If you’ve read our posts on intestinal health and probiotics and digestion you already know that fermentation is an essential part of our digestive process and the overall health. And, if you’ve read anything else on this site, you know that healthy digestion is the cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen medicine. You may not know that we can also help improve our digestive health – and thus overall health, by including “fermentation for health foods” in our diet.
Fermentation for Health
We’ve put together a list of eight “fermentation for health foods” that you can easily add to your routine. Some you may already know well, others not so much. But before we get to the food, let’s take a closer look at why fermentation is good for us.
What is Fermentation?
During Hildegard of Bingen’s time, fermentation served a useful function to preserve foods. Fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, producing byproducts in the form of gases and/or alcohol. There are two primary types of fermentation: alcohol and lactic acid or “lacto” fermentation.
Alcohol fermentation is primarily accomplished utilizing yeast, while lacto fermentation is accomplished utilizing bacteria. While both yeast and bacteria are readily available in the air we breathe every day, there are actually many different types of bacteria and yeasts that are cultivated specifically for their fermenting properties.
Cellular process of fermentation
Fermentation is metabolic, which means that it is a process of obtaining energy from organic molecules performed at the cellular level; it is a living process. Just as our own individual cells perform metabolic functions – in the mitochondria for energy for example, the single-cell organisms of bacteria and yeast use the energy trapped in carbohydrate (sugar) molecules for their energy needs.
The carbohydrates present in food are broken apart by the yeast and/or bacteria, releasing components that they can more readily consume, leaving remnant enzymes and other compounds. This process of consuming carbohydrates also produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol or acid – sometimes a bit of both. The result is a lower viable sugar content and higher alcohol and/or acidity level, either of which is sufficient to render the remaining food “preserved” from further bacterial degradation.
A Brief History of Fermentation for Health
Before the advent of refrigeration and manufactured preservatives, many perishable foods were preserved through fermentation. In fact, fermentation in one form or another is present in just about every recorded culture going back to 10,000 BC. From sauerkraut in Germany to kimchi in Korea, lacto-fermented foods are prevalent in pre-industrial societies.
Fermentation for preservation
The reason for this is simple: The process of fermentation allows foods to stay edible longer. While a cabbage might rot within a couple of weeks at room temperature, sauerkraut can be kept for months, and in some cases years. But the value of fermentation is not limited to its preserving qualities.
We are all familiar with the role of yeast in making bread or even beer, but lacto fermentation is more of a mystery, especially as the western diet has replaced most fermented foods with chemically preserved versions. Lacto fermentation refers to the lactic acid that is released as a byproduct of fermentation, specifically fermentation as a result of certain strains of bacteria known as “good” bacteria.
Fermentation is a continuous living process
The living process of fermentation means that the microbes digesting those carbohydrates remain part of the food. When you see a food labeled “Live Cultures” or “Probiotic” this means there are still live bacteria present in the food. This also often means that the food will continue to ferment, albeit usually at a much slower rate, as most of the fermentable carbohydrates will have been spent.
The bacteria, suspended in their feeding frenzy, are a big part of what make fermented foods healthy. The bacteria that turn milk into yogurt are of the same variety that are already within our digestive system, turning fiber into vitamins, energy, and enzymes that our body can’t produce on its own – and the lactic acid that protects our digestive system from being hijacked by “bad” bacteria.
8 Fermentation for Health Foods
These living foods provide our bodies with both the raw materials, known as prebiotics, that will feed the “good” gut bacteria we already have, but will also replenish our digestive system with a new supply of live digestive bacteria.
So if your digestion is a bit “off”, you are coming off of a regimen of antibiotics, or just want to improve your health, try adding these “fermentation for health foods” to your diet.
A caution: many of these preparations have high amounts of sodium. Like any prepared food, be sure to know how much salt you are consuming.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that is made from vegetables including cabbage, plus spices and seasoning, that is lacto fermented. Dating back to the 7th century, this dish is lauded for its cardiovascular and digestive health benefits, largely due to its high fiber content, high vitamin A and C content, and beneficial lactobacilli bacteria.
A less spicy, German version of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut also contains high levels of vitamin C and A, but also contains vitamin K (not potassium, but group of fat-soluable vitamins essential for blood coagulation and calcium utilization.) Sauerkraut is also high in dietary fiber, B vitamins, and is a good source of minerals like magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, and copper. Try our lacto fermented carrots and ginger!
This fermented soy product is most often consumed as a broth, but you can buy the actual paste which can be used for salad dressings, marinades, and rubs. Be sure it is made from non-GMO and organic soy. Miso is highly alkalizing, which helps strengthen the immune system and combat viral infections. Along with the beneficial bacteria, miso is a good source of vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin E, vitamin K, tryptophan, choline, dietary fiber, linoleic acid, and lecithin. Linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid has been shown to help skin stay soft and free of pigments.
Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from slightly sweetened tea. The sugar-tea solution is fermented by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast called a “SCOBY”. After the tea and sugar mix ferment, kombucha becomes carbonated and contains vinegar, B-vitamins, enzymes, the probiotic bacteria strains, antioxidants, and a high concentration of acid – namely: acetic, gluconic and lactic. Gluconic acids have shown some promise in preventing cancerous growth.
Kefir is originally from the northern Caucasian region. It is made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk and fermented. Like kombucha, a SCOBY is used to quickly ferment the milk into a tart, thin yogurt-like drink. Kefir has high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, and probiotics. For those who are mildly lactose intolerant, the yeast and bacteria involved in the fermentation process produce lactase, an enzyme that breaks down most of the lactose in to lactic acid (hence the tartness) during the culturing process.
Only the brave shall enter. Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis var. natto. It is often consumed for breakfast, served with soy sauce, karashi mustard, and onion. An acquired taste, Natto may not be your first choice. It has the trifecta of a powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture. But it also packed with vitamin K, including K2 which is only produced through fermentation. Natto is a great source of Vitamin C, magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. It is also a dense source of protein. And unlike miso, it is low in sodium. Try, if you dare.
Dating back to 4-5,000 BC, pickling is one of the oldest food preservation methods. Select organic, naturally fermented (sour) pickles. These must be refrigerated. The minerals found in pickles include: iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium. Pickles also contain vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, folate, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, and vitamin K.
The primary cultures (probiotics) used to make yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Many yogurt makers also add probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidus. All of these strains are beneficial for digestion and overall gut health. Yogurt is high in calcium and vitamin B12 and is a good source of minerals including phosphorus, zinc, and potassium. It is also a dense source of protein, especially Greek versions.