally contain an enzyme called renin, known to coagulate milk. It’s possible that once the nomad reached their destination, they discovered that the milk had curdled, turning into cheese. Upon tasting the cheese and discovering that it was palatable, people soon learned how to repeat the process.
As you move around the globe, similar fermenting practices are used, but the foods fermented are quite unique. In Asia, common fermented foods include miso, tempeh, soy sauce, natto and kimchi. In the Americas, you’ll ﬁnd sourdough bread, kombucha, chichi, fermented vegetables like pickles, yogurt, wine and tabasco, while in Europe, there’s sauerkraut, salami, prosciutto, mead, cultured milk products like keﬁr, crème fraiche, and quark.
There are three basic types of fermentation:
- Lactic acid fermentation
- Ethyl alcohol fermentation
- Acetic acid fermentation
Lactic acid fermentation
Lactic acid fermentation, also known as lacto-fermentation, occurs when yeasts and bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid. Lacto-fermentation is said to be one of the healthiest forms of fermentation because lactic acid aids with blood circulation, prevents constipation, balances digestive acids, aids in pre-digestion and encourages good pancreatic function.
Ethyl alcohol fermentation
Ethyl alcohol fermentation occurs when beneﬁcial microorganisms convert carbohydrates into alcohol. Traditionally, alcohol was more nutritious and contained beneﬁcial organisms. Today, the manufacturing process of making alcoholic beverages destroys the nutrients, and contains high amounts of sugar.
Acetic acid fermentation
Acetic fermentation takes place when alcohol is exposed to air and is converted into acetic acid, commonly known as vinegar! Yes, your apple cider vinegar was once good ol’ apple cider.
The health beneﬁts of fermented food are incredible. When you ferment food, not only are you helping to preserve it, but you’re also transforming it into a healthier version of itself – even healthier than a vegetable in its raw state!
Here are some ways fermentation is making your food healthier:
- Fermentation increases vitamins and minerals in food or makes them more available for absorption. Fermentation increases B and C vitamins immensely. Vitamins enhanced during this process are folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. The probiotics, enzymes and lactic acid in fermented foods allow these vitamins and minerals to be more easily absorbed into the body.
- Fermented foods provide enzymes necessary for digestion (digestive enzymes). Did you know that we are born with a ﬁnite number of enzymes that decrease with age, and that fermented foods contain the enzymes that are required to break down that particular food the best? So, the best thing we can do to slow down the depletion of our enzymes, is to eat food already high in enzymes. Cooked food has no enzymes, raw food has some, and fermented food is abundant!
- Fermentation aids in pre-digestion. During the fermentation process, the microorganisms feed on sugars and starches, essentially digesting and breaking down the food before you even eat it. In grains, gluten is predigested. In dairy, lactose (milksugar) is predigested (which is why lactose intolerant people can eat fermented food) and in all other starchy foods such as beans, fruits and vegetables, your ﬁnal product will contain much less sugar.
- Fermentation neutralizes anti-nutrients, in particular phytic acid, which is found in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. The problem with phytic acid is that it can bind to minerals in the gut before they are absorbed, influence digestive enzymes, and can lead to mineral deﬁciencies. Phytates also reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats. This is one of the reasons that those on a Paleo diet avoid foods that are high in phytic acid. Thankfully, soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are ways to neutralize this anti-nutrient. To learn more about phytic acid (and even the possible beneﬁts) read this article: http:// www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-phytates-phytic-acid
- Fermented foods are rich in probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms consumed by the body for their beneﬁcial qualities, and are responsible for maintaining a healthy gut flora. A healthy gut is capable of pulling nutrients from the food you eat, fermented or not. 6. Eating fermented food helps maintain a healthy immune system, because a healthy gut, rich in probiotics, produces antibiotic, anti-tumor, anti-viral, and anti-fungal substances. Also, the acids in fermented food create an uncomfortably acidic environment for pathogens.
Check out Sandor Katz, who is the (latest) authority on all things fermented.