When we hear the word we often first think of wine, beer, and maybe sake – all made from turning fruits or grains into alcohol using the natural process of fermentation.
But hey, it was not invented just so we could have happy hour.
Fermentation is an ancient technique that humans have used for thousands of years to preserve food and enhance flavor. It refers to the chemical conversion of carbohydrates such as starches or sugars in food by beneficial bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms into alcohol, acids, or gases. It is the alcohol, acids and salt that provide protection from destructive bacteria and preserve the foods, while making a friendly environment for good bacteria.
There Are Different Kinds
Here are the basics:
Wine, beer, spirits, vinegar and kombucha (a fermented tea drink) are produced by alcoholic fermentation using yeast.
Lactic Bacteria Fermentation
This is a type of acid that’s produced upon the breakdown of sugar in an oxygen-free environment. Examples of lacto-fermented foods include products like:
- yogurt, kefir, sour cream, buttermilk
- sourdough bread
- other pickled vegetables
Two common mold ferments are:
- Koji kin is a mold that is used to ferment rice or barley in Japanese foods such as sake, mirin and miso. (Miso is a seasoning made from fermented soybeans, often used in soup.)
- Tempeh is a mold culture from Indonesia used to ferment soybeans turning them into a hearty, savory protein.
Microbes to the Rescue
These foods are apparently very good for your health. Although more research is needed, many animal studies have shown wide ranging health benefits from eating fermented foods. One main reason could be that fermentation also promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, known as probiotics.
Your Gut Biome
Researchers are learning a lot more about how essential the bacterial ecosystem in our gut is to our digestive health. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial probiotics and have been associated with a range of health benefits, starting with better digestion. To learn more about the benefits of probiotics and gut health read my blog Probiotics and the Gut Biome.
A 6-week study in 274 adults with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) found that consuming 4.4 ounces of yogurt-like fermented milk product daily improved IBS symptoms, including bloating and stool frequency. Fermented foods may also lessen the severity of diarrhea, bloating, gas, and constipation.
It could be that fermentation helps make our food easier to digest by breaking it down before we eat it, making the nutrients more available for absorption. For example, those with lactose intolerance are usually okay eating fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir, because lactose, the sugar in milk, is broken down during fermentation into simpler sugars–glucose and galactose.
More Possible Benefits
Mental Health: A few studies have linked the probiotic strains Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is because of the all-important brain gut connection. Both probiotics are found in fermented foods.
Heart Health: Fermented foods have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The process of fermentation can produce vitamins, anti-oxidants, and molecules that lower blood pressure and inflammation.
And They are Delicious
People have been happily eating these foods and drinking these beverages forever just because they taste good. Fermentation adds acid and usually salt which gives the food a special tang, and savory sourness. If you haven’t tried some of these foods, do give them a try. You may love them, and you’ll be doing your biome a big favor.