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What is Fermentation?

fermentation for health

What is Fermentation? Fermentation defined.

Fermentation comes from the Latin word fervere, which means “to boil”. This will make more sense later on. First, what is fermentation? To answer that, we will walk you through everything you need to know about the amazing process of fermentation, including:

  • What is fermentation?
  • The two types of fermentation
  • What does fermentation produce?
  • Fermented foods
  • A brief history of fermentation
  • The health benefits of fermentation
  • 8 healthy fermented foods you can enjoy today

Fermentation: a metabolic process

What is fermentation? A metabolic process.

Fermentation is a metabolic process that converts carbohydrates (sugars) into acids or alcohols. Metabolic refers to the various processes of energy production and consumption that living things perform. Fermentation is one such process.

wine is a fermented food

Wine is a fermented food

We use the world metabolism to refer to the various chemical reactions involved in how we use energy and nutrients to sustain life. There are two types of metabolic actions: catabolic and anabolic. Catabolic refers to the process of breaking down larger molecules into smaller molecules. Conversely, anabolic refers to the process of building larger molecules out of smaller ones.

What is fermentation? Fermentation is a catabolic process for producing energy. The fermentation process involves breaking down larger carbohydrate molecules into smaller molecules in order to free up energy. Fermentation is also an anaerobic process. Anaerobic means that fermentation happens without oxygen.

What is Fermentation? Fermentation is a process of obtaining energy from carbohydrate molecules without the need for oxygen. Fermentation happens at the cellular level. And it is a natural living process.

In the mitochondria of our individual cells, we create and store energy we need to survive. The single-cell organisms of bacteria and yeast perform a similar process through fermentation. They use fermentation to release the energy trapped in carbohydrate (sugar) molecules to fuel their energy needs.

What is fermentation

Beer is a fermented product

Let’s take a closer look at how fermentation happens by looking at the two types of fermentation.

What are the two types of fermentation?

Fermentation is a natural process of living things. It happens when the microscopic living organisms of bacteria or yeast consume carbohydrates and produce byproducts. There are two types of fermentation. The type of fermentation depends on which organisms are doing the fermentation and what byproducts are released as a result.

Most fermentation is either lactic acid fermentation or alcohol fermentation.

What is lactic acid fermentation?

Lactic acid fermentation (or lacto fermented) refers to the byproduct that is produced when certain types of carbohydrates (sugars) are consumed by bacteria. So, lactic acid fermentation is fermentation that involves bacteria that produce lactic acid when they “eat” glucose or lactose sugar.

What is fermentation

Lacto acid fermentation

Lactic acid, also called “milk acid”, naturally occurs when sugars are broken down under certain circumstances. In fact, you are producing lactic acid in your body right now.

When you are physically active, you produce a great deal of lactic acid. When your muscles require more energy than you can produce by using the oxygen you breathe, your muscle cells produce energy out of sugar without oxygen.

The build-up of lactic acid in your muscles is what creates that uncomfortable burning sensation – as well as the soreness afterwards. This anaerobic conversion of sugar into energy in your muscles is much like fermentation by bacteria.

What is alcohol fermentation?

Alcohol fermentation refers to fermentation that produces alcohol as a byproduct. The yeast converts (consumes) glucose (sugar) into ethyl alcohol – or ethanol. Alcohol fermentation is used to produce beer, wine, and spirits. It is most often done using yeast, but some kinds of bacteria also produce alcohol.

what is fermentation

Alcohol fermentation

Alcohol fermentation is where fermentation gets its name. The Latin word “to boil” is due to the process of brewing, which involves boiling grains to make the natural sugars in the grains available for the yeast to consume.

Fermenting with yeast is also how bread is made. When you make bread, you use yeast to ferment the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast release carbon dioxide, which forms bubbles that are trapped by the gluten in wheat causing the bread to rise. Because bread fermentation is for such a short period, very little alcohol is formed, most of which will evaporate during the bread baking process.

Bread Dough fermenting with yeast

Fermenting with yeast – bread dough

Fermentation for bread, wine, and beer use the common yeast or Saccharomyces Cerevisae. But different yeasts can produce different flavors – or even products.

What does fermentation produce?

One of the best ways to understand the question of ‘what is fermentation?’, is to look at the end-result. Fermentation is a process of breaking things down. But fermentation is also a process of creating new things.

We can control the fermentation process to create many different foods. But we are also subject to the fermentation process as a natural part of our metabolism and digestive health.

In general, fermentation produces lactic acid and/or alcohol, acetic acid, essential amino acids, some B-vitamins, fatty-acids, and other types of carbohydrates.

To better understand what fermentation produces, lets look at the fermentation process we control in order to create foods.

What are fermented foods?

You may already be eating fermented foods without even knowing it. Fermented foods are foods that have had bacteria or yeast introduced to them in order to convert some of the natural sugars into other substances. You can ferment vegetables to produce things like pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

What is fermentation

Pickled cucumbers

You can ferment foods as a means to preserve them. But fermentation is also used to enhance flavor and improve digestibility of some fruits and vegetables.

Many dairy products are fermented foods, including: yogurt, buttermilk, cheese, creme fraiche.

Other common fermented foods include: beer, miso, bread, vinegar, soy sauce, and kombucha.

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. Both bacteria and yeast can produce the primary byproducts of fermentation: carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol.

The result of fermentation is lower sugar content and higher alcohol and/or acidity level, which is what helps preserve the food.

what is fermentation

Fermented veggies

A Brief History of Fermentation

What is fermentation? An ancient preservative. During Hildegard of Bingen’s time, fermentation was used to preserve foods. In fact, people preserved perishable foods through fermentation for thousands of years before the advent of refrigeration and manufactured preservatives.

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 were present in most pre-industrial societies.

kimchie fermented food

Kimchi fermentation in clay pots

The reason for fermentation is simple: the process of fermentation allows foods to stay edible longer. You can keep sauerkraut for months, while a cabbage might rot within a couple of weeks at room temperature.

Fermentation preserves foods because it converts sugars into lactic acid. The lower sugar and higher acid content of the preserved food keeps “bad” bacteria from growing and spoiling it. But fermentation is about more than just preserving food.

The Health Benefits of Fermentation

What is fermentation? An essential process of life.

Fermentation is an important part of your digestive health. Healthy digestion depends on a thriving population of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. These bacteria, like those that we use to ferment our foods, consume carbohydrates in our gut. The carbohydrates they need come in the form of dietary fiber. That’s the fiber in fruits and vegetables that we eat.

See our posts on intestinal health and probiotics and digestion for more details on the role fermentation plays in digestive health.

And, if you’ve read anything else on this site, you know that healthy digestion is the cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen medicine. So let’s look at how you can improve your digestive health – and thus overall health, by including fermented foods into your diet.

fermented food

Korean kimchi clay pots for fermentation

Fermented foods for digestive health

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.

What is fermentation

Fermented foods for the winter season

The live 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 your digestive system. So regularly consuming fermented foods helps ensure that you have a healthy amount of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system.

What do these bacteria actually do? These healthy bacteria in your gut help you in many ways, including:

  • Convert undigestible fiber (carbohydrates) into vitamins, energy, and enzymes that your body can’t produce on its own.
  • Produces lactic acid that protects your digestive system from being hijacked by “bad” bacteria.
  • Deliver prebiotic substances that your beneficial bacteria need to thrive.
yogurt fermented food

Yogurt is a fermented food

The healthy bacteria in your gut produce many beneficial byproducts. As do the fermented foods themselves. Some of the benefits include:

  • Essential amino acids
  • B-vitamins, especially vitamin B-12, biotin, and folic acid
  • Vitamin K2, a powerful antioxidant that works with vitamin D to promote heart and vascular health
  • Increased availability of minerals
  • Production of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a short-chain fatty acid that is important for immune health
  • Production of galacto-oligosaccharides, type of carbohydrate that feeds your healthy gut bacteria

Finally, the best way to answer the question: what is fermentation? We’ve put together a list of eight healthy fermented foods that you can easily add to your routine.

8 Healthy Fermented 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 fermented foods to your diet.

A caution: many of these preparations have high amounts of sodium. Like any prepared food, be aware of how much salt you are consuming.

(1) Kimchi

what is fermentation

Korean Kimchi

What is fermentation without kimchi! Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish dating back to the 7th century. You prepare kimchi by lacto fermenting vegetables, primarily cabbage, plus spices and seasonings. Kimchi is lauded for its cardiovascular and digestive health benefits. The benefits are largely due to its high fiber content, high vitamin A and C content, and beneficial lactobacilli bacteria.

(2) Sauerkraut

what is fermentation

A less spicy, German version of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut also contains high levels of vitamin C and A, but also contains vitamin K. This type of vitamin K is not potassium, but actually group of fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin K is 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 german sauerkraut. For a twist on kraut, try our lacto fermented carrots and ginger!

(3) Miso

what is fermentation

A fermented soup

Miso is a fermented soy product. You most often consume miso as a broth, but you can also buy miso paste to use to make salad dressings, marinades, and rubs. Be sure to select miso 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.

(4) Kombucha

what is fermentation

Kombucha, a fermented drink

You make kombucha by fermenting slightly sweetened tea. A symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast – or “SCOBY”, consume the sugar in the tea solution and release carbon dioxide. Fermentation is what makes kombucha naturally carbonated. It also contains some natural vinegar, which gives it the tart taste.

Fermentation of kombucha also creates B-vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, and a high concentration of acid – namely: acetic, gluconic and lactic. Gluconic acids have shown some promise in preventing cancerous growth. Kombucha is often sold including the “live” cultures, so you also get a boost of healthy bacteria.

(5) Kefir

what is fermentation

Fermented Milk- Kefir

Kefir is originally from the northern Caucasian region. You make kefir, much like you would yogurt, by fermenting cow, goat, or sheep’s milk. Like kombucha, you use a SCOBY 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.

(6) Natto

what is fermentation

Japanese fermented soybeans

Only the brave shall enter. Natto is a traditional Japanese food made of soybeans fermented with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis var. natto. In Japan, natto is often consumed for breakfast, served with soy sauce, karashi mustard, and onion.

Natto is an acquired taste. It has a powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture. But natto is packed with vitamin K, including K2. Vitamin K2 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.

(7) Pickles

What is fermentation

Pickled to be preserved

Dating back to 4-5,000 BC, pickling is one of the oldest food preservation methods. When choosing pickles, select the organic, naturally fermented (sour) pickles in the refrigerated section. You have to refrigerate naturally fermented pickles, so skip the ones in the condiment isle.

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. Plus, they are a tasty low-calorie snack.

(8) Yogurt

what is fermentation

Fermented milk

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 the Greek versions.

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