The magic of fermentation

Posted on: 4th June, 2014

Category: Health

Contributor: West Cork People

‘Fermented Foods: The Ultimate Superfood’ — “This book is my song of praise and devotion to fermentation. For me, fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.” Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation.

This is going to sound strange to you at first. Please bear with me. I know I am often enthusiastic and you might just be think ‘Oh, there she goes again. Another health fad!’ but, honestly, this isn’t a fad. It isn’t a magic bullet either, but it is incredibly significant. What am I talking about? Well, in a word, Fermentation. I was at the Ballymaloe Litfest recently, and had the huge honor of hearing Sandor Katz speak…and have come back all buzzed up about Wild Fermentation! I came straight home and (to my husband’s horror!) started making my own sauerkraut. OK, I know that might not float your boat. But stay with me. Mostly we think of fermentation as something we don’t want to happen to our food. (We don’t mind it happening to other more liquidy things!) We store our food in the fridge so it won’t ferment. We don’t normally go searching out fermented foods because we have not been introduced to them early enough and our taste buds are more used to sweet foods, rather than the strong sour taste most fermented foods have. But after reading this article, that’s exactly what you will be doing. It might take a little doing to get you and your family enjoying fermented foods but it really is worth it.

Fermented foods are actually already a large part of our diet — much more than perhaps we realise. However, they don’t all have health benefits. Take coffee for example — did you know coffee beans are fermented before they are roasted? It’s how they get their flavour. But the fermentation doesn’t give coffee any particular health benefit. The same goes for chocolate in fact, and tea, both of which are fermented before roasting. Of course, most alcohol is fermented too, as are most cheeses, yoghurts, and things like buttermilk and even butter traditionally were both fermented. In these cases fermenting does give health benefits — we all know how good plain well-made yoghurts are for us, and in some countries where buttermilk is still made, the traditional way people drink it is as a tonic. I believe that the same thing used to happen here too.

When we talk about fermented foods in terms of health benefits we are talking about dairy products such as yoghurt, kefir, traditional buttermilk; about fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and some types of pickles; about some types of soya foods such as tofu; and about drinks such as Kombucha. Fermentation is mostly used as a way of preserving food. There are many different ways of preserving foods — drying, salting, jarring/bottling/canning, you can refrigerate, preserve in vinegar or you can ferment. In many countries where they don’t import fresh veg all year round the way we do, fermenting still is very important. The main difference as far as I can see between fermented foods and dried or canned foods is that fermenting actually increases the health benefits of the foods.

Probably the most important way fermentation improves the health benefits of our foods is through pre-digestion or breaking down the foods slightly before we eat it. For example, there are many cultures that depend on Soy as a staple protein but they never sit down and eat a plate full of freshly cooked soybeans as they are completely indigestible! If you try it once you will never forget the experience (ouch). Instead, they ferment the bean slightly before they make tofu and this makes all the difference — suddenly it transforms an indigestible plate of beans to a nutritious and tasty food. In the same way there are many people who cannot drink milk unless it has been ‘fermented’ but a yoghurt culture or a Kefir culture (kefir is amazing, it looks like rice pudding but it is a live ‘community of bacteria’ that has incredible health-giving properties. More on that later). And if you eat Sourdough bread that has been slowly risen over 48 hours then the gluten content is reduced and it is vastly more digestible to those of us with gluten intolerances.

So number one is pre-digestion. Then you have detoxification —  some foods cannot be safely eaten without being fermented, due to some naturally occurring chemical they contain. Kassava is an example of this; some types of Kassava, which is a staple in parts of South America, contain a form of cyanide, which is fatal. In Australia there are types of nuts, which must be soaked/fermented to rid them of a different chemical. And amazingly, fermenting helps rid foods of some of the chemicals used in commercial farming such as organophosphates. They get broken down and made safe.

Then there are the different ways foods are made more nutritionally rich through fermenting. For example Sauerkraut contains anti-carcinogenic compounds, and Natto Miso, a form of fermented Soya miso, contains NattoKinase which is being widely used and sold as a supplement in the US because it has been shown to slow down the aging process, treat many types of cardiovascular disease, varicose veins, and DVT. It is also used for pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, muscle spasms, infertility, cancer, and more.

The main reason for the rich health benefits of fermented foods is the live bacterial cultures they contain. We all know about bacteria, about good bacteria, but we are so schooled to think of bacteria being bad (for example most hand washes promise to kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria — despite the fact that most bacteria are our friends!). We have been taught to think about bacteria as something we should wage a war against because it makes us sick. But actually, the beneficial live bacteria are what keeps the little baddies in check — we need them, and if we kill them off we are defenceless and wide open to very dangerous diseases. So eating foods that keep the ‘good’ bacteria alive and well is pretty much the Holy Grail of alternative health; which is what brings us to Fermented Foods! One of the most health-giving things you can do for yourself is to eat a small amount of sauerkraut or something similar every day. Because unfortunately, our modern diet does little to nurture or protect the essential bacteria that live within us; instead, our diet generally causes those bacteria so much harm that they stop doing their job and we develop something like IBS, which can cause the most profound misery. As I write, my first batch of homemade sauerkraut is sitting on the kitchen counter; after finely chopping and salting the fresh vegetables, you mix them until they get nice and juicy and then you pack them into a ‘crock’ or masonry jar. Then you wait three days. What I find particularly amazing is you don’t have to add anything except salt — the beneficial live bacteria on the vegetables makes the magic happen. You can eat it at that point, or you can let it get stronger, you can be directed by your taste buds. I’m really looking forward to trying mine out in a couple of days! I know this may all seem like a step too far. If you would simply like to try the stuff out then you are in luck — a new food company called the Cultured Food Company, run by a very dedicated lady called Haley Milthorpe who has been working with fermented foods for years, started producing Sauerkraut in Ballydehob a few months ago and it’s going really well — most West Cork wholefood shops now stock it. Eat it as a small side to almost any meal — it’s particularly good with mashed potatoes! Haley is also working on a few more recipes as we speak. You can also find Kefir in most good wholefood shops — it’s a sour yoghurt-like drink that is a real tonic for your tummy. And don’t forget Kombucha — we have one made from Green Tea in Organico, which is particularly tasty and packed full of goodness.

For more information on fermented foods you can read Sandor Katz’s new book The Art of Fermentation; or keep an eye on our blog, as I will continue documenting my adventures there. I’m going to start making Kombucha next!

Organico Shop Cafe and Bakery is open Monday to Saturday from 9.15 – 6pm (the Cafe from 10 – 5pm). Please call us on 02751391 or visit us online at for more information. None of this information is intended to replace medical advice, so if you are on medication or are concerned at all about your health please consult a medical practitioner before taking any foods in medicinal quantities.


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