by: Glennis Taylor.

The term fermentation is constantly bubbling up all around us. Talks, articles. workshops and books on the fermentation process and its benefits have created a wave of interest in this ancient form of food processing. Thought to be the first way our ancestors discovered  to preserve food for later use, fermentation provides so many more benefits to us than just preservation.

I spoke with Sandor Katz who many consider the modern guru of fermentation. He has written two widely distributed and revered books on the topic and lectures around the world on the merits and methods of fermentation. His first book, Wild Fermentation (2003) and subsequent book The Art Of Fermentation (2012) have led the growing worldwide movement of modern fermentors. He credits the daily intake of fermented foods with turning his health around. From a New York child who loved pickles to an inspirational fermentation wizard who now hails from Tennessee, he has reshaped the way we understand bacteria and the important role it plays in our lives.

The role of fermentation in our overall health is powerful and remarkable. It has strong positive influences on our immune function. Fermentation breaks down the sugars and starches in food which provides us with good bacteria for the gut. It  pre-digests food making nutrients more available to us and it also breaks down some substances that are difficult for us to utilize or that block us from absorbing nutrients from within the food matrix. It can have a positive anti inflammatory effect, reducing the risk of many degenerative diseases. There is growing evidence that fermented foods may play a role in preventing cancer. It has also been implicated in a healthy weight loss program by playing an important part in changing the gut microbiome which is now linked to obesity..

Almost any food can be fermented given the right conditions. The fermentation process itself involves a variety of different avenues for altering the host food. The methods of fermentation we are more familiar with include alcohol fermentation, yeast and mould fermentation, and lactic acid fermentation. Though each type of fermentation provides benefits, a lot of focus seems to be on the lactic acid method.

In lactic acid fermentation, bacteria convert sugars and starches present in the food into lactic acid. This acid provides an inhospitable environment for many harmful bacteria to grow and it acts as a natural preservative. We are quite acquainted with the array of delicious foods that use this method, most commonly used in the food industry. Yogurt, buttermilk, cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, beer, wine and cheeses are a few of the many lactic acid fermented foods that line the store and market shelves. The lactobacilli bacteria commonly used in this kind of fermentation, also alter the textures and flavour of the food and create a wide range of delights for the palate. These bacteria help us maintain a healthy colony of friendly gut flora which directly relates to good health.

Fermentation has been around almost as long as mankind. Every culture in the world has some form of fermented food or beverage as a dietary staple. The Greeks used the term “alchemy” to describe the change in foods to the sharp, tangy tastes we associate with fermentation. We have come to adopt many of the traditional fermented foods from around the world, but there are some that we may feel shy in trying such as natto from Japan, fermented fish from Scandinavia or beer that has been fermented with saliva. We do eat many fermented foods daily even in North America where processed foods have become the norm in the average diet. About one third of what is consumed by humans around the world is some form of fermented food. Some of our daily diet we may not think of as fermented such as bread, chocolate, salami or even coffee. It is from unpasteurized and non-heated fermented foods the we receive the most health benefits.

Sandor Katz passionately describes the symbiotic relationship that all of nature has with the world of tiny microbes. He stresses that without microbes, we would not survive. We evolved with bacteria and yet our modern day lifestyle threatens that very strategic relationship. In our gut, the microbiome contains 100 times more DNA than the human genome. We host about 21/2 to 3 pounds of bacteria that provide us with many vitamins that the body relies on every day. These friendly microbes help keep the disease causing bacteria at bay and promote a healthy immune system. Approximately 70% of our immune system is just outside the thin gut wall waiting to react when needed. When we eat store bought, commercially produced milk or eggs for example, we are getting a slow and steady drip of the antibiotics that are fed to the animals. This along with chlorinated tap water are a daily assault on our struggling intestinal flora and can affect digestion, leading to leaky gut, candida overgrowth and a wide range of other problems that in the end result in compromised health.

It is not hard, Sandor cites, to change this spiral around with a diet that incorporates a wealth of fermented foods. You can make your own quite easily and, with guidance from his books and the many materials available, create your own living kitchen of health promoting organisms. These days the demand for fermented foods done the old way and the small cottage industry is rising to the occasion with new and wholesome products available in the marketplace to tempt the waiting palate.  Fermentation can play a role in the economic evolution of our planet.

Change your inner world by changing the way you eat. It is that simple.

Sandor Katz, author of The Art Of Fermentation, is the keynote speaker for The Victoria Health, Wellness And Sustainability Festival held at the Victoria Convention Center, February 7th, 2015, Victoria, BC.