“Does this smell funny to you?” The amazing benefits of fermented foodsKara Davis, Freelance Writer and Harried Homemaker
Most of us have seen those slightly annoying commercials where the slim and trim beach model pretends to have bloating and gas, and then we get the pitch for the yogurt that improves digestion and solves all kinds of “tummy issues.” So, it may come as no surprise that foods high in beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt, actually do help heal the digestive tract. But what many people don’t know is that yogurt is just one of many foods that are full of probiotics, or that it is very easy and economical to make such foods in your own kitchen.
Before the advent of refrigeration, fermentation was widely used to preserve food. As an added bonus to preserving the cheeses, vegetables, soy products and sauces, sausages and other meats, or other foods to last through the winter, the fermentation process also made such foods more nutritious—and delicious! In her book Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon talks about this benefit:
“The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.”
Yogurt is certainly the easiest of these “fermented foods” to come by in the grocery store, but you may have also seen an increase in products such as kefir, kimchi, real sauerkraut, or tempeh on the shelves at your local market. Kefir is similar to yogurt, but is more liquid, like a yogurt smoothie (my kids would drink it by the gallon if I let them… and if I could afford it). Kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh are examples of how cultures around the world use fermentation to preserve and enhance food and benefit health. While you can find these foods at the store, be careful! Not all are actually fermented, particularly sauerkraut and commercially produced, pickled cucumber, which often are simply cabbage or cucumbers cooked in vinegar and preservatives. There are a few trusted national brands that actually ferment their sauerkraut and pickles. Usually the real thing is found in the refrigerated section, not on a shelf, and is easiest to find at a whole foods type store.
Unfortunately, it often feels like eating these healthy, probiotic-rich foods is too expensive, especially when feeding a large family (like mine). The good news is that home fermenting is really easy and requires very little time and money. www.culturesforhealth.com is a wealth of information, with helpful videos and recipes. They also sell the cultures necessary for fermenting your own foods. To give you an idea, the basic sauerkraut recipe is organic cabbage, shredded in a food processor. Place in a mason jar and pound it to release the juice, until the juice covers the cabbage. Add salt to create a brine, cover, and let sit for a few days. It’s really not rocket science.
One word of caution on adding fermented foods into the diet: start off slowly. You might begin with just ½ cup of sauerkraut or other fermented food per day and gradually increase until you are including naturally fermented/pickled foods with all of your meals. Some researchers feel that, as these beneficial probiotics are introduced into your system, the good bacteria begin to attack the overgrowth of pathogenic (bad) bacteria and yeast in your gut. As this happens, the die-off of the bad stuff can cause a mild, negative backlash, such as aches and pains or stomach upset. So take it slow and easy until you get up to speed.