Fermented Foods: Ancient Technique for Modern Health

Fermented Food and Drink

In a modern world where industry “advances” have found countless ways to artificially or technologically refine, process, flavor, preserve, store and transport foods, it’s easy to forget that the natural process of fermentation has been utilized in cultures around the world for millennia, for much the same purpose.

While modern processed foods and beverages often have long shelf lives, they are also frequently bad for our health. Fermented foods and beverages, on the other hand, are making a comeback of sorts. Due to the numerous purported healthful benefits and recent findings from modern research to fortify the claims, especially for “gut health,” digestion and the potential roles of healthy “probiotic” bacteria, fermented foods are being rediscovered, especially in the United States.

The Science of Fermentation

Fermentation in regards to food, is the natural conversion of carbohydrates(sugars)  into alcohol and organic acids in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen present). Microorganisms, such as yeasts and certain bacteria, catalyze the fermentation process.

Fermentation also occurs in the muscles of humans and other animals, and in the gastrointestinal tract, where it aids in digestion (ruminants, such as cows and sheep are particularly dependent on fermentation to break-down forage plants like grass). There is a full applied science devoted to the process of fermentation, known as Zymology.

Fittingly, the first recognized “zymologist” was the famed French scientist Louis Pasteur. Pasteur recognized in the mid 19th century the role of yeast as a catalyst in the fermentation of sugars in grape must (juice) into alcohol during the production of delicious French wine. Pasteur is also credited with discovering the principles and potential of vaccinations, a finding that has saved the lives and ensured the quality of life for countless millions in the past century. If that wasn’t enough, Pasteur later developed the technique of “pasteurization,” which is now used to help preserve dairy products and wine from bacterial contamination.

Fermented Foods in Traditional Diets

Miso Soup

Cultures around the world have been consuming fermented and pickled foods and beverages for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. Fermentation was an extremely important technique in preserving a wide range of foods, allowing them to be transported and stored. This helped to ensure the survival of diverse human cultures in times when cultivation of fresh foods was insufficient. Many of these foods and beverages, such as those listed here, remain important components of traditional diets to this day:

  • Kimchi in Korea
  • Miso in Japan
  • Tempeh in Indonesia
  • Pickled vegetables and lassi in India
  • Sauerkraut in Germany
  • Kefir in the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia
  • Yogurt from different animal milks in various parts of the world
  • Wine and olives in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe
  • Chicha drinks in indigenous Andean cultures of South America

Nutrition Transitions and the global trends of urbanization and industrialization have led to the incorporation of more “Western diets” of processed and refined foods and beverages into previously traditional cultures. In addition to replacing the consumption of healthful fresh whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and unprocessed meats in these cultures with unhealthy processed foods, these transitions have made traditional preservation and flavoring techniques like fermentation and pickling less prevalent, and in many cases completely forgotten.

Diverse Culinary and Health Applications of Fermented Foods

Chicha de Maíz

The list of fermented foods, their methods of preparation, the amount of time they can be stored, how well they preserve the nutrients in the original fresh food, and their possible health benefits, are varied and extensive. Fermented beverages include beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks, as well as fermented teas like kombucha and dairy products like yogurt, lassi and kefir, to name but a few. Previously mentioned traditional fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, certain breads like sourdough, and a whole range of pickled foods (some of which are directly fermented, others of which are pickled using vinegar, which itself is a fermented food), are some noted examples of fermented foods, but there are hundreds more. One can do quite a culinary, cultural and physiological exploration of fermented foods and their effects without even scratching the surface. Fermenting and pickling foods and beverages oneself is a very accessible process that can be enjoyed and experimented with in the home as well.

Commonly proclaimed health benefits of fermented foods begin with their aiding digestion and bacterial balance within the gut (avoiding “dysbiosis” by promoting “good” bacteria, the meaning of being “probiotic”), and helping in the absorption of nutrients from fresh foods and the synthesis of certain micronutrients within the body (B vitamins and vitamin K, especially). Furthermore, certain fermented foods are believed to aid in weight loss, reduce inflammation, enhance the immune system, increase insulin sensitivity, and much more.

Probiotics and Diabetes

yogurt_with_blueberries

The fermentation of certain foods with lactic acid bacteria, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, are commonly regarded as having strong probiotic properties. In these foods, the carbohydrates have already been partially broken down before being consumed, which reduces their glycemic index, meaning they have less of an impact on raising blood glucose levels. This last point is particularly relevant to both diabetics and pre-diabetics who must be careful to avoid blood sugar spikes and hyperglycemia.

Interestingly, “lactic acid fermentation” also describes a metabolic process within the muscle cells of animals, where glucose is converted into energy and lactate. This can result in the familiar “burn” when one is working out, especially when doing anaerobic resistance training.

For the many people in the world who are lactose intolerant, fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, lassi and certain aged hard cheeses, have the benefit of breaking down the complex sugar lactose into simple sugars like glucose and galactose before being consumed. This process makes fermented dairy products easier to digest for lactose intolerant individuals.

Do Fermented Foods Have Health Benefits?

A lot of the purported health claims of fermented foods remain in a clinically speculative realm, as firm research is still in relatively early stages. Circumstantial evidence, whether historical and cultural or from the wide range of individuals that now claim to experience enhanced health after incorporating fermented foods and beverages into their diets, is nonetheless compelling. Moreover, intensive microbiological research, such as that being conducted by the NIH Human Microbiome Project, is starting to lend some hard evidence and understanding as to the ways that bacteria and other microorganisms live within, and aid in the function of, various systems of the human body.

Fermented foods are a fascinating, cultural, varied and potentially very healthful compliment to a diverse diet based on whole foods. And as a method of food preservation, fermentation is far more recommendable than industrial processing, whose food and beverage products play a large role in the rising global epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

Learn More About how Specific Fermented and Pickled Foods, Beverages, and Alcohol can Prevent and Manage Diabetes and Promote Overall Health

Resources and Further Reading

Some interesting history about fermentation in ancient societies:
https://web.archive.org/web/20070119162605/http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0560e/x0560e05.htm

A detailed look at the chemistry of fermentation:
https://web.archive.org/web/20120530081705/http://www.coe.uga.edu/ttie/documents/biotech.pdf

How fermentation has connected humans to the “microbial environment.
http://trangwww.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her151/scottandsullivan.pdf

Common health benefits believed to come from fermented foods:
https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-offermenting

To dig deeper into the “Human Microbiome”: https://hmpdacc.org/hmp/overview/

Moderate alcohol consumption helps to prevent diabetes, both temperance and excessive alcohol consumption appear to do the opposite:
http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/28/3/719/

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