Over the past few years new research has indicated how important it is to have a healthy gut microbiome. This has led to a search for affordable and easy to maintain probiotics within our food system. In conjunction with the trendy ‘clean food movement’, a revival of an ancient food processing technique has come to full swing.
What is fermentation?
During the process of fermentation, microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast break down carbohydrates in food into alcohols or acids. These are natural preservatives and can transform the characteristics of food often changing colours, textures, aromas and taste sensations.
Fermented foods and beverages are distinctive and integral to culinary traditions. The process allowed preservation of foods during seasons when food was not plentiful but also transformed what was bland into something more titillating. Milk was transformed into tangy creamy yogurt, kefir and pungent cheeses; grains were transformed into leavened bread and beverages such as beer. Humble vegetables and fruit were transformed into culinary delights such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kvass, pickles, wine and cider. Everyday food items such as our beloved chocolate is also reliant on the skilled ancient art of fermentation.
Fermentation and Health Benefits
Natural preservation allows us to enjoy prime and seasonal vegetables that are packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for a longer period of time. Seasonal vegetables are more affordable and more nutritious when picked at their prime. Buying vegetables in season and preserving them is cost effective and can make great inexpensive gifts for friends. Who does’t like a jar of preserved lemon or homemade infused vinegar?
The fermentation process also makes food more digestible. Grains, legumes and seeds contain phytic acid, a compound that binds with iron, zinc and calcium and interferes with absorption of nutrients. The fermentation process breaks down the compound so minerals become more bioavailable for our bodies..
Fermented foods can contain beneficial bacteria and enzymes that contribute to gut health. A healthy microbiome has been linked to improved moods, improved weight management, and can enhance our immune system.
Healthy gut flora can be diminished by antibiotics, consumption of processed foods or lack of variety in a diet. Eating a variety of fermented foods along with foods that feed bacteria (prebiotics) can restore balance and improve digestive issues such as gut dysbiosis, diarrhoea and constipation.
Four of the Best Probiotic Foods
Yoghurt is one of the best sources of probiotics and is made from lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria. It is linked to a number of health benefits and may be suitable for people who are mildly lactose intolerant. Choose unflavoured and unsweetened yoghurt and check the label for live cultures. Yoghurt also contains protein and a large amount of calcium important for bone health.
Kefir is a beverage made by adding kefir grains (yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to cow or goat’s milk. It has a unique and more diverse range of beneficial bacteria than yoghurt and is also well tolerated by mildly lactose intolerant people. Milk Kefir grains can be used to culture coconut water, coconut milk, fruit juices and nut milks.
Sauerkraut is cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria. in addition to its probiotic qualities, it is rich in fibre and vitamins K, B and C. Cooking sauerkraut at high heat will destroy beneficial bacteria so consume cold or slightly heated. it can be fermented with other vegetables such as turmeric, ginger or beetroot.
Tempeh is an Indonesian soya bean ferment and is used as a plant based protein. It has a delicate mushroom like flavour and is suitable for Fusion or Asian style dishes. It also contains small amount of B12, an important nutrient for vegetarians and vegans.
Not all fermented foods such as most cheeses contain probiotic benefits. It is best to look for live and active cultures on the label. Others probiotic foods include Kimchi, Miso, raw preserved vegetables in brine/whey and Ginger beer.