How many ferments are too many? I say, there are never enough!!! If there were a way to ferment this post, I would do it. Currently I have 6 ferments going; water kefir, beet kvass, hard apple cider, two different sourdough starters and Sally Fallon‘s heavenly fermented raisin chutney. I do love me some fermentin’ and at times my kitchen counter looks like one big science experiment. It ain’t pretty, but it sure is fun. Fermenting and fermented foods have been around since humans. Well, technically it was happening before then, but controlled fermenting of foods and beverages didn’t begin until humans got involved. It is arguably the oldest form of food preservation there is. The benefits of fermented foods are widely debated among health practitioners, nutritionists and scientists. The biggest benefit is that it is an easy way to preserve fresh food for later consumption. It certainly was handy before we came up with a little thing called refrigeration.
I began my foray into fermenting at home shortly after joining a CSA. A large box of seasonal/fresh veggies each week for one or two people is a lot to get through and sometimes it requires some method of preservation so things can be eaten at a later time. Also there are veggies that are just kind of meh, and need improved flavor to get me excited about eating them. Sauerkraut it a perfect example of turning cabbage (meh), into enjoyable yumminess. I eat it very regularly and so does my three year old. Incidentally it is the only way I can get the kid to eat cabbage. The great thing about kraut is that the act of fermentation makes the nutrients in cabbage more bio available (fact), and much easier to digest (fact). If you eat cabbage this way, you will never again do the cabbage flatch. This is what I call the intestinal gas often times associated with consuming cabbage. I am embarrassed to add that I also do the dumb dance (the cabbage patch) when I let one rip after eating cabbage. And I wonder why my kid thinks farting is funny…
Let’s do a quick run down on the pros and cons of fermented foods. I will also note where things should be taken on with a fair amount of skepticism. Everyone makes up their own mind about things, and I will leave it up to you to do your due diligence and form your own educated opinion/theory.
First the PROS:
As in Probiotics (meaning pro life) to start with. Many studies have been done on beneficial bacteria in the gut. They promote good digestive health. They improve immune function. They even keep the bad bacteria in check. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), have released several studies on gut bacterium across many different health related issues, including the reduction in diet related obesity. You should check out their website if interested. Plus it is fun to say… PNAS! PNAS! PNAS!
Fermenting foods also makes nutrients in foods more bio available to you. The act of fermentation breaks down the cellular walls of the food, thus making nutrients available for your body to absorb and use. Chewing food does the same thing, but on a much smaller scale. The macrobiotic diet espouses the benefits of chewing your food thoroughly for the same reason. Adding acids such as lemon juice, or vinegar to vegetable preparation is beneficial in doing the same thing, as well. I love having different options available to me, don’t you?
(put your skeptic hats on) Fermented foods have also been associated with panacean claims such as curing cancer, removing heavy metals from your system (detoxifying), curing autism, curing diabetes and the common cold, as well as many other claims. Folks, there simply isn’t any real data supporting these claims. Integrate these foods into your diet as complimentary to the treatments recommended by your doctor for these conditions.
Now the CONS:
A natural byproduct of fermentation is alcohol. The harmful effects of alcohol on your body are well documented and can be easily found by doing a google search. With that said, the amount of alcohol found in fermented foods is very minimal unless the ferment in question happens to be beer or wine (which both happen to have their own health benefits).
Fermented foods have a high salt content. Many fermented foods use salt to create an inhospitable environment for bad bacteria, such as botulism. This is not across the board for all fermented foods, just the ones that use salt. If you are in a position to watch your salt intake, you should probably avoid ferments that use a heavy amount of salt in the fermentation process.
(put your skeptic hats back on) Raw foodies love to bash fermented foods as being low in nutrition and hard on digestion, despite the fact that there are scientific studies that prove otherwise. Many cruciferous vegetables are just fiber unless an acid is introduced or fermentation has occurred. The body simply can’t break down the cellular structure of these foods to access all of the nutrients inside. While a raw piece of broccoli may have more nutrients in it, they don’t do your body much good if they can’t be accessed though normal digestion. You can’t taste the doughnut if it’s wrapped in plastic, so whats the point in sticking it in your mouth?
There is also concern with harmful bacterias in fermented foods causing health concerns. One needn’t look very far to see higher incidence of this in conventionally grown vegetables, factory farm meats and dairy, and even heavily processed/pasturized foods that line our grocery store shelves
There is a wealth of information out there if you are interested in learning more, just seek it out. Beware of ambiguous references to “Bulgarian studies” and the like. Spend your time collecting facts and data. The once you’re done, sit down with a nice glass of red wine, slap some lacto fermented raisin chutney onto a Raincoast Crisp smeared with goat cheese (another fermented food) and pontificate on how you feel. If you follow this specific recipe, I can assure you, you’ll feel pretty damn good!
DISCLAIMER: The statements made here have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These statements are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure or prevent any disease. This notice is required by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.