Health / Features

Eat with relish

By ann sheldon, Thursday May 7, 2015

Most of us have tried fermented foods such as beer, yoghurt and pickles, but there’s increasing interest in expanding the choice of ferments  to include traditional foods like kefir (fermented milk product – like drinking yogurt) , kimchi (korean spicy cabbage) and kombucha (fizzy, black tea – a taste that takes some acquiring).

Fermented foods pack a healthy punch because they’re full of probiotics: the good bacteria that support optimal digestive function. Many of us take probiotic supplements or eat yogurt to replenish our healthy gut bacteria after taking antibiotics but we maybe we need to be more generally pro-active with the probiotics. Science is starting to appreciate just how multi-faceted and essential our gut flora is. Each one of us has inherited a unique combination of internal bacteria from our ancestors, the places we live, the food we eat.

Kefir – a traditional fermented milk drink

We have evolved with bacterial chums in our bellies that pay their rent by helping us transform food into nutrition. Chemicals in food, medicine and household products are knocking out the good guys in our gut as fast as loggers are reducing the rainforests. Our gut biome is a delicate ecosystem undergoing its own version climate change each time a native bacterial strain is lost. Maybe babies munching bacteria rich dirt and worms have got the right idea after all.

Probiotics are important for all aspects of our health, including our immune system. Some scientists say up to 80% of our immune system is contained within our gut, so having a good balance of probiotics can help with everything from staving off illness to healing infections. Most food experts on the planet will tell you that fresh foods are usually the healthiest. But the latest beneficial food group isn’t a bit soil to table—it’s fermented—meaning ingredients like gherkins and cabbage have been left to sit and steep in their own juices until their sugars develop bacteria-boosting agents.

A pickle a day could keep the doctor away

Wellness experts are currently praising the power of these pungent probiotics. They are claimed to boost the good bacteria in your digestive tract, can heal a multitude of health issues, like IBS and leaky gut, and can even make skin more youthful, and boost both weight loss and general immunity. When Captain James Cook set off on his first epic voyage in 1768 he took several barrels of sauerkraut on board with him. He encouraged his sailors to eat it during the voyage by consuming it, alongside his officers, with apparent relish. As long as his sailors ate the pickled cabbage daily, he never lost a man to scurvy. 

Sauerkraut was invented by European peasants who used salt to preserve their cabbage to ward off hunger during the dark  winter months. This way of preserving food also improves nutrition. Lactic acid fermentation used to transform salt and cabbage into sauerkraut increases vitamins, especially C and B, and food enzymes.  In pre-refrigeration days pickling with brine or acid from bacterial fermentation, was an essential way to preserve fresh food.  This ensured other bacteria and yeasts could not thrive and prevented food from rotting. Nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat products could be made to last for months or even years using these methods. 

Tempeh a tasty, textured, soybean treat
Homemade sauerkraut is also rich in beneficial bacteria – friendly micro-organisms which help to colonise the gut, train the immune system and manufacture vitamins in the digestive tract. The benefits go far beyond the simply nutritional, as these fermented foods are loaded with varieties of bacteria that form part of the 2kg digestive “biome” in our gut, which work symbiotically to fulfil essential roles in nearly all human physiology. These bacteria have evolved beyond being digestive and immune helpers, their metabolic by-products are also psychoactive, helping us to be happy for example.  

The science of human-bacterial symbiosis is relatively new, and developing fast, with major revelations emerging by the month, filling in the picture as to why it is that the healthiest and longest living humans consume live fermented foods daily. The modern practice of pickling with vinegar kills all bacteria, including beneficial varieties. Current diet advice on optimising nutrition encourages regular eating consumption of fermented or brined foods. Small daily amounts of other live ferments such as kefir, live yoghurt, Preserved lemons, Worcester sauce, black bean sauce, miso and the like and you will have put in place one of the foundation stones of a long and happy life.

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