One of the year’s most surprising super foods is the rising dominance of fermented foods, best defined as “when rotten goes right.” From kefir to kimchi, what’s old school has become the new cool. And though fermented foods might smell and look a little sketchy, their health benefits make them much more “functional” than funky.
Fermented foods date back millennia—they are testament to humanity’s oldest attempts to preserve food. Cultured milk products have evidence to support that they were in used 10,000 B.C. But today fermented foods’ increasing popularity is not so much about their ability to preserve as it about their ability to prevent—disease prevention that is. Research suggests that fermented foods are a boon to the gut, boosting digestive health, reducing allergies and inflammation, and even as an aid to weight loss.*
Bacteria have gotten a bad rap, scientifically speaking. Harmful gut bacteria were blamed for everything from increasing diabetes risk to the formation of autoimmune diseases. But now studies support the idea that fermented foods might improve digestive health. In fermentation, bacteria or yeast feed on the natural sugars in foods (same thing happens in beer-making). These microorganisms create compounds such as lactic acid or alcohol that help preserve the foods.
But, as an added bonus, the ferments also wind up loaded with the good bacteria similar to those touted in probiotic products, but with better variety. Helpful enzymes complete the package. Fermented foods are literally predigested by these microorganisms, making them easier for your gut to handle. The nutrients and minerals in the food become more available for our bodies to absorb.
But going to the supermarket and buying a jar of sauerkraut won’t cut it. Most mass produced fermented foods have been pasteurized and cooked at high heat, killing any friendly bacteria. To reap the most bacterial benefit, you’ll have to make your own pickles. (If you take basic precautions in fermenting your own, there’s little risk.) That’s why the fermentation process itself has attracted the crafters and makers and homesteaders. Making your own pickles expresses the longing many people have for a deeper connection with their food, says Sandor Katz, a self-taught fermentation expert who has authored Wild Fermentation (2003) and The Art of Fermentation (2012).
Top health-conscious restaurants are embracing the ferment zeitgeist; Boulder, Colorado’s Zeal restaurant has a culinary lab dedicated to fermentation. And in their Grab-n-Go kiosk situated in the restaurant, they even sell mini fermentation kits guaranteed to turn you into a “fermento capable of harnessing the powers of nature to transform food from a state of imminent decay to a preserve of delicious, crunchy vegetables lasting many months.” The Mason jar kit contains a kosher salt packet, a spice pack of coriander and juniper, and a bag of glass beads. (The glass beads keep any of the contents from floating to the top and reaching air, thus spoiling the anaerobic process of lactic acid fermentation.) Not only can get back to your roots, but you can preserve them too.
To learn more about how to become a pickling protégée, click here.
*This statement have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.