Fermentation is defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as an enzymically controlled transformation of an organic compound. Well, that was helpful. Not. In American culture we most often think of fermentation in relation to alcoholic beverages, but any food can be fermented and there are plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea to include some fermented foods in your diet daily. Fermented foods have many benefits, but the most important, are the addition of enzymes and beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. Eating only cooked foods, as is common in American culture, deprives the body of both these elements.
Enzymes are complex proteins produced by living cells to carry out specific biochemical reactions. They act like chemical scissors, breaking long chain amino acids into shorter, more digestible ones. The pancreas produces enzymes, but as we age, we produce less and less, so consuming them with our food becomes more important. The presence of these enzymes in food means that the body doesn’t have to secrete more than a minimal amount. Neither humans nor animals can live without enzymes. Rats can’t be maintained on a synthetic diet for their entire life span of 2-4 years without serious health problems, including blindness and urogenetory problems.
Beneficial bacteria have myriad uses in the digestive tract including supporting our immune system. Bacteria occur in air, water, plants, animals and rotting organic material. There are several bacterial families in foods, and while most promote spoilage, some are valuable for our well-being. These are the same bacteria that are responsible for sour dough bread, all fermented milk products, and pickled vegetables.
Fermented foods are valuable in the treatment of stomach and digestive disorders, including constipation. It is well known that infants fed porridges or other fermented products have less severe diarrheal episodes. Even infant formula when fermented will provide this benefit. When fermented milk is added to an antibiotic regimen, it proved more effective than the antibiotics alone. Supplementation with probiotic fermented milk products has been shown to improve height and weight gain in children. This addition to childhood diets has the added benefit of reducing incidence of diarrhea and fever. Malted cereals when sprouted, boiled and dried produce the enzymes amylase, protease and glaucanas, which will break down porridges. This is ideal food for infants and small children, and is a common practice in Africa.
Childhood gastrointestinal disturbances are not the only infections that respond to the probiotic effects of fermented foods. The severity of respiratory infection in the elderly can also be reduced by the inclusion of fermented milk products such as yoghurt into the diet. It is likely that these products provide a boost the immune system since the severity of viral infections can also be reduced. Certain lactic acid bacteria can produce antibiotics and bacteriocins – chemicals that kill other bacteria.
In traditional diets, small amounts of fermented foods were consumed with every meal. While these foods are easy to make, once the techniques are understood, there are also many quality commercial products available. Good examples are yogurt, sour cream, saurkraut, and various pickles. Dairy products should say “live cultures” on the label and organic is ideal. For saurkraut and pickles, look in the refrigerator section. The ingredient list should be short and sweet, listing only the vegetable, salt, water and perhaps some spices. The label should say “not pasteurized”, since pasteurization kills both the healthy bacteria and the enzymes. You can also drink the ‘juice’ in which the vegetable is packed since this will also have the beneficial bacteria and enzymes.
A healthy digestion is necessary both for our physical and emotional well-being. So eat some friendly bacteria and make your intestines happy.