As you probably know by now, we all house trillions of different bacteria and microbes on, and in our bodies, especially in the large intestine. These bacteria, fungi and microorganisms are crucial to our survival, and we’re still learning about exactly how important they are.
One thing we do know is that beneficial bacteria in the gut play an essential role as our first line of defence, in supporting both efficient digestive function and immunity. However, a number of factors can compromise an optimal balance of beneficial bacteria throughout the body, including antibiotics, infections, stress, travel or poor diet.
One potential solution to help restore the natural balance of the resident gut microflora is to consume either foods or supplements containing live microorganisms, or ‘probiotic’ foods. Fermentation was an ancient form of preservation used before ‘fridges existed. Interestingly, if you look at ancient food cultures from around the world, they all have some kind of fermented food. They probably wouldn’t have known about the gut benefits, but maybe they knew they had some kind of medicinal powers.
Fermentation itself is the transformation of food by bacteria and fungi, and is said to make food more digestible and nutritious. Fermentation gives us many of our most basic staples: Bread, cheese, chocolate, coffee, wine, beer, yoghurt and cheese can all involve fermentation processes. However, commercial fermentation is usually quick and the living microorganisms contained in these products can be destroyed during cooking or processing.
In recent years the presence of, and therefore the benefits of, daily fermented foods have largely disappeared from the Western diet, but we are beginning to see an increase in popularity again. Any vegetables can be fermented but I have started here by giving you a recipe for traditional sauerkraut, which is usually made with cabbage. Salt is rubbed into the vegetable to draw water out and create an intense vegetable juice. Salt is known to protect against the growth of putrefying microorganisms and favours the growth of beneficial bacteria. Fermenting any vegetables also makes them easier to tolerate for those with sensitive IBS and an intolerance to FODMAP foods.
So why bother making your own?
Many commercial sauerkrauts are pasteurised so lose their probiotic benefits. Also, you can make them to your own particular taste by adding spices or seeds. I’m not a huge fan of really spicy kimchi, but for some people, I know the spicier something is, the better!
So when do you eat them?
Fermented vegetables are said to improve digestion if eaten with a meal, particularly meals high in animal protein. I tell all my clients to keep a selection of fermented foods in the ‘fridge and grab a spoonful whenever they remember.