Fermentation and Its Health Benefits
By Robert L Lawrence M.Ed., D.C., D.A.C.B.N.

Fermentation and Fermented Foods:
The Mingling of History and Culture

The origin of fermented foods is lost in antiquity, but fermentation is one of man’s oldest attempts at food preservation and preparation. There are biblical references to fermented wine production and recorded indications of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-626 BCE) on what he considered to be the best wines of his time. Fermentation, however, predates even these early writings. It is suspected that the natural fermentation processes for grains and dairy led to the development of beer, wine, cheese and yogurt about the time early man moved away from a hunter-gatherer society into an agriculture-based society. To survive, ancient man had to harness nature. Food begins to spoil the moment it is harvested, but food preservation enabled man to put down roots, live in one place, and form communities. He no longer had to consume the kill or the harvest immediately. Fermentation became popular at the dawn of civilization not only because it preserved food, but also because it provided a variety of tastes and food forms.

The astonishing fact about food preservation is that, historically, it has permeated every culture. The cultural heritage of virtually all civilizations includes fermented foods made by the souring action of microbes. Fermented foods are consumed in every country throughout the world and have played an important role in our diet for centuries. Similar foods can be found in every culture, with only the name changing, indicating that fermentation has universal application and appeal. Additionally, there are nutritional benefits from fermented foods.

Historical, Cultural Fermentation

Fermenting food occurred among various native peoples, and was propagated through oral communication. During the Middle Ages, various fermented foods and drinks depended upon raw materials, environmental conditions, and the local taste preferences. Among the vegetables preserved through lacto-fermentation—using lactobacillus (and lactic acid)—cabbage has been preferred. In China, records date that cabbage has been fermented for over 6,000 years. In Europe and today in North America, the principal lacto-fermented vegetable food is cabbage—in the form of sauerkraut. Described in historical Roman texts, sauerkraut was prized for its delicious taste and medicinal properties. Tiberius carried a barrel of sauerkraut with him during long voyages to the Middle East because the Romans knew that the lactic acid it contained protected them from intestinal infections.

Captain James Cook, during his sailing trips (1768-1780 AD), forced his crew to eat sauerkraut. He became well known for the extraordinary survival record and health of the shipmates on board his ships. The sauerkraut provided vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy—with no cases occurring during the 27-month voyages. Russia and Poland use pickled green tomatoes, peppers and lettuces. Lacto-fermented vegetables form part of Asian cuisines as well. The peoples of Japan, China and Korea make pickled preparations of cabbage, turnip, eggplant, cucumber, onion, squash and carrot. Korean kimchi, for example, is a lacto-fermented condiment of cabbage with other vegetables and seasonings and is eaten daily. Early American tradition includes many types of relishes, developed primarily to mask the taste and odor of less than fresh food. In India, varieties of chutneys, all of which were originally lacto-fermented products, are traditional foods.

One striking observation of ethnic cuisines is that it is rare when meals are eaten without at least one fermented food. In France if one were to take away bread, cheese, wine and beer—all produced through fermentation—meals would be much impoverished. In Japan, it’s not a complete meal without miso, soy sauce and pickles—all fermented foods. In India soured milk is consumed at practically every meal. In Indonesia tempeh is eaten regularly, and in Africa porridge of fermented millet, corn, cassava, and sorghum are daily staples. In Moslem countries they consume fermented-grain breads and milk products.

Fermented foods are usually produced as a means of preserving perishable ingredients such as milk, vegetables, and fish when refrigeration is unavailable or too costly. Beyond its use as a valuable food preservation method, unique nutrient complexes are also created during fermentation. The abundant microorganisms in the fermentation process produce vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, beta-glucans, and phytonutrients.

The Fermentation Process— The Role of Microorganisms in Food Preservation and Nutrition

The first life forms were microorganisms; fossil organisms have been found in rocks 3.3 to 3.5 billion years old. Since then, microorganisms have recycled organic matter in the environment, making them essential to the health of the planet. By studying fermentation, we become involved in the most intimate relationship among man, microbes, and food. Early man very likely consumed fruits, leaves, berries, seeds, nuts, and tubers, and their bodily wastes (as well as their bodies at death) were recycled by microorganisms. The human body also had to accommodate this sea of microorganisms by developing internal and external systems of protection against invasion by harmful microbes. Hence, normal, healthy flora (or microorganisms) live in the skin, mouth, throat, vagina, and intestinal tract, protecting us against invasion from disease-causing organisms. The human fetus, while in utero, is essentially sterile, but is exposed to an array of microorganisms during the birth process. If, however, the infant is breast-fed, its intestinal tract becomes colonized by beneficial bacteria, thus producing lactic acid—which aids in protection against intestinal and respiratory illnesses.

There is something fascinating about microorganisms. They are everywhere—in the air, in water, in food, and in our bodies. They are invisible and without number, capable of multiplying with extraordinary rapidity. Some are agents of illness and even of death—but some are the very foundation of life and health.

The process of fermentation:

  • Renders food resistant to microbial spoilage and the development of toxins.
  • Inhibits the transfer of pathogenic organisms.
  • Improves digestion and nutrient absorption of food.
  • Preserves food between the time of harvest and consumption.
  • Enhances flavor and nutritional value.

The Myriad Health and Fermentation Benefits of Lactic Acid Bacteria

The ancient Greeks understood that important chemical changes took place during fermentation. Their name for this change was “alchemy.” Like the fermentation of dairy products, preservation of vegetables and fruits by the process of lacto-fermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation. Starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits are converted into lactic acid by the many species of lactic acid-producing bacteria. These lactobacilli are present on the surface of all living things, and are especially numerous on leaves, roots, and plants growing in or near the ground. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms also produce numerous helpful enzymes. 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 intestines. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria. Other alchemical by-products include hydrogen peroxide and small amounts of benzoic acid.

Our bodies’ many systems and functions continuously rely on the balance of nutrients required to fuel our complex physiological needs. The intestinal tract is home to some 100 trillion living bacteria of over 400 different species. Because the organisms are living, they need a certain environment in which to thrive. Beneficial bacteria living in the intestines favor an environment that remains slightly more acidic than alkaline in ratio.

It has been said that what is old becomes new again. The ancient wisdom of lacto-fermentation has truly proven itself through time and cultures as an invaluable artisanal craft with far-reaching nutritional benefits to the health of modern man. Got culture? If not, then investigate the health benefits of fermentation and fermented foods.