Right around this time each year, as the weather turned cool, our ancestors were busily preserving fruits, vegetables and meats to get them through the winter.
One of the most popular ways of doing this was the intentional spoiling of food using a solution – made up of microbes such as bacteria or yeast, along with salt and water – that would acidify the raw items. This was known as fermentation.
These days, many of us are eating fermented foods likely without even realizing it – everything from beer to bread to yogurt. It has made its way into high-end restaurant kitchens. And some adventurous home cooks are trying it too.
There's good reason that fermented foods, and their typically sour, acidic and even umami flavours, have stood the test of time. But even though our ancestors fermented food for thousands of years, we only began to understand the benefits recently, relatively speaking. And the benefits are compelling.
But first, let's look at how we came to understand the process of fermentation. For thousands of years, no one knew exactly how fermentation happened. Then, in 1857, Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast could turn sugars into not only alcohol, as everyone might expect, but lactic acid, the primary component of fermented foods. A few decades later, in the early 1900s, other fermenting organisms, lactic acid bacteria, were identified.
Over the next fourscore years, researchers found dozens of different fermenting organisms, all of which could render foods safe for consumption. With each new microbe, the case for fermentation as both a means of food safety and security grew in strength. But the tipping point came in 1996, when the World Health Organization finally declared what had been known for some 6,000 years – fermented foods are scientifically safe and help to preserve foods for the masses.
Now, the health benefits. At first, researchers wanted to ensure that the nutritional value of fermentation matched that of fresh. Without a doubt, it did.
Studies then focused on the effects on the human body. The results took decades but when finally gained, they were staggeringly positive. Fermented foods – and the bacteria involved in their production – could improve our overall health. This observation led to the unveiling of a fascinating human-microbial symbiosis. Bacteria worked alongside the human body to ensure both lived happily.
The mutual exchange is simple: We offer bacteria our food so they can thrive and, in return, they perform a series of tasks to better our living experience. In the context of raw foods, bacteria easily break down indigestible components, such as complex carbohydrates, releasing nutrients for the body to consume. These microbes also produce beneficial byproducts from the raw components known as short chain fatty acids (SCFA). These small molecules, which include lactic acid, butyric acid and propionic acid, spark a series of biochemical pathways in the gut. When these pathways are started, we benefit through increased immune balance, better blood flow, improved metabolism and possibly even reduced cancer risk.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating benefits comes from inspection of sourdough. When examined in the lab, this fermented bread somehow had little to no sign of gliadins, a protein component of gluten and the cause of gluten intolerance, particularly in celiac disease. Further inspection revealed that the bacteria used to sour the wheat broke down the gluten and gliadins, rendering them harmless. To prove this, a study performed over a decade ago revealed that consumption was tolerated well by celiac sprue patients.
So, if these foods are so good for us, why aren't they more available on store shelves? The answer is convenience.
On a large scale, fermentation takes time and requires a special environment to ensure proper taste, flavour and prevention of contamination from rotting organisms. In contrast, today's food manufacturers use low temperature preservation and chemicals to slow or cease spoiling.
This ramped-up method of producing food also allows for far lower prices. Then there is human taste, which tends to prefer sweet and fatty. And in an increasingly rushed world, the concept of a fermented product – other than perhaps artificially sweetened yogurt – may not seem convenient.
This last fact may offer an excellent reason to turn to fermented foods: to get away from the rat race and take some time each day to go back to an era when the world moved more slowly. Plus, let's not forget, it's good for you.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. 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 book The Germ Code is a science bestseller. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro