“Fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce. People harness this transformative power in order to produce alcohol, to preserve food, and to make it more digestible, less toxic, and/or more delicious. By some estimates, more than 1/3 of all food eaten by human beings worldwide is fermented … Fermentation has played an instrumental role in human cultural evolution.” - Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation
Take a step back from your modern life and lets move back in time. Not far, just 200 years - when canned foods were invented and before refrigerators became the norm. Canning was invented in 1810 and allowed the folks abandoning their farms for cities during the industrial revolution to quickly eat “fresh” food after long shifts, packed in salt and/or vinegar to preserve. Enter the personal refrigerator in 1913, and our food system was revolutionized so much that it changed our entire food culture! Refrigeration now allows us to move produce on a mass scale from, say, Chile to Hawaii, and then allow us to store this globally grown food for long periods at home before finally consuming it. These two modern technologies together, combined with germaphobia and a fast-food nation, have more or less destroyed our human culture of fermentation.
200 years may sound like a long time, but it’s only 1/10,000 of our human existence. A drop in the pond. So what did we do before these modern conveniences? How did we prepare and store fresh foods? We fermented them. Meat was stuffed into sausage casings and cured (i.e. fermented) and smoked to keep without rot. Milk was clabbered, turned into kefir or yogurt, strained into sour cream, or made into cheese for long journeys. Vegetables were made into all sorts of things, from krauts to kimchees to pickles. These could provide ample vitamin C all winter winter long.
And, of course, we always fermented our grains, beans, and nuts. This an important technique, since the fermentation of these foods pre-digests the phytic acid inherent in all seeds as well as many starches. It additionally eats the excess startches which, when eaten in abundance, mess up our gut bacteria and turn into sugars. With modern grain growing and milling, rare is a store bought bread that is actually fermented. And who at home grew up soaking and sprouting their rice, quinoa, beans, or oatmeal overnight before throwing it in a pot? These methods are old fashioned, yet ingrained in every culture across the globe for a reason: health and prosperity.
Nowadays in America, nearly all our fermented food traditions are dead. Literally. They’re processed and “pickled”, and dead on the shelf. Think of everything we used to eat that was alive and fermented: cheese, bread, wine, beer, soy, sparkling beverages, salsa, grains, ketchup, mustard, pickles, olives, vinegar, etc. All of these were properly fermented not too long ago, meaning they were still a living food. This is why you’re always recommended a probiotic by your doc, because today we don’t eat many - if any - probiotic rich foods, although we know that gut health is invaluable.
What about yogurt (or another living, fermented food here you eat, like kombucha). Well yes, this is a food that has beneficial bacteria in it, but it’s one strain of many. If you imagine your gut, it should contain around 3 entire pounds of bacteria alone, beneficial little microbes that make your body function optimally. It’s where your immune system is housed, where your toxins are filtered, where your nutrients are absorbed. You want this ecosystem to be like the Amazon rainforest: fantastically diverse. Eating yogurt or kombucha or taking a probiotic pill is akin to mowing the amazon and planting a mahogany forest yet still expecting it to still maintain the same abundance of life… Enter endo belly. And chronic disease too.
Time to Heal the Amazon: Your Gut
So how do we heal thy gut and begin to re-plant the Amazon?? You have to eat fermented foods every single day. And a variety of them. Luckily for the time-starved, more and more awesome companies are selling actually fermented products in the grocery store refrigerated sections, and lucky for the foodies, making ferments at home is freaking easy and really cheap.
For most people, fermentation is really intimidating at first. We’re all really scared of doing it wrong and dying from bad bacteria! I was … I think it took me about a year building up courage to finally try fermenting my first batch of cabbage. But the truth is, fermentation is really easy, like really-really easy. Often the first few times will take longer as you figure it out, but then it becomes second nature. That’s why I recommend for everyone to just start with one thing, one ferment to wrap your head around and get the hang of it. After you master one, your confidence will build and you can try another. For me, I usually stick with three ferments that I make consistently (mine are kefir, lacto-fermented vegetables, and beet kvass), then add in extras when I feel like it (like ketchup, kombucha, soda, mead, or whatever else). Oh, and always soak your grains.
And if it’s bad, you’ll know! It’s not like your delicious homemade sauerkraut is secretly hiding bad bacteria, it’s more like you open your sauerkraut lid to see black or rainbow colored mold combined with a nasty, horrible smell. You know the difference, the difference between a rotten food and one that smells kind of sour like vinegar. Listen to your primal instincts and you’ll be okay :)
So get ready to delve into the beauty of ferments! Learning how to properly prepare grains will greatly improve your health, especially if you eat grains on the regular. Adding fermented veggies to your meals, making your own fermented condiments, and drinking new fermented beverages will start to repopulate your gut the way you imagined that super-expensive-little-bitty-probiotic-pill was supposed to do. And if you take my advice and make this a hobby, you’ll find yourself more connected to your food sources and health than ever before. These are the big guns of nutrition, and they’re here to save your gut, your health, and your life.