Contributed by Rebecca Wood. Why do some foods like chocolate, wine and cheese taste so delicious? Fermenting magically transforms their original ingredients into something more desirable. Besides upping flavor, some lactic-acid ferments, such as homemade sauerkraut, actually strengthen your immune system.
Pickling, brewing and culturing are other terms to describe this process by which friendly enzymes, fungi and bacteria pre-digest a food. Fermentation increases the flavor, medicinal value and nutrition of foods.
When you are looking to add fermented foods to your diet, the first thing to be aware of is that there’s a difference between the living and the dead. The microbes in most fermented foods are destroyed by pasteurization or processing.
It is alive cultured foods, especially those high in lactic acid, that strengthen your immune system. They do so by helping you maintain a healthy population of micro-flora in your gut. A healthy adult gastrointestinal tract contains over two pounds of micro-flora.
Among the foods and substances that decimate intestinal flora are: antibiotics, commercial meats containing antibiotic residues, chlorinated water, alcoholic beverages and a diet high in processed and packaged foods.
For their good taste—and your good health—favor living fermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut and quality yogurt or kefir. This is how they help keep you healthy.
- Unprocessed fermented foods boost the immune system by increasing antibodies that fight infectious disease.
- The flora in living cultured foods form a "living shield" that covers the small intestine's inner lining and helps inhibit pathogenic organisms including E.coli, salmonella and an unhealthy overgrowth of candida (yeast).
- Some ferments create antioxidants (glutathione and superoxide dismustase) that scavenge free radicals which are a cancer precursor.
- Fermenting transforms hard-to-digest lactose from milk to the more easily digested lactic acid. It neutralizes the anti-nutrients found in many foods including the phytic acid found in all grains and the trypsin-inhibitors in soy.
- Fermentation generates new nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, digestive aids and the trace mineral GTF chromium.
The living cultured foods commercially available include some brands of kefir, yogurt, miso, sauerkraut and a pickled Chinese cabbage called kimchee.
Miso is a fermented soybean seasoning agent. The variety you'll find in the refrigerated section of your market is living; the dried miso in instant soup mixes is not vital.
It's also possible to purchase supplements of living cultures called probiotics which are available in the refrigerated section of the supplement department in many food stores. Probiotics such as acidopholus and bifidus build intestinal flora, but they're pricey. Furthermore, pills are no fun to eat. My personal pleasure is to daily enjoy living cultures. These foods taste vital, deeply satisfy and impart an overall sense of well being.
I recommend Sandor Katz' web page, Wild Fermentation. Katz, a self-described "fermentation fetishist" is a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor and considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing. It's an inspiring and sometimes hilarious account of the value of cultured foods. I repeatedly use three recipes from his book.
The featured recipe, however, is one is one I’ve been using for over 25 years. With one taste, countless students and clients become fermentation devotees.
Rebecca Wood is the author of The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia * and The Splendid Grain.* For over 30 years she has helped people regain their health and energy with an easy-to-implement whole foods diet. Find out about her books and diet consultations at www.rwood.com.
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