Probiotics may be enjoying their time in the limelight right now but the truth is, probiotic-rich foods have been around for centuries! Most ancient cuisines have some element of cultured food in their regular diets. And why shouldn't they? Not only is it an easy and cheap way to preserve food, but it also provides healthy bacteria to make the gut resilient against disease, all the while supporting healthy elimination (aka, pooping).
Some common foods you may not think of as fermented include: Chocolate, cured sausage, sourdough bread, cheese, wine, beer, fish sauce, even Heinz ketchup was originally fermented. These all go through a process of fermentation that provides shelf stability and the flavour you just can't replicate without that delicious Lactobacillus bacteria.
Lactobacillus is a bacteria that converts sugar into lactic acid. This bacteria inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria but also provide health-promoting benefits which include:
Benefits of Lacto-Fermented Foods
- Increased nutrient and enzyme levels in food.
- Improved digestibility of food
- Improves your immunity/resilience to pathogens
- Improved brain function
- Lower incidence of obesity
By now most of us know we should be getting beneficial bacteria into our bodies for any number of the reasons it can improve overall health.
So, should you be running to the health food store and spending $50+ on that 100 billion probiotic capsule? Or will eating yogurt suffice?
In my opinon, the answer to that is neither. For the sake of nutrient-density (getting as much nutrient value in a single food as possible) I would say yogurt doesn't cut it. Firstly, unless the label explicity says 'contains live active culture' in which case the bacteria is alive and useful, it's most likely that the yogurt has been treated with heat for extended shelf stability, rendering it useless. The second thing to consider is dose. Can you trust that you're getting enough probiotic bacteria in that single cup of yogurt to reap all the benefits that probiotics can offer? Likely not.
This is where lacto-fermented foods come in. Lacto-fermentation as a means of preservation is a beautifully unpredictable way of developing flavour and nourishment that is wholly dependant on the environment in which it ferments. Variants like heat, humidity, light exposure and nutrients provided in the food itself can all produce varying results.
Some of the best Lacto-Fermented foods from around the world include:
- UMEBOSHI PLUMS: From Japan, these beautifully tart plums are lacto-fermented and boost an array of health benefits from liver cleansing to cancer prevention. This is also one of the most alkaline foods available.
- KIMCHI: From Korea, this famous condiment is their national dish for good reason. Made from nutritious napa cabbage, radish and an array of spices.
- SAUERKRAUT: aka Germany's super food. Not only does cabbage do wonders for the liver, but it contains high amounts of probiotic bacteria. Make sure you read the label and it only contains cabbage and salt and is stored in the fridge. If it has vinegar, it is not lacto-fermented.
- FERMENTED PRODUCE: This can be anything fermented with salt, not vinegar: pickles, lemons, garlic, salsa etc. Homemade ferments are rewarding and economical.
- KOMBUCHA: this naturally effervescent beverage from China uses sugar or honey and tea to ferment into a probiotic-rich drink.
- CORNED BEEF: Irish, Italian, German many people have benefited from meat that is cured in a salt brine for preservation resulting in that distinctive flavour.
- FERMENTED EGG: A Chinese delicacy that has found its way into pubs across the UK and fine dining establishments all across Asia. Also called a century egg, it boasts more iron and protein than a non-fermented egg as well as being known to lower blood pressure.
Essential Tips on Homemade Ferments
All you need is salt, fresh produce, water and a vessel. The key is to maintain the proper pH to provide a hospitable environment for beneficial bacteria and more importantly to inhibit harmful bacteria to grow. Similar to pickles, the result is usually crunchy and flavorful. While pickles use the acidity of vinegar to stave off microbial activity, lacto-fermentation forms its own acidity. The key is the concentration of salt and water aka BRINE. You want the brine to have a salinity level of 3 percent.
- Dry Your Produce: If you preserve without thoroughly drying produce, the added water could throw off the salinity of your brine and pH level.
- Be Accurate with Your BrIne: Measure the water with a well labeled measuring cup. Weigh your salt with an accurate scale. This part is key to maintain the pH levels.
- Sanitize Your Container: You don't want to introduce any harmful bacteria in the environment. To be sure its sanitized, boil your glass jar in a big pot for 5 minutes.
- Tend to your Ferments: a daily burping (releasing of gas by opening the lid) and scraping of mold around the top is required for best results.
- Weights are key: To ensure your produce is submerged in the brine, you need to weigh it down. Place a plastic lid ontop of the ferment. Then fill a heavy duty ziplock bag with brine and place over the lid to submerge. This way if it leaks, it won't throw off your pH balance.