Destination Fermentation- A Dietitian’s Journey
When I was in school to become a registered dietitian, the focus was on the tangible, measurable and researchable aspects of nutrition. Modern “evidence-based nutrition” reigned king while traditional wisdom was held suspect if not scoffed at altogether. Real food was scarcely discussed. The extent of the conversation on food was, “People need 1000-1200 mg of calcium per day. The best source of calcium is skim milk.” I am grateful to know the hard science of nutrition and the inner workings of the human body. I am equally thankful that my educational journey took me down another path: through self-discovery, amazing mentors and experimentation in the kitchen, I continue to gain an appreciation for the mysteriously synergistic way food works in the body to promote health.
Our ancestors understood, without relying on anything more than observation, that particular foods or combinations of foods conveyed certain health benefits. The example that strikes me most profoundly is fermented foods. Every traditional culture in the world has several examples of these cultured foods. Born of necessity to preserve food through the winter, fermentation was essential to our ancestors’ survival. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, cultured milk products (kefir, cheese, yogurt), soured grain porridge, and tempeh transformed fresh food from the summer and fall harvests into edible sustenance that lasted months.
The magic behind this metamorphosis is lactic acid fermentation. Lactic acid bacteria are present in the air and on most surfaces. When these bacteria begin to “eat” the naturally occurring sugars and carbohydrates in raw food, they give off lactic acid. Lactic acid inhibits other bacteria that cause food to spoil. Along with this very practical role, it is lactic acid that confers the many health benefits of fermented foods. Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, says,
“The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.”
Fermented vegetables, such as cabbage in the case of sauerkraut and kimchi, have an increased activity of vitamin C and vitamin A. Phytic acid is a compound present in legumes, nuts, whole grains and some vegetables. It binds to important minerals, preventing their absorption in the body. Fermentation drastically reduces the phytic acid content of these foods, allowing calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc to be absorbed in the intestine. Dairy products that have undergone lactic acid fermentation have increased levels of folic acid, an essential nutrient in producing healthy babies, as well as other B vitamins. Fermented foods also have increased digestibility, can improve intestinal health, immunity, and reduce inflammation within the body.
The delights of fermented foods go beyond keeping our guts healthy. Just ask “fermentation guru” Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation. In a recent article in the New York Times, Katz swoons over kimchi and miso and touts the culinary importance of good bacteria. No other process can replicate the complexity of flavors imparted by bacteria and its byproducts during fermentation. Sharp cheese and crusty sourdough bread are two common products of fermentation that simply cannot be improved upon. We are lucky in Portland, because on November 14, Mr. Katz himself will be giving a fermentation demonstration and talk at Powell’s Books.
At Nourish Northwest, we have a couple of fermentation projects of our own going. Our kombucha mother dutifully transforms a sweetened tea mixture into a vinegary, effervescent, probiotic beverage.
Kefir grains eat away at milk sugars, producing a viscous, yeasty, tangy drink that is good on its own or blended with fruit.
Modern science is beginning to catch up with what traditional wisdom has known for centuries. Recent studies investigate probiotic (beneficial bacteria that results from fermentation) effects on immunity, intestinal health, mood, brain function, and many other health conditions. I don’t need to wait for the evidence to be conclusive; sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and yogurt speak louder to my taste buds (and my gut) than any scientific study ever will.