In Germany they have sauerkraut and in Japan there’s miso. The Chinese enjoy natto and kombucha, and the Koreans like kimchi, while the South Indians are partial to appam. But will we Brits ever accept aged or fermented foods into our hearts and mouths with the same fervour? Given that we discard more than seven tonnes of food every year that is probably quite safe to eat, it does seem counter-intuitive to recommend that we consume anything that we might feel to be ‘off’. Yet these foods can play an important role in a healthy diet, and don’t have to include a fungus that looks like it has been lurking in the airing cupboard for a couple of weeks.
Fermented food isn’t off. Instead, when allowed to ferment, microorganisms break down naturally occurring organic substances, resulting in bacteria that have a distinctive flavour. For example, soaking cabbage in salt water encourages the growth of bacteria which feed off the natural sugars in the vegetable, producing a tartly flavoured food that is not only safe to eat, but is positively healthy too, as it promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
We have an ever-increasing understanding of many roles the bacteria that live in our intestines play in dictating the health of the body. There are trillions of these bacteria, or microbiota, in every one of us, and as there are more than 1,000 different types of known types, it is probable that their concentration, combination and ratio is unique in each of us.
Microbiota can influence or even dictate several aspects of human health, mostly involving inflammatory and auto-immune conditions such as arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis. As bacteria are involved in the final stage of digestion of food groups there is a potential link to type-two diabetes and weight management. Fermented foods, wherever they come from, share many of the same nutritional traits. Their concentration of B vitamins, especially B1, B2 and B3, increases as fermentation progresses. These nutrients have multiple benefits, but play notable roles in the cardiovascular, nervous and digestive systems. Levels of lactic acid also increase and provide a potential source of fuel, which increases the body’s energy and endurance.
Perhaps the most notable benefit comes from maintaining and enhancing levels of beneficial bacteria — lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. In their various guises, these are the most prevalent of the microbiota and play many roles; to one extent or another they combat inflammation, enhance the immune system, are involved in the creation of B vitamins and absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium while warding off diarrhoea and yeast infections.
But it’s not just the good guys that make up the microbiota; less favourable bacteria live inside us, too. Though they are manageable in smaller concentrations, they can begin to thrive if the number of good bacteria starts to fall. This in turn can lead to poor digestion, low B-vitamin and mineral status and other adverse effects. Dietary elements such as drinking too much alcohol, or eating too many refined sugars or too little fibre, can encourage the less favourable bacteria to multiply, reducing the influence of the good stuff. So ensuring that our beneficial bacteria get replenished is a smart move — and what easier way is there than by eating fermented food?
Perhaps the most familiar example is yoghurt. The bacterial fermentation of lactose produces lactic acid, which in turn changes the flavour and consistency of milk. So while you wouldn’t usually add a dollop of double cream to a baked potato, once fermented it thickens and has a tart flavour, so adding some sour cream makes more sense.
Fermented foods, especially vegetables, are becoming more commonplace in British restaurants, and not just as a garnish. In theory one can ferment any fruit or veg and it’s surprisingly easy to do at home — several easy-to-follow guides can be found online. Bread is a fermented food too, of course, but commercial baking methods don’t always enhance the levels of beneficial bacteria, which is a good reason to make your own.
While you are waiting for your home-made fermented vegetables to mature, you might introduce a daily dose of any of the following: live unsweetened yogurt, miso soup, sauerkraut, tempeh, kefir and kimchi. All are quite easily found in the shops, but don’t overdo it on day one as too much might cause bloating and gas in some people. They are best introduced at a gentle pace.
Our most popular fermented product is alcohol, but that doesn’t help the growth of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. The others do, and I encourage everyone to try them. Your gut will thank you.