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For thousands of years fermented foods have been consumed by nearly every culture in the world. These health promoting foods have historically been used to ward off disease and promote health. Before the advent of refrigeration vegetables were stored in root cellars, dehydrated, made into hard tack, canned  or fermented. Long winters deprived Northern climates of fresh vegetables and the abundant vitamins in them. In Northern European countries fermented fish and fish products were common and provided a way to preserve fish to help carry the population through to the next harvest. Fermented fish sauces are a staple in Korean and Asian cuisine. Barm, a byproduct of beer making is a yeast that has been historically used in the production of bread. This form of yeast dates to late 1500s and most possibly has its roots even further back in time. Eventually this type of yeast was formed into cakes that needed to be refrigerated and was sold commercially. When America entered World War II, Fleischmann Laboratories developed and manufactured Active Dry Yeast, specifically to ensure GIs could enjoy home-baked bread. Unlike their original compressed yeast cake, the new Fleischmann’s Yeast did not require refrigeration and was activated quickly with warm water. Another method of yeast bread baking is sourdough bread. This type of fermentation involves using water, flour, warmth and time to allow yeast to grow in the culture. Kvass a fermented drink originating either in Ukraine or Russia is made from rye bread ends and water and dates back as far as 996,and is mentioned in Vladimir the Greats baptism. Mesoamerican native cultures- Aztec, Toltecs, Incas and others enjoyed chocolate, which is made from fermented cacao beans and dates to over 4000 years ago. Tepache is a popular Mexican fizzy drink made from pineapples.

Other fermented foods include

  • Kombucha- a drink originating in China, dating as far back, perhaps even further back than 220bc
  • Natto- fermented soybean usually added to rice as a breakfast item dates back to the 11th century in Japan
  • Sauerkraut-Adopted by Germans; however the first sauerkraut was made with rice wine and cabbage in China over 2,000 years ago
  • Milk kefir- Kefir grains, which are used to activate fresh milk and start the fermentation process is believed to originate in China over 4,000 years ago
  • Other fermented products include cheeses, pickles, yogurt, cottage cheese, miso, cured meats, etc.

Types of fermentation

There are 3 types of fermentation

  1. Lactic acid or lacto fermentation

Lacto-Fermentation is arguably one of the most common types found in food. Lactic acid fermentation is responsible for the production of foods like sauerkraut, blue cheese, salami and other fermented meats.

  1. Ethanol and alcohol fermentation

When fermenting grain, the by product  is yeast Barm, which is used in bread baking. Examples of ethanol and alcohol fermentation are beer, mead, wine and cider.

  1. Acetic acid fermentation

Some varieties of grains and and sugars ferment to produce sour vinegar and sauces. Apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar, and kombucha are examples of acetic acid fermentation.

Health benefits of fermented foods

The foundation of lacto fermented foods is lactic acid bacteria (LAB), This beneficial bacterium, along with other microorganisms formed during fermentation have displayed some amazing health benefits:

  • Through chemical processes help lower blood pressure
  • Powerful antioxidant properties
  • Powerful antibacterial properties
  • Anti-fungal
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Increases vitamin content, especially B, K2 and C vitamins ( For example, fresh cabbage has about 30 mg vitamin C per cup, fermented cabbage (sauerkraut) has between 600-700 mg per cup according to a Cornell University study)
  • Maintain a healthy gut microbiota
  • Anti-carcinogenic
  • Improve mental health- especially anxiety
  • Assists in neutralizing phytates, which in turn helps the body absorb nutrients

Next post we will delve into their specific health promoting qualities of fermented foods and how to make a simple sauerkraut. *Downloadable pdf of detailed instructions.

- Brooke Lounsbury

Medical Content Writer

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