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Bubbling Over

By Maryann Hammers
Posted On Sep 22, 2016
Bubbling Over

Fermentation is enjoying a major resurgence, as the general public gets reacquainted with its many wellness benefits. 

Donna Schwenk was feeling down. Since her pregnancy with her youngest daughter, she suffered from diabetes and hypertension, and the conditions recurred after the baby was born. Her oldest daughter had irritable bowel syndrome and food allergies. Searching for a natural solution for herself and her family, the Kansas City, Missouri resident was browsing in a health-food store. She stumbled upon kefir, a carbonated beverage made from fermented milk. She grabbed a bottle, liked it, and made it part of her family’s meal plan.  Within weeks, Schwenk felt better, less blah. Her blood pressure lowered; her blood sugar normalized. Her daughter’s symptoms disappeared.  Intrigued, Schwenk tried making her own kefir. She started researching, preparing, eating, and serving other fermented foods—and couldn’t believe the difference they made in how she felt. She became such a fermented foods fan that she began teaching classes, writing a blog, and producing videos on the subject.  “They changed everything for me,” says Schwenk, author of the cookbook Cultured Food for Life. “When I ate fermented foods, I felt fantastic. When I didn’t, I could feel my body struggle. Wellness came to me in the form of food.”  Fermenting—the process of breaking down foods by adding live bacteria, yeast, or molds—is nothing new: Thousands of years ago, our Stone Age ancestors found out that fermentation could preserve foods while making them more digestible and flavorful. Today, fermented foods have been rediscovered and are enjoying a rebirth, thanks to the host of health benefits they offer.

FRIENDLY FLORA

In our germophobic society, it seems counterintuitive to add bacteria to our food. “We sanitize our hands, sterilize dishes, pasteurize food, and toss moldy foods,” says registered dietitian Angela Grassi, who operates PCOS nutrition center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “But our gut contains billions of helpful bacteria. The more beneficial bacteria we have, the healthier our bodies are.”

In fact, the human body has 10 times more bacteria than it has human cells. Scientists speculate that these microbial communities control the health of our guts. But when the facts of daily modern life—everything from antibiotics and birth control to stress and sugar—begin to throw off this vital bacterial balance, we get sick. That’s where fermented foods come in: They’re loaded with probiotics, which are healthful bacteria that replenish good gut flora.

“We are just scratching the surface of understanding how critical a healthy flora in our GI tracts is for our overall well-being. Our gut flora makes B vitamins and vitamin K, helps us properly excrete estrogen, and more,” says Sara Jean Barrett, a naturopathic physician in Minnesota. “By eating fermented foods, we repopulate our digestive tract with the beneficial flora required for proper function.”

SCIENCE SAYS

“Research on probiotics has exploded in the past few years,” notes Cheryl Harris, M.P.H., R.D., who specializes in gastrointestinal disorders at her health center, Harris Whole Health, in Alexandria and Fairfax, Virginia. “Studies link probiotics to improvements in gut disorders like IBS, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis and have also shown that probiotics may play a role in weight maintenance.”

In a 2006 review published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology,  researchers found that probiotics, which have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant compounds, have been shown to boost the immune system and potentially treat or prevent conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, hypertension, gastroenteritis, high cholesterol, urinary tract and vaginal infections, irritable bowel syndrome, and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

Some studies even show that fermented foods contribute to positive mental health, according to a new review published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology.

CULTURE CLUB

Just about any food can be fermented—fruit, vegetables, beans, dairy, meat, and liquids with sugar in them,” says Barrett. “My favorites are fermented beverages such as ginger beer and kombucha. Condiments are an easy way to eat more fermented foods. I made a delicious fermented hot sauce to give as Christmas presents last year.”

But before making your own fermented foods, educate yourself with a good cookbook to ensure you do it correctly (see sidebar). “Food safety rules are key,” warns Harris, a faculty member at Maryland University of Integrative Health. “If foods aren’t properly fermented, there is the risk of botulism. Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen. If the food is exposed to oxygen, unhealthy bacteria will grow.”

Not a do-it-yourselfer? Sadly, typical American supermarkets—with aisles full of mass-produced, overprocessed, prepackaged, and pasteurized items —aren’t a great source of fermented foods. “Our food industry doesn’t ferment many foods anymore. Bread contains yeast but not mold; pickles and ketchup are made with vinegar instead of being fermented with lactic acid bacteria,” says Grassi, a professor in the nutrition department at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Sure, you can still stock up on yogurt, cheese, and sourdough bread—which are all fermented—but why stop there? You can also find an array of naturally fermented foods at health-food stores. Explore Asian markets for tempeh, made from fermented soybeans; miso, a Japanese seasoning; kimchi, a spicy Korean cabbage dish; and nata de coco, made from fermented coconut water.

After all, “we really are what we eat,” notes Schwenk. We are made up of mostly bacteria. So doesn’t it make sense to eat good bacteria to stay healthy?

GUIDES TO FERMENTING FOODS 

Want to try fermenting your own foods? Get tips, recipes, and advice here:

The Art of Fermention (2012) by Sandor Ellix Katz is a must-read. The book was a winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation book award for reference and scholarship, and a New York Times bestseller.

Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen (2014) by Leda Scheintaub New to fermenting? The author offers nutritional inspiration along with store-ready ferments to ease you in. You’ll find yourself putting the 100 no-fail recipes into heavy rotation.

Cultured Foods for Life: How to Make and Serve Delicious Probiotic Foods for Better Health and Wellness (2013) by Donna Schwenk “My recipes are pretty simple,” Schwenk says. “For example, to make fermented vegetables you place vegetables in a jar, add a probiotic culture, cover the vegetables with water, and let them ferment for a few days on your counter.”