Fermented Foods: Your Ultimate Guide

‘It’s high time for you to give fermented foods a try.’

A minute had passed but Yasmin was still looking at me with an ‘OMG she’s gone crazy!’ bewildered look on her face.

I had just told her that it was high time for her to introduce fermented foods in her diet.

I get it.

The words ‘fermented food’ usually conjure up images of spoiled foods with maggots oozing out from everywhere. At least that’s what many patients have told me.

But don’t be spooked – fermented foods are absolutely delicious. And if you prepare them properly, you won’t get any maggot infestation.

Now you’re probably thinking ‘Why the heck would I want to eat or make fermented foods?’ Well, because the store-bought versions are super expensive and barely hold any nutritional value. That’s because most commercial fermented foods are pasteurized.

In this article, you’ll learn why fermented foods are your health allies and how to make your own for a few bucks.

Fermented foods: Definitely not something new

Did you know that people have been fermenting foods for centuries?

If you’re into historical facts, the following is just for you:

  • 5400 B.C.: Iranians were using fermentation to prepare wine
  • 5000 B.C.: Milk fermentation in Babylon
  • 4000 B.C.: Lacto-fermented cabbage in China
  • 3000 B.C.: Egyptians used leaven (now called yeast) to raise bread dough
  • 2000 B.C.: Production of pulque, an alcoholic beverage, in Mexico

Granted, back in the days, our ancestors would use fermentation mostly to preserve and prepare foods. However, in 76 C.E., the Romans suggested that consuming more fermented milk could reduce gastrointestinal infections .

Moreover, as from the first century C.E. to the late 18th century, travelers have been relying greatly on fermented cabbage (known as ‘sauerkraut’) to keep intestinal infections at bay. They also used to consume fermented foods to reduce the risks of scurvy, a disease caused by a vitamin C deficiency.

What happens during fermentation?

During fermentation, the natural bacteria and certain yeasts present in the food start feeding on the sugar or starch present in that food. During their feast, these microorganisms convert this sugar or starch into lactic acid through a process known as lacto-fermentation.

The 7 main types of fermentation

  • Vinegar fermentation

    – You’ve probably experienced vinegar fermentation if you ever left a bottle of wine open for too long. Or if you’ve tried apple cider vinegar, wine vinegars, or coconut vinegar. In a nutshell, when alcohol is exposed to oxygen, a family of bacteria known as Acetobacter convert the alcohol into acetic acid, or vinegar, through a process known as vinegar fermentation.

  • Alcohol fermentation

    – During this type of fermentation, yeasts convert the sugars in fruits into alcohol and carbon dioxide in an oxygen-free environment. For instance, fermenting the natural sugars in sugarcane will yield rum.

  • Cultured vegetable protein

    – Legumes such as soybeans are often exposed to specific bacteria that ‘pre-digest’ the food to produce a product (like tempeh). The fermented product is easier to digest and is often used as a meat substitute.

  • Meat-flavored fermentation

    – This type of fermentation, which originated in Asia, involves soaking, mashing, and cooking certain grains and legumes (like soybeans) before fermenting them to prepare sauces and pastes. Examples include soy sauce, Vietnamese mam, Malaysia belachan, Indonesian trassi, miso, and shoyu.

  • Alkaline-fermented foods

    – These foods typically have a strong smell since the raw ingredients release ammonia when they are fermented. Examples include Japanese natto made from cooked soybeans and ugba from African oil beans.

  • Leavening

    – Since over 6,000 years ago, naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria known as Lactobacilli were used to ferment grains like wheat ! The fermentation allows the dough to rise and creates a slightly sour dough.

  • Lactic acid fermentation

    – This type of fermentation, described above, provides the most health benefits. As such, this article will focus mainly on lactic acid fermented foods.

Health benefits of fermented foods

Why would anyone want to ferment foods when we can now easily refrigerate and cook foods?

Simple: fermented foods add flavor to the diet while also preserving the food and detoxifying it. Moreover, unlike pasteurization which kills off beneficial bacteria and enzymes, fermentation enriches the food by increasing these bacteria and enzymes.

Plus, they also have various health benefits which I will briefly describe below.

Benefit #1: Traditionally fermented foods can improve digestion.

If you’ve read my previous articles, you’re probably aware that a lack of stomach acid is behind most digestive issues (read heartburn, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, belching, and acid reflux).

Consuming fermented foods can help the stomach produce more acid and digestive enzymes that are crucial for optimal digestion.

What about if you’re one of the very few people who has too much stomach acid? Well, fermented foods could prove to be a great addition to your diet as well.

You see, the beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) in these foods will help protect your stomach and intestinal lining while toning down inflammation.

Moreover, consuming fermented foods can help your body produce more acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter or brain chemical). This acetylcholine can help make things move better in your bowel and thus alleviate constipation.

Benefit #2: Traditionally fermented foods can reduce risks of certain cancers.

Lab studies indicate that Lactobacillus acidophilus, probiotics found in certain fermented foods can help reduce formation of polyps, adenomas (benign tumors), and colon cancer.

Lactobacillus salivarius, another probiotic, has been found to suppress AND eradicate Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria behind many incidences of stomach ulcers and cancer.

Benefit #3: Traditionally fermented foods may help control your blood sugar levels.

Besides improving the function of the pancreas, probiotics can boost immune function which often declines when blood sugar levels are uncontrolled.

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