The Origins of Fermentation
Fermentation is an ancient means of preserving food – evolving many millennia ago as a means of keeping food after harvest to eat in winter and spring months – typically times of scarcity. The process of fermentation allows all sorts of different foods – including grains, vegetables, fruits and milk to be stored and preserved for many months to come, and by doing so, be transformed into more interesting flavours and nutritionally beneficial foods.
Types of Fermentation
Fermented foods often conjure the image of sour foods and pickling – however there are a huge number of foods in our diet that are created by some form of fermenting – for example breads, cheese, yogurt, chocolate and even teas are produced by forms of fermentation.
In many of these products – such as bread, cakes and dough – the microbes used to create the products are subsequently killed off in the baking process before consumption. However in unpasteurised products such as sauerkraut, kimchi, many cheeses, yogurts and kefir, the finished product is rich in live bacteria.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is the breaking down of sugars by micro organisms – such as bacteria and fungi – most of which occurs anaerobically –without oxygen. This process helps to transform the food through the enzymes produced by the fermenting microbes.
Fermentation’s growing popularity has coincided with a growing trend in slow or seasonal farming and natural and traditional diets and foraging but has also benefited from our the growing understanding of importance of the bacteria and microbes that make up the human microbiome and the many benefits fermented foods offer to our health and wellbeing.
These microbes predated humans by billions of years and have evolved with us to the extent that our bodily functions and health depends on them, however it is only in recent years that scientists and researchers have really started to understand and appreciate the importance of the role they play in our health.
Fermentation for Health
Despite this many old civilizations and religions used fermented foods as a treatment for various ailments and understood the medicinal qualities. The Greeks and Romans, the Buddhists and Chinese all appreciated the importance of fermented foods in healing the gut and treating disease. Infact nearly every ancient culture has at least one fermented food. From Korean kimchi, Japanese natto (soybeans), Vietnamese mám (seafood), Turkish Kefir to the yogurts and cheeses across much of Europe, the art of fermentation has created a wonderful array of unique and sought after flavours from around the world.
While many forms of fermentation evolved for the preservation and enjoyment of food – in other cases it was a necessity for food safety. In Europe fermenting alcohol was also a means of safe hydration and nutrition as much drinking water was not safe for consumption until the 20th Century. There are also many instances of foods across Africa and South East Asia that are highly toxic unless fermented properly
Fermentation in our Gut
Our human microbiome contains close to 100 trillion bacteria and microbes – perhaps 10 times as many organisms as we have human cells by some estimates. These microbes – which amount to 2kg in weight – live largely in our gut and aid our digestion, our immune system and health, our weight and metabolism and even our mood.
These organisms which are predominately beneficial exist in symbiosis with our bodies – many species and strains breaking down undigestible plant fibers and resistant starches into beneficial chemicals and enzymes through fermentation in our gut.
Fermentation in Food
The decline of fermentation in the West can in part be attributed to the industrialization of farming – freeing up the workforce and to mass availability of refrigeration for preserving food. And despite our ignorance of fermentation since the this period of industrialization, nearly everyone eats or drinks some form of fermented food on a regular basis – much through staple foods such as bread, cheese, chocolate and beer or wine – all created through fermentation.
In the 19th Century, half of all workers in Europe and the US would be involved in farming in some way and so shared a great deal of knowledge in how to preserve and prepare food. As the food production has intensified and with preparation shifting to factories this knowledge has been lost.
The Era of Sanitization
The advent of pasteurization and sanitization to treat and kill off bacteria has saved many lives but has brought with it the false belief that bacteria are all bad and must be eradicated from any surface for our health. The truth is that most of the bacteria we encounter or harbor in our guts crowds out unwanted strains or pathogens, helping prevent their growth.
Infact our eagerness for sterilization and sanitization in all walks of life is having a harmful effect on our health. From our preference for pasteurization to our everyday use of antibiotics, herbicides, food preservatives, hand santizers, antibacterial soaps and detergents – all these chemicals are reducing the beneficial bacteria we encounter and thus the diversity of microbes in our gut and leaving us at a greater risk of developing chronic diseases as a result of the uncontrolled growth of pathogens in our gut microbiome.
There have been a number of studies in recent years examining the health benefits as a result of regular consumption of fermented foods – including yogurts, kefir and sauerkraut. Many of these studies have linked a regular consumption of such fermented foods with increased gut bacteria diversity and better physical and mental wellbeing, although many are eager to point out that correlation does not mean causation.
A New Age of Fermentation
On balance our use of pasteurization and sanitization in all walks of life means we now enjoy peace of mind both in the shops and eating out – not to mention cost savings and convenience. However the need for consistency across brands means we lose some of the subtleties and intricacies provided by local fermentation. From the local cheeses across much of Europe, the artisan bakeries, even the local breweries – the local produce from fermentation each brings a distinct taste unique to the location – and while many of these small producers and flavours have been lost, a new internet enabled enthusiasm for sharing yeasts, starters and cultures is spawning a new age of artisan.