The standard American diet has a phobia of bacteria. In some ways, that’s a good thing. Sterilization has saved many lives since becoming standard practice in the food industry, but a growing number of people argue that it’s gone too far. Our cultural preoccupation with total sterility has resulted in the loss of much good bacteria in our diet – those extremely healthy probiotics that we humans actually need in our digestive tracts to help fight disease, especially to offset the negative effects of eating too much sugar and too many refined carbohydrates.
Other cultures have done a better job at figuring this out. As far back as the ancient Greeks, Hippocrates has been quoted as saying, “Death sits in the bowels” and “Bad digestion is the root of all evil” in 400 B.C. Clearly he understood the importance of having a well-balanced digestive tract and the wide-reaching effect it has on the whole body’s health. The Romans ate slow-fermented bread; the Inuit fermented whale and fish carcasses underground; and, of course, wine and beer have been fermented from grapes and barley for 8000 years.
Even today, nearly all food cultures except North America continue to eat fermented foods. Kimchi, natto, soy and fish sauces are popular in Asia. Europeans enjoy crock-fermented sauerkraut and fermented fish. The Middle East consumes kefir and various fermented pickles. North Americans used to ferment pickles and sauerkraut in the traditional way, using salt and lactobacillus, but now almost all are industrially made using vinegar.
Why are fermented foods so good for us, anyways?
Fermentation can make some hard-to-digest foods much easier on the system. For people with wheat intolerances, a slow-fermented sourdough is much better because the lectins and gluten have been partially broken down by fermentation. In dairy products, fermentation breaks down lactose and cuts the carb count in half (as long as you’re getting ‘real’ yogurt, not the usual pasteurized stuff).
Fermented foods also introduce helpful probiotics to our guts. These can strengthen the immune system, protect from colon cancer, relieve lactose intolerance and rotavirus diarrhea, reduce frequency of cavities, prevent recurrence of irritable bowel syndrome, promote clear skin, increase energy and balance hormones, reduce likelihood of infection, and improve digestion overall, among many other benefits. If you’re new to the world of fermented foods, here are a few good ones to start with:
Kimchi: Made of spicy Napa cabbage combined with scallions and daikon, it’s utterly addictive, and perfect on top of rice, stirred into soup, eaten with rice noodles or fried eggs for breakfast. This is my personal favourite and I eat it every day because I’m addicted.
Kombucha: This is a fizzy, vinegar-like drink made of fermented black tea that is loaded with microorganisms. It’s easy to make at home, as long as you have a “mother” to grow it.
Sauerkraut: The real stuff is tangy and crunchy, not soft and limp like many store-bought varieties. It’s also very easy to make at home, requiring nothing more than cabbage and salt and a big container to pack it into.
Miso: This is a fermented soybean paste that’s delicious when stirred into hot broth with tofu, seaweed, and vegetables, or mixed into salad dressings. It’s full of minerals and microorganisms.