Here’s bacteria you ought to be eating

Living, fermented foods are more than just a passing fad

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJune 11, 2014 

Living fermented foods are all the rage in health food stores. But are they just another trend soon to be cast aside?

Probably not, given that they’ve been trendy for the past several thousand years.

Fermentation (with yeast, bacteria, or a combination of both) is used by just about every culture on earth. It changes the flavor of food and preserves it. It not only can preserve nutrients in food but also break them down into more digestible forms.

It’s hard to find food that doesn’t use fermentation at some point in its processing: bread, beer, wine, chocolate, yogurt, coffee, cheese, salami, vinegar to name a few. But in most of those food and drink, the bacteria and yeast are killed off long before the product reaches market.

Living fermented foods, by contrast, arrive at the grocery store shelf with their bacteria alive. Live food is part of the culture of several local ethnic groups. Koreans eat kimchi (spicy chopped cabbage, cucumbers and other vegetables), Germans eat sauerkraut (shredded cabbage) and Russians drink kvas (a fermented drink made from bread.)

Consumption of living foods was once much more common than it is today.

“It’s a food production technique that industrialization and refrigeration stopped,” said Susan Blake, a Tacoma-based nutritional therapy practitioner. Blake counsels on nutrition and teaches courses on nutrition and food at Green River Community College and Marlene’s Natural Foods Market and Deli.

Blake is a big proponent of raw, living fermented foods. The probiotic or friendly bacteria in the food provides nutrients and vitamins. “They also produce digestive enzymes that help us get more out of our food,” she said.

How fermentation worked its magic was a mystery for most of human history. It wasn’t until the 1800s when science began to study in earnest microorganisms and how they both harmed and helped humans. But for most of the 20th century bacteria were seen as unsanitary, something to avoid and kill.

But now living food is gaining ground again. Probiotic laden yogurt is pushed by actress Jamie Lee Curtis in television commercials and supplements are getting more grocery store shelf space. The popularity can be directly tied to an increased awareness of beneficial bacteria. The so-called good bacterial are critical to maintaining the healthy and normal functioning of the gastrointestinal and immune systems.

“We are completely dependent on our gut flora. We are symbiotic with them. They protect our whole health system,” Blake said. Re-establishing a healthy gut flora could be particularly important for people who have recently used antibiotics.

The links between bacteria and good health seem to grow daily. Different types of bacteria have been found in the guts of lean individuals as opposed to obese ones. People who have had severe digestive problems were cured when introduced with the gut flora of a relative. Probiotics are even being evaluated as a treatment for psychiatric disorders.

Eating a diet high in fiber, vegetables and fruit goes a long way in helping maintain a healthy gut. But eating live fermented foods can help as well.

Make no mistake: bad bacteria have not been vanquished. Don’t stop washing your hands or start licking door knobs. Naturally, food safety is a big issue for the people who come to Blake’s classes on fermenting foods.

The process is simple, Blake said, and was once a common part of food preparation. “It’s not passed down from generation to generation anymore,” she said. “But it’s hard to mess up.”

Problems can easily be noticed, Blake said: an off taste or smell, discoloration, visible mold. Her fermented food repertoire includes sauerkraut, apricot butter, fruit chutneys, tomato salsa, and kombucha (a tea-based beverage.)

Aside from their health benefits, the food just takes good, Blake said. “It makes meals more interesting.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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