What are fermented foods and why should I give them a go?


The word “fermentation” often triggers images of smelly, bubbly and slightly off putting sludge. It doesn’t exactly conjure images of elixir and health does it?

You may be wondering exactly what fermentation is and why people seem to be boasting about eating fermented foods….Is it just another fad/super food like kale and goji berries?

To understand why people rejoice in eating and drinking fermented products, we must understand what fermentation is.

Fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates into alcohol or preservative organic acids and carbon dioxide using microorganisms (tiny living creatures without brains--i.e. yeast/bacteria). Fermentation may seem foreign however I’m sure you have consumed many fermented products already. Beer, wine, bread, yoghurt, vinegar, olives and cheese are all products that use fermentation in the process of creating a delectable and unique flavour. Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha are some lesser known fermented foods. More about them in later blogs… for now, just remember, not all fermented foods are created equal in terms of health benefits!

So what is the hype about fermented foods?

Some fermented foods contain probiotics which contribute towards a healthy immunity, gut health and wellbeing. They are easily absorbed by our bodies because the bacteria have already partially broken down the food cell structure. They taste funky and add new exciting flavours to meals.

Who first thought that consuming fermented, funny smelling food and drinks was a good idea?

The origin of fermentation dates to as far back at 7000 BC to a neolithic Chinese village where archaeological evidence indicated an alcoholic drink was brewed. Non-alcoholic drinks such as Kombucha and Saurkraut are thought to have arisen closer to 2000 BC.

This means that the last time you were out at the Woolshed, dancing on tables (come on, we’ve all been there), you can blame/thank our ancestors for inventing alcohol.

So why did people ferment food back then?

There were four main purposes of food fermentation:

  • to enrich the diet through diversity of flavours, aromas and textures

  • preserve large quantities of food (they didn’t have fridges back in the day!)

  • Improve absorption of nutrients from food (those bacteria already give digested the food a good crack before humans get to it)

  • Reduce cooking time and associated use of fuel

The best part about all this this is that food fermentation is still relevant to us now, thousands of years on.

It turns out they were onto something back in the day. The research is emerging to show that there are definite associations between altered microbiota (the huge universe of bacteria living in our guts) and obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, the metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis, type 1 diabetes, autism, allergy, asthma and coeliac disease [1,2,3]. That’s a lot of diseases!

However, there is no evidence to support a cause-and-effect relationship between microbiota composition and the mechanism of disease. In other words, we don’t know what came first, the chicken (disease) or the egg (microbiota change).

The take home messages?

· Eating fermented foods doesn’t necessarily mean eating probiotics. Certain processing techniques such as temperatures above 60˚C will reduce or eliminate probiotics. For example most breads are not probiotic because the heat from baking destroys the yeast used in fermentation to make the product fluffy (CO2 bubbles).

· Fermented foods are not the next fad in nutrition. They have been around for thousands of years and have legitimate practical benefits and health advantages. Just be sure to be informed about the retention of probiotics in the fermented products you are consuming.

· The benefits that fermented products play in improved immunity, gut function and wellbeing are supported by research. It’s safe to say that for the average healthy joe or jane, fermented food and drinks can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet… just be careful of the salt and alcohol content. Go for variety. Get out there and start sampling the delicious world of fermented food.

[1] Vitetta, L., et al., Probiotics, prebiotics and the gastrointestinal tract in health and disease. Inflammopharmacology, 2014. 22930: p. 135 -54.

[2] Bermudex-Brito, M., et al., Probiotic mechanisms of action. Ann Nutr Metah, 2012. 61920: p. 160-74.

[3] Sanders, M.E., An update on the use and investigation of probiotics in health and disease. Gut, 2013. 62(5): p. 787-96.

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