Okay, I’m not an “expert” on this class of foods, but I find the subject interesting and increasingly in the news. Besides, if the purpose of The Nutrition Debate is to inform the reader, and if along the way the writer learns a little, that’s good too. We are open to new ideas, and new foods, in our unending pursuit of healthy eating and “the truth.” We hope you are too.
Generally, we have an idea of what fermented foods are. There are hundreds of varieties, made by traditional methods for thousands of pre-refrigeration years. The Wikipedia listing for “fermented foods” has hundreds of pages of every kind of fermented food imaginable from cultures all over the world. American readers will be familiar with some: yoghurt, sauerkraut, salami and other sausages, wine, beer, cheese, sour-dough bread, soy sauce, salsa, kefir, natto and my current favorite kim chi, a spicy Korean cabbage side dish.
The process also varies considerably and oft times involves lacto fermentation with salt (in brine); however, today many of the foods mentioned above are made by modern methods that do not involve fermentation. In which case, a listed food made from pasteurized products is not “live.” Pasteurization kills the pro-biotic friendly bacteria that live fermented foods contain. To get the benefits of live fermented foods, you must look for the words “live” or “contains live cultured products.”
So why do we want “pro-biotic friendly bacteria” in our gut? Mark Sisson, of Mark’s Daily Apple and Primal Blueprint (PB) fame, offers a good primer in his “Definitive Guide to Fermented Foods” here. Even though his Primal diet (similar to Paleo) excludes Neolithic foods like dairy, grains and soy, he explains that with “proper fermentation,” such foods become tolerable. His list of “tolerable” (for those who do not follow a strict Primal Blueprint) includes “aged raw-milk cheese” (for the vitamin K-2), real, long-fermented, sour dough bread, and traditionally fermented soy sauce or natto (also for the K-2).
Sisson says that fermentation can render previously inedible or even dangerous foods edible and somewhat nutritious. “The lectins, gluten, and phytates in grains, for example, can be greatly reduced by fermentation,” he says. Again, he’s not advocating these foods; he simple wants to explain how fermentation makes these foods “tolerable for PBers.”
Another resource I checked out is Mercola.com, the site of a high-profile osteopathic physician (DO) and web entrepreneur. The following excerpt from an interview with a British neurologist, in Dr. Mercola’s words, tells the story “at-a-glance.”
“The importance of your gut flora and its influence on your health cannot be overstated. It's truly profound. Your gut literally serves as your second brain, and even produces more of the neurotransmitter serotonin—known to have a beneficial influence on your mood—than your brain does. Your gut is also home to countless bacteria, both good and bad. These bacteria outnumber the cells in your body by at least 10 to one, and maintaining the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria forms the foundation for good health—physical, mental and emotional.”
But my favorite recent piece on “live fermented foods” related to another subject of interest to me: Chronic Systemic Inflammation (The Nutrition Debate # 187 here). It was written by Dr. Art Ayers, whose blog Cooling Inflammation was a major resource for #187. The piece is titled, “Gut Flora Risk and Repair.” I suggest you stop reading this column and click here now. It is the best information that I have found on the subject.
My interest in gut health was probably piqued by my editor, whose husband has severe gluten sensitivity. They participated in the gut biota testing program offered by the American Gut Project. (http://humanfoodproject.com/americangut/). But I also recall that, when I visited the emergency room a few years ago for some reason, the “attending” MD “prescribed” a probiotic to counter the antibiotic he wrote a script for, and I took notice. Previously, although I had heard of them, I had no idea that they should be taken seriously. I do now. Again, please stop reading this now and click on a link in the paragraph above and read that piece by Dr. Ayers. You will gain a new perspective that you will take with you for a lifetime.
Anyway, as kim chi is my favorite live fermented food for now, I’m lucky that I can buy 2 homemade types from a local Korean green grocer in a town near my hometown. Curiously, there is none offered in the large farmers’ market in Ft. Pierce that I visit every week in winter, but I found some in the Publix supermarkets that are ubiquitous in Florida. They’re in the refrigerated case near the fresh vegetables (think horseradish). I haven’t found any “live” sauerkraut though; it is all pasteurized, as I suspect all the yoghurt is in the dairy case. I wonder if they have any raw milk cheeses.
The regulatory environment is improving in some places, however, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Weston A. Price Foundation. Raw milk can now be sold in New York. And the vendor next to my eggs/organ meat vendor (who also sells grass-fed, grass finished meat) is hopeful that Florida will soon allow it too. And the organic, free-range chicken vendor is hopeful too. I wonder why there are no live fermented food vendors. Maybe veggies are just too inexpensive, or maybe they take too long to ferment, or maybe they are just so easy to make yourself that everyone is making their own at home! (If you’d like to try it, check out Cultures for Health, a commercial website. My editor says the sour cream is really very good). And she has found live kraut, pickles, and other veggies at Whole Foods and several natural food stores in Florida.But, if you’re fermenting in warm weather, it’s a little tricky, and the food can go past the tasty stage really fast. When you make or buy fermented foods, you need to refrigerate it to slow the process down so you can eat it while it’s still at its best.