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Fermented Foods are not ‘Flavour of the Month’ but are here to Stay

by Gill Jacobs(more info)

listed in food, originally published in issue 215 - July 2014

Fermentation is a process of microbial action, and when used to break down food, produces numerous benefits for those who consume them. Fermented foods have been known throughout the ages to have powerful healing properties. Most of this knowledge was lost to us in the West as we fell for the hype around processed and packaged foods, and abandoned the larder or cold cellar for the fridge.

Making Sauerkraut

Making Sauerkraut

There is now a growing awareness of our need for ‘living food’. In my radar this has been encouraged by the Weston A Price Foundation, a not for profit organization which promotes nutrient dense foods, which not only include ferments, but also good fats, grass fed meat, organ meats and bone broths. Thanks to Sandor Katz, a WAPF supporter, and a fermentation revivalist, we have his book Wild Fermentation to guide us. But dig a little deeper and you will find people for whom fermented foods were a significant part of their childhood, brought up in countries still bound by strong traditions, and ways of food preparation. A Polish friend brings me back sauerkraut regularly made by her mother. In Eastern Europe during the Cold War there was no possibility of importing oranges in winter for Vitamin C. Instead sauerkraut provided the only way to meet demands for Vitamin C in winter.

My local Korean restaurant owner is transported into raptures of reverence when he shows me how he makes Kimchi, a spicy sauerkraut that is the national dish, and traditionally the only way to preserve and enhance the nutrition of vegetables when they cannot grow in winter.

Without that familiarity, from early childhood eating patterns, we are left feeling deskilled and nervous. After all, aren’t bacteria also harmful? How do we distinguish between what is good for us, and what is not? Sanitised hand products, antimicrobial cleaning cloths, and a fear of dirt have taken a grip with strong marketing hype. We are just not comfortable when it comes to anything in food which lives and breathes! Sauerkraut can develop mould if not submerged in brine, kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt) can bubble up and get messy, fermented drinks can explode if not ‘burped’. In the workshops I give to get people started on the journey of making fermented foods, I am struck by how enlivened students become when learning this new skill. And that is before they get to feel the benefits that come from eating that way!

Kefir is one of the best ways to start if you want to introduce home-made fermented foods into your diet. If you are lactose intolerant kefir helps to ameliorate it by pre-digesting the lactose. A very small proportion of people intolerant of cow’s milk (pasteurised and raw) cannot tolerate kefir, but it is rare.

Unlike yogurt, kefir is made with  ‘grains’, which are small cauliflower like balls made up yeasts and bacteria, surviving and feeding off the nutrients from dairy milk. Different kefir grains can be found to feed off sweetened water, or coconut milk, but the process of keeping them ‘happy’ and well fed is more tenuous, and needs periodic boosts with dairy milk to keep them alive over time. See www.wiseuptohealth.com/a-habit-that-rolls-on-and-on.

Human Health as a Function of Community

Michael Pollan makes a profound statement in his article Some of My Best Friends are Germs New York Times, May 15th, 2013: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/some-of-my-best-friends-are-germs/  ‘human health is a function of the community and not the individual’.

Way back in the late eighties when I wrote my first book on yeast overgrowth, I was on the right track, but in another sense I was over simplistic, and missing the main point. Yes, I talked about the integrity of the gut wall, and the problem of an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, together with yeast. But by talking about eliminating from the diet, in order to lessen the harmful invaders, I failed to focus enough on how to boost our health with friendly bacteria, over and beyond just repopulating the gut with expensive probiotics. Michael Pollan makes the point too that probiotics are mostly unregulated. It’s far safer to ‘do it yourself’ and get stuck into fermented foods generated from your own hand. It’s also far better to have a little every day, than sporadic forays into commercial probiotics whenever your mind, and your pocket, remembers.

Now it seems we have confirmation that my more recent preoccupation with fermented foods is the way to go. It makes sense that the best way to improve the gut microbiota is through diet, especially if you follow the scientists’ gaze to groups of people who have not experienced the limiting and positively harmful effects of the sterility of our Western industrialised foods. They seem to have escaped the auto-immune diseases and allergic reactions that afflict rising numbers of people in the west. Their gut ecology is varied and protective of their health. Ours, unless you are in the minority of those who eat solely unprocessed foods, is depressingly limited, reflecting the dead and chemicalized food that makes up our daily diet. The Western gut, Pollan emphasises, is an artefact of civilisation. Dr Weston A Price documented this well in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

War on Bacteria versus Restoration Ecology

Pollan also talks about our ‘war on bacteria’ coupled with our detrimental diet, all crying out, maybe just in time given our overuse of antibiotics, for a restoration ecology.

How apt this is now, as a shift between the generations has worryingly taken place. On visiting a friend, and his two month old baby, I was taken aback when I was asked to wash my hands before touching the baby. Washing hands before spontaneously picking up a baby was unheard of when my children were born in 1979 and 1982. Now the scientists that Michael Pollan met are suggesting that children should be encouraged to play in the dirt and stroke animals. One scientist, after his wife had an emergency caesarean, using a sterile cotton swab, inoculated the newborn infant’s skin with the mother’s vaginal secretions to insure a proper colonization. A formal trial of such a procedure is under way in Puerto Rico.

Why Fermented Foods are here to Stay

So what is it about fermented foods that we should be paying attention to if we want to maximize health, and minimize the risk of autoimmune disease and allergic reactions? Why is it often said that eating fermented foods is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health? (And why do we continue to ignore that message if it means changing the way we eat rather than take a pill?) Wine, cheese, salamis, milk, chocolate, vinegar, and bread, all rely on fermentation to break down and improve, as well as vegetables, making them more readily digestible, and infinitely more good for us than if the fermentation process had not taken place. But mention sauerkraut to many and they grimace, with memories of pasteurized jars of shredded cabbage. Get them to taste a homemade and maturing mix of fermenting vegetables and the complex mix of flavours and textures will delight.

Of course because of our reliance on refrigeration as a method of prolonging the ‘freshness’ of food, we forget that fermenting food used to be the primary source of food preservation, and still is in those cultures without access to refrigeration. Indeed, where you have fermented milk products, you do not usually have a culture of drinking milk. Without refrigeration that would not be practicable. So herders on the move ferment sheep, goats or cow’s milk into cheese, or kefir, or yogurt, or fermented butter. Once inoculated with friendly bacteria, who have by the way seen off the other kind, these foods withstand heat and become not just safe foods, but also healthy ones. Refrigeration seems to have distorted our view of ‘healthy foods’. When you add in low fat diets, hydrogenated fats, factory farmed animals with unnatural diets of grain instead of grass, and high sugar consumption you have a recipe for disaster on an epic scale.

But our ancestors knew the advantages of fermentation because almost all traditional cultures that have been studied included fermented foods in their diet. Their knowledge was handed down from generation to generation, without ‘science’ confirming their innate wisdom.

We now ‘know’ that fermented foods are alive with beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and increased nutrition. The bacteria are capable of colonising and healing our gut wall, and seeing off harmful invaders. Bacteria and yeasts break down carbohydrates in food and produce lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol, as well as greatly enhancing nutritional value. Nutrition is enhanced because with fermentation it becomes more bioavailable.

For example, B vitamins and folate are present in greater amounts in fermented food than when food is not fermented. Thus, sourdough breads are richer in folate than quick-rise breads. Usually, the longer a food is stored the more the vitamin content degrades over time. But sourdough breads retain the folate without it diminishing. Homemade mayonnaise stays edible for six months in the fridge when unpasteurized whey protein is added. Whey is produced from fermented milk.

Fermented foods are also strongly anti-carcinogenic. Milk kefir produces kefirans which are anti-carcinogenic, and in many fermented foods it is thought that their antioxidant effects are enhanced.

Fermented Ginger Carrot Sticks

Fermented Ginger Carrot Sticks

As we age our output of enzymes to break down food decreases. Bumping up enzymes makes total sense. Ferments provide a source of enzymes which is natural and health giving. Furthermore, fermented foods are ‘raw’, in that they are not broken down by heat, but by microbial action. Some foods are not so beneficial raw, such as some cruciferous vegetables. If you ferment them, e.g. cauliflower and cabbage, you are not just doing your thyroid a favour, but also your taste buds. With added flavours from ginger, chillies or garlic, as well as sea salt to encourage fermentation, you will not be eating bland!

Finally fermented foods act to modulate immune system response. If we create sterile conditions, the immune system is not strengthened. If the gut gets compromised, too, auto-immune conditions result, along with allergies and food sensitivities. Eating fermented foods strengthens the immune system, and allows it to operate in an environment which encourages a healthy gut.

Getting together to make Ferments

On the evenings when I teach how to make sauerkraut to small groups, there is always a moment when the cut up vegetables, during the process of pressing down to release their enzymes, give off the most wonderful smell of freshness and ‘life’. At that moment my students get even more animated, as they finally realise what their actions are producing. Then they take home what we have made, and have to wait a week or two before the fermentation process has done its work.

Getting feedback is what makes it all worthwhile. One friend, a health practitioner who at 70 is on the surface far healthier than her contemporaries, reported that after eating her sauerkraut for three days she lost all her symptoms of irritable bowel. Now she is never without any in her fridge. She thought that she had done everything. Food as medicine had not entered into her check list of things to do, until a group session of making fermented foods connected her to what she needed.

Another student had excessive wind and discomfort, and has given up fermented foods until she makes other changes in her lifestyle that will support gut healing. So be careful. Some people need to work up slowly. It’s advisable that those whose gut health is severely compromised start with 1 teaspoon a day, so that the gut can acclimatize to this sudden input of living food. Too much die off can cause very uncomfortable issues with wind, and diarrhoea.

Ferments and my Health

I had attended a workshop by Sandor Katz, the Fermentation Guru, a couple of years before I started to regularly have vegetable ferments in my diet. In a first flush of enthusiasm I took my fermentation crock full of freshly made sauerkraut away with me camping. No fridge needed and it sat outside my tent for a week and was perfect when we finally ate it. A great camping food!

Unlike sauerkraut I was making my own kefir continuously and consuming it every day. But it was only when I regularly ate my own fermented vegetables that I began to notice a difference in my dental health. My problematic dental plaque disappeared!  I now make my own toothpaste and drink bone broths to remineralize my teeth, but it’s the fermented foods that are making the most difference to the alkalinity of my saliva. Sadly when I try to tell my dentist of my ‘belief’ in this connection I get blank looks rather than a pat on the back.

Back to Michael Pollan. He has joined the ranks of those in the know, and has learned the fermentation process to make his own bread, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut. The varied bacterial population resident in his body, on testing, was confirmation enough to him that he was doing something right. He not only writes about food. He walks his talk. Now more than ever we need to redress the balance and get back to healthy ferments, before this epidemic of compromised health engulfs us all.

Beetroot Fermenting

Beetroot Fermenting

Resources and Recipes

For Beet Kvass, a wonderful fermented liver tonic, go to http://wiseuptohealth.com/a-quick-and-easy-ferment/ 

For making Kefir with raw milk go to: http://wiseuptohealth.com/a-habit-that-rolls-on-and-on/   which includes links to the raw milk debate and why, if you can get it from a local farmer or farmer’s market, it is a health food in its own right.

For sauerkraut go to   http://wiseuptohealth.com/how-to-make-sauerkraut/

For a Guardian article on one of Gill’s sauerkraut making evenings:

www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/29/fermented-food-sauerkraut-recipe-get-togethers

Books

Sandor Katz. Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing Co. ISBN 1-931498-23-7. 2003.

Sandor Katz. The Art of Fermentation An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Foreword by Michael Pollan. Chelsea Green Publishing Co.  ISBN: 9781603582865. 2012.

Dr Weston A Price. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Price Pottenger Foundation.  ISBN-13: 978-0916764203. 2009.

Support

www.wildfermentation.com

www.facebook.com/groups/WlidFermentation/

Weston A Price Foundation: www.westonaprice.org

UK Weston A Price Foundation: www.meetup.com/westonaprice-london

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About Gill Jacobs

Gill Jacobs MSc Dip Clin Hyp NLP Coach GQHP M.AMT is a Health Writer, and blogger, trained in Hypnotherapy and EFT. She also runs a business in Low Level Laser Light. She discovered the power of concentrated light when searching for help for her mother's symptoms from MS, and set up Light for Health in order to change attitudes to light and its ability to heal, through product sales and education. She is excited by the potential of low level laser energy to bridge the gap between complementary/alternative and conventional drug-based medicine. To this end she promotes the work of Dr Nicholas Wise DC, who uses light on the cranium, for addictions and emotional issues, as well as structural problems. As a pioneering Health Writer on medical conditions which were initially misunderstood and ignored by mainstream medicine (Candidiasis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), she is now even more passionate about the role of food in health. For this she thanks the work of the Weston A. Price Foundation and its promotion of healthy fats, grass fed meat, healthy soil, fermented foods and raw milk.  After introducing fermented foods into her diet, and seeing the difference in her health, Gill now puts on workshops on fermented foods, at her home in North London, and elsewhere when invited.

Gill set up her blog http://wiseuptohealth.com as a way to inspire others to take up habits for health as we grow older. Having to hold back with friends who were getting sick, but who were resistant to food based solutions, and natural health, was the impetus she needed to ‘write it down’, even if they choose not to read/follow it. In the end, her philosophy is founded on a view that health is our birth right, along with good genes. Maintaining it should not be an effort to ‘do it all’ but an integral and effortless part of life, involving how we nourish ourselves, our bodies and our minds.

Gill may be contacted via www.lightforhealth.co.uk    www.wiseuptohealth.com

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