About Fermented Food

Before canning and freezing was possible, people preserved vegetables for long periods of time by encouraging them to ferment. Captain Cook, for example, loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut on his ship for his second trip around the world. When he opened the last barrel, 27 months later, the ‘kraut’ was just as good as it had been on the first day.

The Captain’s cabbage was kept edible for over 2 years, without refrigeration, because the process of lacto-fermentation converts the starches and sugars naturally present in vegetables and fruits into lactic acid through the microbial activity of lactic-acid producing bacteria that are present on the surface of all living things. Lacto-fermentation inhibits the proliferation of bacteria that cause putrefaction, which prevents properly fermented foods from decaying into toxic compounds.

Lacto-fermentation also aids the digestive process. Foods that have been fermented are better absorbed by the human body, and help to maintain digestive system health by contributing healthy and helpful bacteria to the digestive tract, while inhibiting harmful bacteria that also live in the digestive system. Lacto-fermented food helps prevent “acid stomach,” a perfect breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria and parasites. And lacto-fermentation also adds a wide range of enzymes to the human body, which creates a “food bank” from which your body can draw the enzymes it needs to help maximize your overall health and well-being.

Including lacto-fermented vegetables and fruits in the diet facilitates the breakdown and assimilation of proteins, aids assimilation of iron, contributes vitamin C to the body, stimulates pancreatic function (helpful to diabetics), contributes to low blood pressure, overall calmness and good sleep, and promotes good peristalsis, which is crucial to maintaining regular bowels (Fallon, p. 101).

“A 1999 study published in the Lancet found that consumption of lacto-fermented vegetables was positively associated with low rates of asthma, skin problems and autoimmune disorders in Swedish children attending a Waldorf School” (Fallon, p. 97).

Microbiologist and physician Catherine Shanahan counts fermented and sprouted vegetables as the 3rd of her Four Pillars of World Cuisine – the 4 foundations upon which traditional peoples around the world and through time have built their diets, health and generational vitality. (The other three are: meat on the bone, cooked slowly; organ meats; and, raw foods, including dairy.) The reason fermenting and sprouting are essential is because “plants didn’t evolve with the idea that they should be good to eat.” Hence, they “spend a great deal of energy thwarting overzealous grazing creatures that would gladly eat them into oblivion.” Natural insecticides and bitter toxins are one of the ways plants protect themselves. But fermentation and sprouting naturally deactivate many of those irritants. In itself, that explains why fermented and sprouted grains and vegetables are  easier to digest – the body has less work to do, and is less insulted by the plants’ self-protection mechanisms.

Our whole digestive process is a system of biological activity. It is the wide range of microbes that live in our stomach and intestines that use available enzymes to break down the food we eat and convert it into chemicals that our blood can pick up and take to our cells. That process is also fermentation.

Using enzymes, the microbes in our bodies – and in your crock pot of fermenting vegetables – manufacture all of the vitamins (except D), along with the amino acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids, and so on that we need in order to thrive. They make that life sustaining chemical soup from the sugar, starch and cellulose found in vegetables and fruit. When we eat fermented foods, we add large quantities of those elements to our diets, increasing the bio-available nutrients our bodies need for good health, and decreasing the work our digestive system needs to do to neutralize toxins and feed our cells.

In addition, fermentation creates probiotics, beneficial bacteria that “preserve, detoxify, and enrich our food.” Probiotics work in our immune system to prevent the growth of toxic microbes, thus helping to alleviate diseases caused by allergies, inflammations, and the inadequacies of the autoimmune system. (The above 4 paragraphs are based on Shanahan, pp 142-148.)

Regularly including fermented foods in our diet is a natural and essential practice for high-level health and vitality. Fermentation unlocks the nutrients in plants that the plants don’t want to make too available, enables easier digestion and absorption, and provides a host of easily absorbed enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, nucleic and fatty acids that our body needs in order to extract as much nutrition as possible from the other food we eat, and make it available to our cells – while helping detoxify our digestive tract, fight toxin-producing inflammations, and boosting our auto-immune systems.

And all it takes is a shredded vegetable, some salt, water, and a warm environment. Why would you not take advantage of fermentation to increase your produce storage options while promoting your body’s long-term vitality?

Just keep in mind: commercially produced fermented foods (like sauerkraut, relish or chutney) are not likely to provide you with the nutrient-dense food your body craves. Likely, the product you buy off of the store shelf is made from commercially produced vegetables and fruits, which have been modified for mass growing, harvesting and processing, and not for nutritional value. Secondly, they have likely been “fermented” by a chemical process rather than through the natural process of lacto-fermentation; the one creates a soured flavor, but not the nutrients that feed your body. And thirdly, after production, commercially fermented vegetables and fruits are almost always pasteurized; pasteurization subjects food to high heat to kill pathogens. Unfortunately, it also kills life-giving enzymes, the very elements you are hoping to add to your body by consuming fermented foods!

You might not be able to make your fermented food from organic produce; that depends on where you live and on what your food budget allows. However, you certainly can produce your own fermented products from whatever produce is available to you, thus improving on what you would get by either eating commercially produced fermented foods or by eating non-fermented commercial produce.

Each step toward eating according to traditional practices improves your body’s health and vitality, and makes your life and wellbeing less dependent upon other people and agencies, and more self-sustaining.

To get you started, here is a link to a great recipe for Kim Chee, a traditional Korean condiment eaten at almost every meal.

Beginner’s guide to fermenting foods

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