FANTASTIC FERMENTED FOODS, PART 1
Have you ever eaten fermented food? Yogurt, perhaps? Or some pickles or sauerkraut? I remember as a teen when Dannon brought yogurt into popularity, and wow, it was a big thing. The ads really pushed those 100 year old Soviet villagers who ate it daily. My mom was smitten. But fermented food wasn’t brand new to our family exactly….. my mom and grandma had been making pickles and sauerkraut most of my life, and though some experience with it was, uh, pretty colorful (I’ll share THAT story in the next newsletter, promise!), I have to say the finished product was always a tasty treat, especially the pickled beans and asparagus!
No, fermented foods are not really a fad at all. Renewed, perhaps, they are resurfacing as a real, viable, and critical piece of the health puzzle we’ve lost over the past hundred years as we drifted into manufactured and processed food. Fermented foods have been part of human existence for thousands of years, since 10,000 BC, actually, as a simple, practical way to stay healthy. We’ll get into more yummy details on the how, what, and why in the next newsletter issue (May 15 – so invite your friends to subscribe – and…..RECIPES!). In the meantime, let’s explore just why fermented foods are on the table (pun intended) as healthy food choice. Then we’ll look at how and where to find some of these to begin including in your healthy diet.
THE HEALTHY GUT
As I deepen my knowledge in health and wellness to support my clients, the dots began to connect. Our ‘gut’, for all practical purposes here, is our stomach and small intestine. An unhealthy gut has been linked to all sorts of physical and emotional imbalances. ‘Dis-eases’ in the body, so to speak. They show up as leaky gut, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, eczema, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, allergies, candida, obesity, and even depression…and so many more. An imbalance of bacteria can wreak havoc in all sorts of symptoms of illness. Having a healthy gut can minimize or even eliminate many of the symptoms of dysfunction, and get our bodies back to operating properly. Even if you don’t think you have an issue, you might be AMAZED at the difference you feel in energy and vitality after only a week or two with fermented foods as part of your daily intake!
THE MICRO BIOME
What makes a gut healthy? A balanced micro biome, a bacterial ‘community’ of sorts that is found mainly in our small intestine, but also the stomach to some degree. This community includes 500 species….and three POUNDS of bacteria. Our very DNA is intertwined with the functions of bacterial DNA, more than 100 times the number of bacterial genes to ours, residing alongside them. Gross, huh? But this bacteria, well, it’s basically our life source in that it manages the balance and health of our bodies. From every opening in our body, it creates effective defense in immunity. The micro biome in our gut is where this factory of bacterial worker bees helps not only digest food, but regulates hormones (this is a biggie for our endocrine system, and, hello, some vital areas of life), produces healing compounds, helps us dump out toxins, communicates directly (and sometimes even acts as the CEO) with the brain. This micro biome is also responsible for producing vitamins essential to body function. Like any community, there are some good guys, and some bad actors. And, like any community, there are checks and balances to maintain a healthy and happy village…er, body.
Finally, we’re getting closer to the food part now! As disgusting as it might sound, these many bacteria are not just mooching hitchhikers – they have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with us. We have evolved to use their capabilities, if all is well and balanced, for optimal naturally occurring health. The bacteria use our gut for their relatively safe and cozy home, and for the foods we eat to replenish their population and feed them. Reinforcements come in the form of PROBIOTICS – live bacteria which replace or add to the beneficial bacteria, delivered by the fermented foods they grow in. Other ways bacteria are introduced include accidental intake (this is where we get exposed to more of those bad actors), in the birth canal when we’re born (our initial base of good bacterial flora), and, lately, fecal transplants. We’ll stick with the food for this discussion though, shall we?
Then there are PREBIOTICS, which are normally foods consisting of non-digestible fiber that, when consumed, provide a nice home colony for the bacteria to live in and on, and which stimulates bacterial growth and all that activity (no, not tennis or pickle ball!) that keeps us healthy. As much as it might seem gross, or as much as you’d love to drop those ‘extra’ 3 pounds and not walk around with a boatload of bacteria, our bodies would cease to function without these critical players living within us. As a key to so many facets of our health, we can actively support a healthy micro biome of bacteria by including probiotics and prebiotics. Yes, there are supplements galore, and some are effective, but they are MOST readily available (and most affordable!) in live, active form in fermented foods.
So, what ARE fermented foods, and where can you find them? Back in the day, condiments such as relishes, chutneys and even ketchup were fermented foods – yes, really! You can see why they were a part of everyday life, right? YUM!
Today, options in the grocery store are a little narrower. Here are the main candidates of choice to begin your fermented food journey:
As mentioned earlier, yogurt is a pretty commonly available fermented food in the US. A high protein dairy product, friendly to mild-moderate lactose intolerant folks because the lactose is partially broken down by the bacteria.
What’s good: unflavored (plain), preferably organic, with as many as 5 active bacteria listed on the label. Your best option for taste and nutrition is to flavor it yourself at home with honey or maple syrup and fruit. If you want to support a company with a great philosophy and product, check out Chobani. Personally, I like the texture and flavor of Nancy’s (and the fact it’s got great bacteria and it’s organic).
Avoid: sugar and artificially sweetened yogurts with only one (or NO!) live bacteria (read the label). Oh, and frozen yogurt is NOT a probiotic food…sorry, Charlie!
Find it: in the dairy section near the eggs and milk.
SAUERKRAUT and PICKLES
These are old-world type fermented vegetables by name, but, like relishes, ketchup, and chutneys, most of these available in the grocery store today are ‘dead’ foods, heated and sterilized, killing any bacteria so it is shelf stable. Vinegar is added to shortcut the traditional fermented flavor. Cheaters.
What’s good: products with simple ingredients of vegetables and salt. Possibly one preservative. Claussen is one recognized brand, but it’s debatable how much bacteria it contains. You’ll find more options at a health food store with brands like Bubbie’s or Hermann’s.
Avoid: the shelf stable vinegar laden brands in the inside aisle of the store. Blech.
Find it: in the refrigerated section, usually by the cheese or lunch meats.
This colorful and spicy fermented vegetable blend is the Korean version of sauerkraut. It can be found with varying ‘heat’. The blends of veggies always include a cabbage, along with a variety of veggies such as carrot, onion, ginger, radish, and garlic.
What’s good: the choice is yours, for your palate. Experiment with the tastes you enjoy (I’ll have a great recipe for you to customize your own in the next newsletter).
Avoid: a ‘shelf stable’ (no live bacteria) version in the Asian aisle in the middle of the store.
Find it: in the refrigerated section by the sauerkraut and pickles, or…. if you’re lucky…. in the deli.
A fermented drink, there are two main types of kefir, milk based or water based. Both are loaded with good bacteria, and also very popular with kids! Milk kefir is a dairy product, sort of a pourable yogurt type consistency and flavor, often flavored with fruit and labeled as a ‘kefir smoothie’. Water kefir is a fizzy soda pop-like drink, made with water or coconut water and a light fruity taste from the ferment. Muy delicioso, one of my favorite fermented foods.
What’s good: Unflavored (plain), preferably organic, with active bacteria listed on the label. Flavor it yourself at home with honey or maple syrup and fruit.
Avoid: lots of sugar or artificial flavoring, no live bacteria listed.
Find it: milk kefir is usually sold in quarts, found near yogurt. Water kefir, will be found, if anywhere, in a health food store – not often available for purchase but delicious (recipe in the next newsletter though!).
A fizzy fermented flavored tea, kombucha has become a new darling of healthy beverages. It ferments with a starter of bacteria and yeast, called a SCOBY, and has a slight alcohol content (not enough to qualify as an alcoholic beverage however). Like beer, it’s unique tang may require educating the palate, but many flavors are available to try out. Also like beer, many craft brands are now lining the shelves. My favorites are ginger and pomegranate, but I find my plain homemade delicious as is.
What’s good: Low sugar content, organic products are best. Find them with or without caffeine depending on what tea is used to make it.
Avoid: lots of sugar or artificial flavoring.
Find it: refrigerated by other single serving bottled drinks such as green smoothies and juices. Most grocery stores now carry at least a few choices, you’ll be positively overwhelmed with the delicious options at the health food store.
VINEGAR..”with the mother”
If none of these foods seem to appeal to you but you’d still like to give probiotic fermented foods a go, there is one product found on most grocery shelves that contains live bacteria and is actually shelf stable.
What’s good: The brand is usually Bragg, and the label says Apple Cider Vinegar with the ‘Mother’. The mother is the floating cloudy debris that is the healthy bacteria you’re looking for.
Avoid: drinking it undiluted (don’t..cough..aack…ask!), distilled vinegar and most shelf brands. If it’s clear, it ain’t your stuff. Look for “mama”
Find it: by the salad dressings or vinegar.
How to use: This can be easily included in your daily routine in salad dressing, or simply a “cocktail” drink up to three times a day: 1 to 2 tsps. organic raw ACV (apple cider vinegar) mixed with 1 to 2 tsps. raw honey in a glass of filtered water.
These are only a start to exploring fermented foods as a flavorful, health inspiring addition to your everyday food choices. If you’ve been ill or are suffering from a chronic disease that may have compromised that micro biome, be gentle! Start with small amounts to get your gut accustomed to the good stuff coming in to help it. Try out several different foods, and tune into what your body tells you. Notice if you’re drawn to, or hungry for, a particular food – that’s your body’s way of telling you that it needs the good stuff that food has to offer (btw: this goes for all food, not just fermented). Explore and experiment, find your local resources, and be ready for the next segment, where we’ll delve into the healing properties of particular fermented foods. Pay attention to what you love, get curious, and toss out those questions – you may discover a desire to create the very delicious ferments in your own kitchen!
Stay tuned for PART 2 of the FANTASTIC FERMENTED FOODS
In my next newsletter, we’ll explore the 6 most popular fermented foods, the health benefits each specialize in supporting, where and what to use and why, and…..RECIPES to make your own! Your comments and questions below are only the start of the conversation, and I’m happy to address those too!
See you on May 15 for more delicious health!