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Get Your Funk On!

An Affirmation of Fermentation

Food is one of the primary human needs. Our ancestors hunted or picked food where they could to survive. Whatever was not eaten quickly spoiled. When food was plentiful (after the hunt, when fruit trees were full) this was fine. But what about in winter or drought? They needed some way to stockpile during plentiful times.

Before refrigeration, there were three ways to preserve foods. The first was dehydration. By removing water from foods, they lasted longer. Unfortunately, taste and texture suffered. We now know that nutrition suffered too.  

The second way was with salt. They discovered that packing food in enough salt extended (dramatically) the amount of time food would last. The downside to this was (and is) taste. Today we also know about the massive health issues from added salt.

Fermentation uses the natural microbes in food and the environment.  Chinese records show its use over 9000 years ago. Fermentation is seeing resurgence as a way to not only preserve but improve food's health benefits.

Fermented foods account for 1/3 of the food consumed worldwide. They are staples at most dinner tables. Sauerkraut, stinky cheeses, yogurt, beer, soy sauce, kefir, just to name a few. They can be found in all corners of the globe; from the Middle East (kishk), Europe (Beer), South America (Tocosh) to Asia (Kimchi).

Unfortunately, many healthy fermented foods have practically been eliminated from the North American diet. This is partly due to the fact that today we are terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be careful with what you eat. However, done properly, the “good” microorganisms (like Lactobacillus) crowd out the “bad” bacteria, making fermenting an extremely safe, time-honored process.

But how does fermentation work? At its most basic level, fermentation is the process in which food is exposed to specific bacteria and yeast, either via inoculation or naturally through the air.  The beneficial microorganisms feed on carbohydrates and starch in the food, digesting them, creating alcohols, carbon dioxide and organic acids. In addition to breaking down the food, (improving digestibility and increasing nutrient bio-availability), the fermenting bacteria contribute metabolic by-products, some of which are unique compounds that have been found to have startling, beneficial qualities to foods. Fermentation increases the safety of foods by removing antinutrients, natural toxicants and mycotoxins.

The process is a form of pre-digestion which acts to enhance the digestibility of foods, but also regenerates your beneficial intestinal flora and has a detoxifying effect on your body as a whole. Certain foods may have excellent nutritional profiles, but are difficult to digest such as dairy, vegetable proteins and cereal grasses. Fermentation makes the food more acidic, which makes their minerals more soluble, increasing their bio-availability and facilitating their absorption. Fermentation can also improve food digestibility by improving your gut environment through increasing the amount of probiotics (good bacteria).  Fermented foods can provide additional probiotics or help to feed and increase the probiotics already present, allowing better absorption of carbohydrates and proteins.

Remember the “good bacteria” in your intestines exist in complex communities that help us digest food and absorb nutrients. They help regulate our immune responses and many other body processes. Roughly 70% — 80% of your immune system is in your gut. If you have digestive problems (indigestion, stomach upset, constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, etc) it is impossible to fix them unless you improve the gut balance between the probiotic bacteria and disease-causing (pathogenic or “bad”) bacteria. Fermented foods also produce antimicrobial agents, such as lactic acid and bacteriocin that help combat pathogenic bacteria.

To strengthen and heal your digestive system, try to incorporate fermented foods daily. Vegans don't worry! When most people think fermented foods ... they automatically think dairy! Products like cheese, yogurt ... And yet, there are many other fermented foods available. Remember to go organic; as the better the quality of the food being fermented, the better the results (nutritional and taste) at the end, without chemicals.

-Yogurt. This is one of the richest products in fermentation, especially if it contains a healthy variety of probiotics that aid digestion. To reap the most health benefits, skip the flavoured or sweetened varieties. Go for plain.

-Kefir. It is a naturally carbonated beverage, obtained by fermentating Kefir grains in milk. Easy to digest, it is a good source of probiotics and a very good source of protein.

-Fermented cereal grasses such as Wheat, Oat, Alfalfa, and Barley. Usually found as a powdered supplement, they are an excellent addition to any shake or smoothie. They contain all minerals, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids required for life. They are a good source of antioxidants, probiotics and enzymes.

-Fermented Proteins (Pea & Rice). The “new” proteins on the block. Through fermentation the levels of protein increase, they are much easier to digest (the most digestible vegan proteins) and both taste and texture improve greatly. No “beany” taste or aftertaste!

-The soy derivatives. They contain lots of probiotics: shoyu and tamari, miso, tempeh or nattō. But beware of the sodium content!

-Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, and kimchi (spicy and fermented Chinese cabbage).

-Kombucha. Nicknamed "the long life fungus",  it is a tangy and sparkling drink produced by the fermentation of sweet tea. Very popular in China and Russia. This drink is a generator of the intestinal flora, a symbiosis of bacteria and yeast.

There are many easy and delicious options for increasing your fermented food intake and your health. My preference is to start each day with an organic fermented protein (Pea & Rice) with fermented green grasses (Wheat, Oat, Alfalfa, and Barley) fruit smoothie. Twice a week I'll head to my local Korean restaurant for dinner. Dinner always starts with a selection of Kimchi and then I enjoy some wonderful Korean (and Japanese) dishes. In fact that's where you'll find me tonight.