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Over the last two decades, the term, ‘good germs’ has shifted from the fringes of natural health into the mainstream.
Products containing these beneficial bacteria, also called probiotics, now appear in grocery stores, pharmacies and soon, believe it or not, candy aisles. But while the list of specialty items continues to rise in response to unprecedented demand, the most natural source of these marvelous microbes – fermented foods – continues to quietly await not only their turn, but return, to the spotlight.
The benefit of fermented foods has actually been known for over a century. The first person to focus on fermentation in improving health was Élie Metchnikoff, a Russian biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for work on the immune system. In his insightful book published in the same year, The Prolongation of Life, he theorized that the bacteria responsible for producing the vinegar and lactic acid necessary to preserve vegetables, meats and fruit, make rye and sourdough breads as well as a variety of sour milk products, were beneficial to us. By eating these ‘marinated’ foods, and the good germs contained within, we could improve our health and even delay the effects of aging.
While his efforts were indeed laudable – and many of his theories have been realized today – few actually adopted his recommendations. As with many unheralded discoveries in science in medicine, when Metchnikoff died in 1916, so did the momentum to further his work.
For the next half century, marinated foods began to disappear from our collective diet. This wasn’t a malicious attack on good germs but rather a consequence of technology and humanity’s desire for food safety - and convenience. The advent of mass pasteurization, chemical preservatives, sterile canning methods, refrigeration and eventually fast foods allowed people to forgo the painstaking and time-consuming task of Metchnikoff’s marination and instead adopt a more convenient lifestyle in which food could be made rapidly and kept for days, weeks and in some cases, years.
In accordance to Metchnikoff’s theories, the loss of good germs portended an increase in health problems, which has been the case. In the last few decades, the prevalence of acute and chronic disease has skyrocketed. Whether this is indeed due to the absence of good germs may never be proven. However, since the beginning of the millennium, researchers have worked diligently to reveal the link between health and the inclusion of microbially modified products in our diet. The results of these studies have offered more than enough reason to reverse our prodigal ways.
Today, thanks to the work of researchers all over the globe, we now know that fermented foods contribute to good health and in some cases, may actually help to reverse disease. Scientific studies have revealed numerous benefits including helping to prevent arthritis, reduce fat, prevent gum disease, protect against and reverse cardiovascular diseases, improve mood and even, as Metchnikoff suggested, prevent the biological consequences associated with aging.
Though we may be a century late to adopt the recommendations made in The Prolongation of Life we can now take heed and proceed with an even healthier life by going back to the future. By picking up a jar of yogurt, a block of cheese, and/or bottle of kefir, the path towards better wellness is already paved.
However, if those are the only ferments on the shopping list, the road will be quite boring.
Apart from milk products, there is a wide range of other fermented foods that offer a realm of flavours ranging from the sour to the sublime. Among them are common names to Canadians such as kimchi, sauerkraut, pancetta, and sourdough. Other options, including rakfish, poi, achara and injera may be lesser known here but are equally beneficial to all.
Granted, these options may not be easy to find in national chain markets. But a call to your local grocery shoppe may yield fruitful results. The extra effort will be more than worthwhile as there will be not only an increased variety at each meal, but also the knowledge that every bite will give you the good germs necessary to keep you healthier and even younger on the inside.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity’s bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code (Random House/Doubleday Canada) is now available on shelves all across the nation. You can follow him on Twitter @JATetro