Thousands of years ago when refrigerators were yet to be invented, our ancestors depended on fermentation as a method of preservation, especially where vegetables were concerned. They relied on the fact that on being triggered, chemical changes activated certain bacteria in fruits and vegetables and caused it to produce lactic acid. Through the natural courtesy of lactobacilli just ‘doing their thing’, starch and sugar content in fruits and vegetables is transformed into lactic acid, a natural preservative.
Known as lacto-fermentation, this process prevents raw organic produce from degenerating or rotting by producing enzymes that keep harmful elements like carcinogens and toxins at bay. Since it also seals in the inherent nutrition of the food, consumption is not just healthy for the body but beneficial for the intestine which gains significantly in terms of an array of useful micro-organisms.
Although fermentation is assumed to have been an accidental discovery of ancient man, their observation and subsequent experimentations with the process led to a plethora of fermented products that aided man in healthfully sustaining himself for millennia. It’s an interesting concept really: letting it ‘go bad’ to get good!
A world tour would certainly showcase many fermented products that have been around for a long time: sauerkraut (cabbage pickled with salt), yoghurt and kefir, kombucha (fermented green tea laden with herbs), kimchi (spicier version of sauerkraut), olives and preserved lemons to name a few. As far back as 10,000 BC beer was also consumed for its nutritional value – never mind the buzz that came with it! The fact is that micro-organisms responsible for fermentation can also produce vitamins through the process; the end product can be even healthier than it was to begin with.
Over the years, human civilization may have progressed in terms of developing new variations on produce – everything from “I Hate Peas” in the sixties that got kids to eat their veggies by putting them into french fries, to a slew of packaged frozen vegetable medleys that have been designed to make our lives simpler. And maybe it has made things easier but it hasn’t necessarily made us healthier. What we ended up with is a lot of lab-generated output that lacks naturally active organisms. Even pickles – one of the fermented foods we still eat with regularity – are commercially produced using vinegar instead of salt and water and then, adding insult to injury, pasteurized! All beneficial bacteria are promptly killed and the pickles are pretty much useless in terms of health benefits. Ditto: commercial yoghurt and sauerkraut.
Much of what we encounter today that is masquerading as ‘food’ is laden with sugar and is processed to the point of being stripped of its natural nutrients. The result? The human body is losing the microbial diversity that helped to keep us healthy and kicking in the past. The industrial revolution ended up revolutionizing our diet to the point of making us sick; in our attempt to keep our food germ free we have taken out all the good stuff as well, ultimately robbing ourselves of the beneficial intestinal flora that represents the front lines of defense against pathogens that we ingest.
But we are capable of putting ourselves and our gut back on track by introducing fermented foods into our diet on a regular basis. The inclusion of fermented foods will reap real rewards:
A gain in probiotics – Given that our present diet is relatively light on probiotic input, encouraging a greater presence of these organisms is the primary reason to opt for fermented food. On consumption, probiotics tend to settle down in the digestive system and work towards restoring the disrupted bacterial balance. Thus, the end result is improved digestion, a balanced acid-base ratio and overall gastric bliss.
Increased immunity – Having reached your gut, beneficial bacteria acts as a catalyst for digestive enzymes and in the process prompts them to break down the food more efficiently. As a result, your body stands to gain a lot more nutrition than it used to, thus deriving greater health benefits without having the rely on supplements.
Combats diabetes and constipation – Intake of fermented food causes the body to produce acetylcholine which encourages bowel movement and alleviates any problems associated with constipation. Another health benefit is the breakdown of carbohydrates before they reach the pancreas, thus lessening chances of diabetes.
Inhibition and destruction of pathogenic bacteria – There are many types of pathogenic bacteria that cannot withstand an acidic environment. Both cholera and typhoid fall into this category. Sauerkraut was used aboard ships in the ‘olden days’ to prevent scurvy and experiments in the 1950’s proved it effective in killing the bacteria responsible for typhoid fever. Recently scientists in Germany found that a strain of lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough bread was effective in killing super-bug microbes.
Lately the benefits of fermentation have come to the forefront and a whole slew of pricier options have hit the natural grocery stores. Even though buying many of the new and delicious fermented options can seem like an expensive daily proposition, a daily serving would cost no more than a morning soy latte and its benefits put coffee to shame. But the real trick is coming up with your own concoctions; easy and fun to make, fermenting food can increase its shelf life by weeks and help to eliminate food waste. And there’s no doubt you have greater control of insuring its nutritional value. So look to the internet for fermented food recipes and once you’ve got the knack, get your creative juices flowing: there’s no end to what you can whip up in your own kitchen!
Your body will reward you with a healthy endocrine system. And what’s healthy on the inside can’t help but make itself known on the outside.
On that note, I’m off to my garden right now to collect an overabundance of radishes that can only be made better through some garlicky fermentation. Waste not, want not. I’ll be enjoying crispy radishes for months to come… that is if I don’t eat them all next week.
FERMENTED GARLIC RADISHES
8 ounces radishes
4 cloves garlic
½ cup filtered water (don’t use regular tap water)
¾ teaspoon coarse sea salt
- Wash the radishes and trim the ends. Do not peel them!
- Peel the garlic cloves.
- Cut radish into ¼ inch rounds.
- Place garlic cloves on the bottom of wide-mouthed pint jar. Place the radish rounds on top. Jar should not be filled completely to top.
- Mix salt into room temperature water to dissolve as much as possible.
- Add water to jar with garlic and radishes allowing about half an inch of head space at the top.
- Put a weight in the jar or, alternately, fill a small jar with water and place it over the top of the radishes to keep them down. There should be a little water covering the radishes and a little space at the top of the jar for things to ‘percolate’. Remove a few radishes if the jar is too full.
- If your weight fits into the jar then you can put the top on but don’t tighten it. Tightening the lid would prevent gas from escaping and could potentially cause an explosion! Not what we want. If your weight goes above the lip of the jar, cover the jar with a clean dish towel and secure it with a rubber band.
- Keep the jar at room temperature for about six days. In warm weather it might be as little as four so you can test the radishes if you like at this point. If they don’t seem sour enough, cover the jar again and let it go for a little longer – up to two weeks if you like.
- When the pickles are ready the weight can be removed and the lid of the jar applied and tightened. Put the jar in the fridge and enjoy!