In 2014 at a self-proclaimed hippy festival in New Zealand I had my first taste of raw, fermented sauerkraut, followed by a masterclass in making your own. Not overly impressed with the taste at the time it was the science involved, scope for culinary creativity and simplicity of the preparation that won me over and sowed that fermented cabbage-shaped seed in my mind.
Fast forward to 2018 and I’ve experimented with many different ferments – fermented piccalilli, salsa, oats, nut cheese, beetroot, lemons as well as the mainstream staples of kimchi, kefir, kombucha and even a dabble with a (recently neglected) sourdough starter – driven by the desire to see what wild and invigorating flavours can be created from a relatively easy process.
The range of fermented foods across the globe is ridiculous, with some estimates reckoning upwards of 5000 different fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, tea, dairy, legumes and cereal ferments! At the heart of every distinct type is the microcosm of bacteria, yeast, moulds and fungi that turn raw food materials into vastly different textures and tastes (often described as sour or tangy due to the acids produced during fermentation).
I have recently explored in detail the evidence behind the vast health claims attributed to inclusion of fermented foods in the diet. Ranging from the potentially plausible to the ridiculous, to name a few:
- Reduced irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms such as ‘rumbly’ tummy, constipation, diarrhoea and bloating
- Improved blood glucose control
- Weight loss
- Increased resilience to infectious challenge
- Reduced incidence of skin conditions in children when consumed during pregnancy
- Improved mental health and slowed cognitive decline
- Cure for HIV
- Prevention and cure of different types of cancer
This is mostly due to the association of fermented foods with probiotics – in fact many, many scientific papers, online and newspaper articles bang on about their probiotic content. However, recent reviews of the evidence conclude that there just isn’t the evidence to support fermented foods containing probiotics (even though bacterial species with probiotic potential have been extracted from fermented foods in the lab).
What they will do for you though is deliver a dose of live and active cultures (if non-pasteurised, heat-treated or filtered) which is sorely lacking in our modern, sterile, Western diet. These microbes do certainly have the potential to become part of our ‘transient’ gut microbiome which can increase its diversity which current thinking reckons is key to our health in many respects!
Note: some foods that are fermented during processing do not contain microbes in the product that we consume including some cheese, wine, beer (unless unfiltered, like some vegan beers!), sourdough bread and chocolate.
Many fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented fruit and veg) also pack a prebiotic punch – non-digestible nutritional components like oligosaccharides and inulin. Our beneficial gut microbiota feast upon these, again contributing to a more balanced and healthy intestinal microflora.
Making fermented foods, playing around with herb and spice-ing and watching them satisfyingly bubbling away is fucking fun. It’s the main reason I love them; second for the diversity of taste they add to my diet and thirdly as they are such a great way of preserving foods without the need for huge amounts of energy (i.e. boiling/sterilising). And hey, if they happen to be good for me by increasing the diversity of my precious little gut microbiota then all I can say is… winning!
“Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience requires our active participation. This means finding ways to become more aware of and connected to the other forms of life that are around us and that constitute our food — plants and animals, as well as bacteria and fungi — and to the resources, such as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation, upon which we depend. It means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and figuratively.” – Sandor Ellix Katz
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
Marco et al. (2017). Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2016.11.010
Sandor Ellix Katz (2012). The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing. USA.
British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) – I have written another blog on the current state of the evidence for health benefits of fermented foods. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/bnf-blogs/fermentedfoods.html