The History and Health benefits of Fermentation

Discover the many ways that humans have been cooking with microbes for thousands of years!

We’ve all opened the fridge or cupboard and found a far-too-interesting mould evolving into something we don’t remember putting on our shopping list. The best-intentioned culinary projects occasionally fall by the way-side, reach a point-of-no-return and are banished from the kitchen domain for all eternity.

For most foods, eating something that is no longer fresh and starting to decompose will, undoubtedly make you ill. Our in-built biological processes tell us when something is digestive bad news, and when we should move onto something better-smelling.

However, many foodstuffs evolve to form good bacteria that adds flavour and depth to its base ingredients. So much of what we love and admire in the food world is the byproduct of microbiological processes. Cheese, coffee, wine, beer, yoghurt, and even bread; all of these foods involve some form of decomposition to create flavours. The difference is the environments in which these foods are being produced, and the calculated addition of salts, acids and air to promote the proliferation of ‘good’ bacteria that instigates the fermentation.

Fermentation is the process of allowing food molecules to decompose in the absence of oxygen. But it doesn’t just happen in the kitchen, it happens in our gut too, where the absence of oxygen means that only certain types of bacteria—good bacteria—can thrive. When you take a probiotic, you are ingesting some of these good bacteria, and many fermented foods are full of these positive healthy gut microbes as well.

Eating a lump of cheese and drinking a nice glass of red wine makes many people feel good but drinking glass of sour milk or a mouldy piece of bread is going to give your stomach trouble. Fermentation must be a controlled process, with the use of salt and other substances helping to draw liquid out of the fermenting product, reducing the amount of oxygen available and promoting the growth of the healthy bacteria that help us digest and have a healthy gut flora.  

Fermentation expert Sandor Katz prefers to define fermentation a little more broadly than just the absence of oxygen, as some fermented foods and drinks (like Kombucha and vinegar) actually require oxygen to do their magic. In the case of the delicious effervescent fermented tea - Kombucha - the brewer uses a symbiotic group of microorganisms (or a ‘SCOBY’ which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) to digest sugars and transfer the tea into a drink that’s high in probiotics and other health benefits.  


It all goes way back

Humans have been eating fermented food all the way back to the Neolithic period, with the earliest examples of such foods being wines, leavened bread and cheeses. These were later followed by more Asian-style fermented foods using vegetables, and then by the arrival of yoghurt, pickles and finally butter. It is estimated that humans have been fermenting foods to preserve them from the summer for use in the winter for over 7000 years.

The first fermenters likely discovered most of the processes purely by accident, when salt was added for flavor—only to find a whole new, more nutritious product had been formed from this after a period of time. The Greeks and Egyptians attributed the transformation to acts of the gods, blessing them with wine, beer and other transmuted foods. The Chinese went some way to formalising such processes, creating the basis for salt-fermented soy products such as soy sauce, tofu and miso, and the fermentation of fruits and cereals to produce alcoholic beverages like wine and beer is recorded in Iran as far back as 7000 years ago.

Fermented foods are often central to national cuisines: from German sauerkraut to the much-loved Korean cabbage side-dish kimchi. Often, as is particularly the case of kimchi, fermented food products form a focal point to an entire country’s diet and sometimes even a country’s cultural identity. Think champagne, cheeses and France!

For many reasons, fermentation is now making a comeback mainly due to the health and taste benefits. Farming microbes and using microbial science to make delicious and healthy foods is indeed quite recent, but we now understand much more of the science behind the art of food processing with microbes.


Why do fermented foods have health benefits?

In short, fermented foods contain good bacteria. Our guts are entire ecosystems of bacteria, fungi and viruses—which might not sound very nice, but are responsible for digesting our food, helping us to absorb nutrients and minerals from what we eat, and even manufacturing nutrients that end up in our blood stream and allow us to lead healthy lives. Fermented foods contain similar types of microorganisms; it is thought that by consuming them we boost the populations of good bacteria in our gut—the “microbiome”.

As well as the link between healthy bacteria in fermented foods and the microbiome, there are other links between their consumption and good health. Fermentation increases the nutritional content of food and breaks it down to a more easily digestible form. Fermented foods also contain higher levels of Omega-3 oils and b-vitamins.

But the microbiome is thought to go much further than just making for better digestion. Research has been done on the role of the microbiome in mood, happiness and stress. The role of gut bacteria is even being explored as a diagnostic tool for brain disease and, more recently, the treatment of children with autism. As explored by the Special Broadcasting Service of Australia, “Interest in the potential cognitive effects of fermented foods stems from emerging evidence for the importance of the gut microbiota in cognition and health.”

Not all of these benefits are confirmed, but the study of microbiome dynamics—known as metabolomics—is a new and useful tool in exploring many health issues. Eating fermented foods is one way of developing and maintaining a healthy, functioning microbiome and the consequent health benefits that this brings.


Increasing fermented food in the modern diet

Today, many of the global food production processes have developed techniques for maintaining safety and consistency in mass-produced foods, so wild microbes have either been replaced with synthetic equivalents or are so process/chemical-heavy to preserve the foods that healthy bacteria are often destroyed. Even mass-produced fermented foods such as pickles and sauerkraut are generally manufactured today through fermentation using vinegar rather than more natural ingredients.

Another historic source of fermented material in diets, milk, has also lost its microbial content today. The commercial roll-out of pasteurization at the end of the 19th century enabled milk to be mass-produced with great ease and stored more safely by gently heating raw milk to remove the microorganisms. This process has been known for millennia, however not used on the same scale as today—and the long-term effects of consuming solely pasteurized milk in nutrition are complex, currently debated but poorly understood.

Like milk, modern bread-making also changed at around the end of the 19th century with the birth of the Chorleywood Bread Process. The discovery of fast-acting yeasts and additives meant a significant reduction in fermentation times and therefore increases in output. However, the shorter fermentation times and the use of commercial rather than Baker’s yeast has greatly reduced the digestibility and nutritional content of most modern bread. The traditional method known today as “sourdough” needs no additives, tastes better and has a prolonged shelf-life.

The case for DIY home fermentation to support a healthy diet and supplement some of the ingredients lost from traditional sources such as pickled veggies, bread and milk is getting stronger each day. Both scientific reviews and public recognition of the need for better diets have raised the profile of fermented foods as fashionable foods and for their superior health benefits. Fermenting foods at home is also a really low cost way of exploring options for a healthier diet. Let’s look a bit closer at some of the different easy-to-make-at-home fermented food products:

Fermented Veggies

The internet is abound with recipes for fermented vegetables, but essentially all you need is a jar, some water and salt—and some vegetables. Putting the whole lot in a jar and leaving for a few days will allow the salt to wipe out the bad bacteria and open up the gauntlet to the beneficial lacto-bacteria which will get on with converting the vegetable sugars and lactose into lactic acid. The result is a zippy mix of vegetables you can use as a side dish or snack.

This sounds easy—and it is—except that getting the optimal amount of salt right relative to the quantity of vegetables and right fermentation time can be a challenge. Experts recommend using exactly weighed quantities of salt relative to the amount of water added, rather than estimating the quantity of salt added using a teaspoon. The right type of salt is important too. Try this recipe for Turkish vegetable pickle recipe.

Kombucha

Kombucha is an ancient drink that found its way from China to Europe, becoming fashionable in French cafés and North Africa during the 1950s. It has also enjoyed a popularity as a fashionable, modern drink due to it’s probiotic health benefits. It is normally made with black or green tea that is brewed, added sugar and then fermented using a particular mix of bacteria and yeast referred to as a “SCOBY”—essentially a pretty gruesome-looking gelatinous cultured film that is added to the tea once it is cold before being left in a dark place for up to two weeks. The result is a surprisingly refreshing cider-like drink, enjoyed by many and claimed to provide health benefits. Scientific trials on the health benefits to date have been limited to animals and human cell colonies. However, there are generally-accepted testimonies on the health benefits of kombucha from different parts of the world, particularly Russians who report long-term health benefits as a result of making and consuming the drink over many generations.

Studies into the exact—currently poorly understood—composition of kombucha and scientific verification of its health benefits is becoming a more mainstream topic in Western research groups, with almost all previous research work being confined to that of Russian academic circles. Russian research at the beginning of the 20th century indicated that: “Kombucha can improve resistance against cancer, prevent cardiovascular diseases, promote digestive functions, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammatory problems, and can have many other benefits”.

Research today focuses more on trying to understand the complex composition of kombucha and why it aids health, rather than running human trials on its benefits.

Here is a recipe to get your started (although you will need to find a friend to give you a SCOBY!)

Sauerkraut and Kimchi

Like Kombucha, the food we commonly refer to as sauerkraut is thought to have spread from China to become a popular side dish in many food cultures in various forms, with particular popularity in Germany where the name originates. As with the fermented veggies above, sauerkraut is different types of cabbage, finely-chopped and fermented by rubbing with a small amount of salt and leaving it in the resulting briny-water mix without any oxygen. It too has many reported health benefits—benefits with a greater scientific evidence base than kombucha.

Kimchi is also made from fermented cabbage; however it is made with a napa cabbage and chopped into larger chunks, rubbed with chilli paste and mixed with lots of garlic. The Korean diet is famous for adding kimchi to many dishes: they rarely sit down to a meal without whipping out the kimchi—for breakfast, lunch, or a midnight snack :). Here is a quick and easy recipe for kimchi and one for sauerkraut from the BBC.


Kefir

Kefir is a drink made from fermented milk, similar to yoghurt but less dense. It is easy to make and takes less time than other fermented foods—just 24 hours. The grains of the kefir plant are put in a jar with normal cow’s or goat’s milk, then left covered overnight. The grains are in fact small colonies of bacteria and yeast, and not the usual grains of protein found in cereals such as wheat or barley.

The health benefits are similar to that of yoghurt, due to the presence of bacteria, different bioactive compounds as well as healthy fats and several important nutrients—and the health benefits derived from the effect of its bacteria on gut health has recently been verified scientifically. The name, in fact, comes from the Turkish word “keyif” which roughly translates as “feeling good” or being in “high spirits”. Here are a couple of different recipes for getting started at home.

Atchara

The Philippine Islands also have a similar national side dish to Korea’s kimchi. Atchara is a pickle made using papaya as the main ingredient, along with carrot, ginger, pepper, onion, garlic and raisins. Other ingredients are often added, depending on the locality of where you are eating it. Its method of production is slightly different to that of kimchi and sauerkraut, as sugar or syrup are added to give an overall sweeter flavour, as well as vinegar before starting the fermentation process. Here is a recipe to get you started.


Dosa

Parts of India have also long-enjoyed a fermented food called dosa. Popular in southern India, this is a snack-type dish similar to a crepe or pancake which can also be stuffed with vegetables to make a light meal. The main ingredient is a batter made from fermented rice and black gram (similar to chickpea or mung bean) and is often enjoyed at breakfast.

It’s a great option for vegetarians, as it contains high levels of protein; and the fermenting process is said to increase the bioavailability of essential nutrients such as folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, biotin and Vitamin K as well as certain antibiotic substances. Dosas are also easy to make at home, so check out this recipe to get you started.

Give it a go!

As you can see there are many different ways we can symbiotically benefit from farming and working with wild microbes. Of course there are safety precautions one should take but our bodies are so well-tuned to identify when something is not quite right for us, so it’s easy to see and understand what has and hasn’t worked in your fermentation experiments! If you want to learn more about fermentation then join one of our on-farm workshops experiences where you can do taste tests of our farm-flavoured kombuchas and learn how to make one of your own.