Most of us aren’t likely to recognize the long list of fermented foods in our lives, though we would never want to be without them. Pickles, sauerkraut, cheese, coffee, soy sauce, bread and, of course, beer and wine, are but a few of the foods transformed by microorganisms and elevated in flavor, preservation or health benefits as a result.
Fermented foods have a history that reaches every corner of the globe and goes back many thousands of years. Out of necessity, people used fermentation to preserve food during lean times when vegetables weren’t available or to prepare for times when cows weren’t giving milk. Today, fermented foods have become staples in every culture, from soy sauce in Japan to kefir in Eastern Europe.
What are fermented foods? Fermented foods are those produced or preserved by microorganisms, such as yeast or bacteria, which occur naturally in the environment or may be introduced to foods to hasten fermentation. Fermentation generally describes the conversion of natural sugars found in foods into acids, gases or alcohol, using yeast, but it’s also widely used to make sour foods, such as pickles and yogurt through the use of the bacteria lactobacillus. Juice, for example, turns to wine, grains become beer, and vegetable sugars become acids that naturally preserve cabbage as kimchi and cucumbers as pickles.
Fermentation begins the process of breaking down food. Eating fermented foods introduces beneficial bacteria called probiotics into the gut, which help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria. Research shows that probiotics may lead to improved digestive health, immune function and, according to preliminary research, may even help reduce allergies and aid in weight loss.
A healthy gut is more receptive to the absorption of food nutrients, vitamins and minerals. When milk is fermented — as in the case of yogurt — the lactose (natural milk sugar) is broken down, making it more digestible for people who have difficulty tolerating lactose. During the fermentation of vegetables, such as with Korean kimchi, enzymes help to break down the food, easing the absorption of nutrients.
Chances are some foods we think of as fermented — olives, pickles, sauerkraut — actually aren’t in many cases. Courtesy of today’s large-scale and fast manufacturing practices, fermented foods no longer are the norm. Pickles, for example, are most likely processed in vinegar and calcium chloride before they’re cooked at high heat and pasteurized, killing off naturally occurring bacteria. Most foods in supermarkets are pasteurized for health and safety purposes. Though there is concern over contamination of fermented foods, the process creates an environment that’s unfriendly to food-borne pathogens. There has never been a documented case of food poisoning from eating them, with the exception of home-brewed kombucha tea, which has been involved in some cases of serious illness related to unsanitary conditions.
While fermented dairy products are readily found in supermarkets, a variety of more exotic fermented products are showing up in health food stores. Check labels for the words, “contains live cultures” to be sure you’re getting authentic fermented foods. Beware that these items may carry a higher price. However, fermenting foods at home is very inexpensive and simple.