Fabulous Fermented Foods

I read lots of food, nutrition, and diet books these days.  One thing that is very often included in the list of things that help to maintain a healthy gut is the practice of regularly taking probiotics.

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know what probiotics were, how they might be helpful. It turns out that they are pretty good medicine, indeed, which can be supplied to us through foods, beverages, and dietary supplements.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, friendly bacteria, that reside in our digestive system and may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses. They protect the intestinal tract, support the liver in detoxification, the kidneys in cleansing and the bowel in elimination. These beneficial microbes produce vital nutrients for the body lie vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, as well as certain digestive enzymes that help the digestive system break down food. When these good bacteria are not properly fed or replenished, however, they eventually diminish in number, then disappear and leave the immune system vulnerable to attack.

The best way to keep a good healthy supply of probiotics in your system is to eat them.

The diet of every traditional culture contained fermented foods. They ate fresh fruits and vegetables in season, then preserved the rest. This is where the fermentation took place. For example, when the cabbages were ripe in September, they made fermented cabbage to last them through the long winter months when nothing fresh was to be had. Quite a large percent of all the foods that people consumed on a daily basis were fermented, consuming trillions of beneficial bacteria with every mouthful.

Fermentation is actually a simple process. Fresh cabbage, for example, already a nutrient dense food, can easily be turned into a probiotic powerhouse: sauerkraut. Beneficial bacteria live on the surface of all living plants, fruits, and vegetables. Lactobacillus, one of them, lives on the surface of the cabbage.

To make sauerkraut, you simply put shredded cabbage, water, and salt in a glass mason jar with the lid slightly turned so a small amount of air can escape. After three to ten days at room temperature, the lactobacillus bacteria have fed off the natural sugar found inside the cabbage, turned it into lactic acid, which acts as a natural preservative and also gives the sauerkraut its sour taste.  Done. Not hard. And very good for the gut!

The fermentation process allows the cabbage to keep for long periods of time. It also results in higher levels of vitamins C and B than the original cabbage, as well as greater numbers of live lactobacilli and other beneficial microbes. See more about the making of sauerkraut here

This fermentation process does more than preserve food. It also makes foods more absorbable by the body.

In the case of sauerkraut, the amount of vitamin C becomes twenty times higher than in the same size helping of fresh cabbage. And that’s just the beginning! The same process turns grape juice into wine, grains and water into beer, and various vegetables into relish.

Almost any vegetable can be fermented, and each one will give you treasures of health benefits, including vitamin B12, which is a difficult vitamin to find in foods other than meat.

Here are some other fermented foods to try – either made in your own kitchen for best results, or from health foods stores – always in the refrigerators, as heat will destroy the natural probiotics.

-Kimchi is originally from South Korea and is made from mixing Chinese cabbage with an assortment of foods and spices such as carrots, garlic, ginger, onion, sea salt, red pepper flakes, and chili peppers. It is seriously spicy and is becoming almost as popular in the United States as it is in Asia. A little of this condiment will go a long way. I confess that it’s a little too “big in personality” for me, but other people love it.

-Natto is a Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans and is often served over rice for breakfast or dinner. It contains a very powerful probiotic, Bacillus subtilis, which has been shown in various studies to bolster the immune system, support cardiovascular health, and enhance the digestion of vitamin K2, which is very important for strong bones and teeth. You might not find this in a health food store, but the Asian markets will have it. It’s a very high plant-based source of vitamin B12.

– Miso often appears in Japanese restaurants. Also made from fermented soybeans, rice, or barley, miso soup is more palatable than natto, it is believed to stimulate the digestive system and energize the body for the day at breakfast.

-Kombucha, one of my favorite beverages, is a fermented combination of black or green tea, some sugar and a fungus called a “kombucha mushroom.” It contains a long list of beneficial bacteria, amino acids, B vitamins, and enzymes that give it a cider-like flavor and fizziness. It has many favorable effects, but its primary ones include digestive support, increased energy, and liver detoxification. It’s inexpensive and easy to make, and can have a variety of different flavors.

All of these fermented gems are off the beaten path of the Standard American Diet (SAD), for sure. Still, in this day and age, with so many assaults on our digestive systems from processed, hybridized, and pesticide-sprayed foods, and other evils, it’s worth your continuing good health to experiment with some of these known beneficial fermented wonders. They will be both more effective and more economical than the bottled capsules and tablets of probiotics in the supplement section of the stores.

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