Imagine you’re a caveman. You’ve been foraging in the woods for berries, and you wind up with more than you can eat in a day, so you pack them into a pot and leave them in a nice, cool corner of your cave. You’re a busy caveman – lots of rocks to smash, sticks to break, etc. – so maybe you forget about those berries after a little while, and they sit in that pot for months. One day, you’re cleaning house (well, cave) when you notice your long-forgotten pot of berries; it’s a little dusty, but you closed that pot up tightly when you put it away, so you wonder if maybe the berries are still good. You open it up for a peek, and what you see amazes you: the berries are gone, replaced with a pulpy mash that smells faintly sour and is more than a little bubbly. One can’t be too picky as a caveman, so you take a taste and realize…it’s amazing! Somehow, your humble crop of berries has been changed into something totally different, but how did it happen? Was it magic? Divine intervention?
As it turns out, all you need are the right conditions and a few billion good micro-organisms, and suddenly, milk becomes yogurt, cucumbers become pickles, cabbage becomes kimchi – you get the idea. This is the process known as fermentation, and it’s become one of the hottest culinary trends almost overnight; however, fermentation has a history almost as old as civilization itself, and whether you realize it or not, most people consume fermented products all the time. Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce? Both fermented! Sourdough bread and a wheel of cheese? That’s right – fermented. Heck, even cocoa beans have to be fermented before they can become chocolate! But we have to ask, what exactly is it that makes fermented foods so special? Can you compare one fermented food to another, or are they actually different? And what’s the deal with pre and probiotics? Hold onto your pickles, folks, we’re diving all the way into the brine with this one! Head on down to Fermentation Nation with Oliver’s!
What Is Fermentation?
Before we can understand what makes fermentation special, it’s important to set up a baseline of what’s normal. In order for our cells to do all the lovely things they do to keep us alive, we humans are required to take in both oxygen and carbohydrates, first into our bodies and then into our cells; because oxygen is required, this is called aerobic respiration. Our cells need the oxygen to help break down glucose in the carbohydrates in a process known as glycolysis, turning it into several new organic compounds including adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and pyruvic acid. The ATP is used to power all the other processes within the cell, while the pyruvic acid (a waste product) goes on its own journey to become carbon dioxide. This will occur every second of every day for the duration of our lives, and humans aren’t unique in our need for oxygen to respirate; in fact, almost all life on Earth requires oxygen in some form or another. From the tiniest microbe to the largest animals and plants, the majority of life on Earth depends on the existence of oxygen and aerobic respiration to undergo glycolysis and produce ATP.
An oxygen-free or anaerobic environment can create a real problem for these oxygen-dependent organisms, humans included. Under ordinary circumstances, an organism that depends on oxygen would die if it found itself in an anaerobic environment; however, there are some special single-celled organisms that have figured out an alternative, and what an alternative it has proven to be! These micro-organisms include different kinds of archaea, different yeasts and fungi, and all manner of bacteria. Each has their own way of attacking the problem of respiration: some will continue to respirate but instead of oxygen will use something different, like sulfates. Others will simply continue the process of glycolysis without respirating in the first place, and it’s when this magical process happens that we get – you guessed it – fermentation! Remember the pyruvic acid we mentioned earlier? Fermentation occurs when a microbe begins using the pyruvic acid produced in glycolysis as a replacement for oxygen; when this happens, either the glycolysis will result in more pyruvic acid, or it will result in something derived from pyruvic acid. These derivatives are either ethanol alcohol, acetic acid, or lactic acid, though what kind of derivative is produced will depend on the microbes themselves; in food terms, this process wildly transforms the flavor and texture of different products, and the alcohols or acids produced will act as a natural preservative. Fermentation can also create some carbon dioxide gas, which will build up until it is released, and the compound acetaldehyde, which can be recycled back into the process of glycolysis.
In an anaerobic environment, this process of cycling and recycling pyruvic acid continues as long as the microbes’ source of carbohydrates holds out; when the carbs are gone, glycolysis can’t continue, and the process of fermentation ends with the death of the microbes. This why some fermented products are still while others are effervescent – live microbes will still be putting out plenty of carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles. This is obvious in drinks like champagne, beer, or kombucha, but if you look closely, you’ll notice bubbles in products like live kimchi and miso as well. These so-called “live” foods are packed with billions of living good bacteria and other microbes, all furiously processing carbohydrates and continuing the process of glycolysis. If a product is still, then there are no microbes left living in the fermented product, and instead of carbohydrates, they leave behind only their respiratory bi-products and a transformed energy source with a longer shelf life and greater depth of flavor.
As a result, fermentation has wound up with a reputation as one of nature’s great preservatives, and as proof, you’d be hard-pressed to find a culture in the world without a signature, staple fermented food in their diet. Though the bio-chemical processes responsible for fermentation wouldn’t be discovered until the mid-1800’s, archeological evidence for intentional fermentation by humans can be found dating back to the Neolithic Age, the earliest of which can be dated to about 7000 BCE and was found in what is now China. These early ferments consisted primarily of beers and other brewed beverages, but there is also some evidence of fermented yeast starters used in baking that predate the unification of Egypt in 3100 BCE by at least four hundred years. Yeasted breads were followed shortly after by the advent of pickles, and since these ancient times, fermented foods have only continued to diversify. From the Hawaiian Islands to the heart of the African continent to Asia and beyond, human beings have discovered a mutual love for the incredible, living chemistry of fermentation, a love that persists to the present day and not without good reason!
The Benefits of Fermentation
Fermentation comes with some serious benefits, both for the product being fermented and for the person consuming the ferment. At the forefront, and likely the reason our ancestors started fermenting things intentionally in the first place, is its ability to preserve. As we mentioned previously, the acids and alcohols produced during fermentation act as a natural preservative, but the microbes themselves have bigger role to play than you may think. The good bacteria required to produce fermentation help to squeeze out the bad bacteria that can cause spoilage and even food poisoning. As a result, certain fermented products will have a period of time where they are not yet safe for consumption because it hasn’t been long enough for the bad bacteria to die out; however, with a little time, the bad bacteria will die off and the newly fermented food will remain edible far longer than it would have otherwise.
These good bacteria are really what make fermented foods so healthy. As the microbes change the chemistry of the product they’re fermenting, they will add lots of essential vitamins and nutrients while also removing substances that can hinder nutrient absorption. These added vitamins and minerals include vitamin B12, vitamins B and C, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, biotin, and a variety of necessary peptides; on the flip side, they neutralize compounds like phytic acid, and anti-nutrient that can make foods less digestible and therefore less nutritious. Fermentation also will break down a number of starches and sugars, making certain products easier to digest than their un-fermented counterparts. This combination of removals and additions changes the flavor of final product too, leaving it far more nuanced than it would have been otherwise.
The good bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics) in fermented foods will also add to our gut’s micro-biome! Our gut is home to billions of micro-organisms, and these microbes help us with everything from digesting food to immune response; as such, keeping our gut microbiome balanced is essential to maintaining good overall health. These microbes don’t live forever and need to occasionally be replenished, but thanks to processed food and the hyper-sterile environments most of us prefer, finding natural sources of good bacteria can difficult. Thankfully, adding fermented foods to your diet is a great way to get the good bacteria you need without any effort! Increased consumption of fermented foods has been shown to help with digestive complaints, chronic inflammation, and may even help to improve mood. Unfortunately, you only get these benefits from consuming “live” ferments, so make sure that you store your ferments carefully and choose wisely.
Adding Fermented Foods to Any Diet
It’s clearly important to get plenty of probiotics into your diet, but figuring out where to start can be a bit confusing. If you had asked the average American of thirty years ago to name a fermented food, they might have told you “dill pickles” or “yogurt”, but it’s doubtful that they would have dreamt of the range of products available now! Granted, most of these “new” fermented foods are really foods that have been around for ages and are just now getting the recognition they deserve, but we’ll still take it! With such a huge variety of ferments available, it’s never been easier to find the perfect ferment for you.
Fermented beverages are the OG intentional ferments, so it’s perhaps not surprising to see just how many different versions there are today. There’s kombucha, made from fermented black or green tea; kvass, made from fermented rye bread or beets and water; kefir or lassi, made from dairy and similar to yogurt; and of course, all kinds of beers and wine! Many are brewed with additional flavorings in the form of fresh fruits, herbs, or spices and can be enjoyed on their own, but some like kefir and lassi are perfect for blending into smoothies or adding to cereal. If drinking your probiotics doesn’t do it for you, maybe fermented vegetables will! If you’re in the mood for cabbage, there’s spicy Kimchi from Korea and Japan, tart Sauerkraut from Germany, and fragrant Curtido from El Salvador; however, make sure you also keep an eye out for fermented hot sauce, radishes, cucumbers, greens, onions, and more! And of course, we can’t forget about the fermented pastes. Whether it’s red and white miso, doubanjang, or gochujang, a living fermented bean paste can be a wealth of vital nutrients (including iron, magnesium, and choline, just to name a few) and loads of good bacteria. If you’re still finding it hard to meet your probiotic needs, there are always probiotic supplements. These supplements often have concentrated numbers of one or two essential probiotics and are a great way to boost your gut health without any effort.
It’s also a great idea to include a prebiotic with your probiotic. Let us explain – when you want a seed to flourish, you don’t just throw it in the ground and hope, right? You find a good spot and add plenty of extra nourishment to the soil, that way you know that you’ve given your seed the best shot possible for success – it’s the same with prebiotics! In order to get the maximum health benefit from fermented foods and probiotic supplements, it’s always best to start by creating a hospitable environment, and that means leaving plenty of food for your new microbes. Look for foods that are high in fiber or promote digestion with beneficial nutrients; leafy greens, onions, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits are all fantastic prebiotics!
Fermented foods have been with humanity for an awfully long time, and at this rate, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Nothing else will replace the power of that sour funk, and this week at Oliver’s, get fantastic deals on all your fermented favorites! Try Wildbrine’s deliciously live sauerkraut or kimchi for just $3.99 each, or enjoy refreshingly probiotic drinks from Biotic for only $2.49(+CRV). Join the Fermentation Nation with Oliver’s, and find your Healthiest You today!