Research & Education

Fermented Foods – A Fitting Revival


A revival of ancient fermented foods is being rekindled and while it may seem like a fashionable trend inspired by the hippie era its roots run deeply through all cultures and all historical ages. In fact fermentation is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. It was not until the rise of commercial food preservation that fermentation took a back seat and quality fermented foods are now sadly obsolete from many homes.

In ancient times salting drying and fermenting were the sole means of preserving foods from microbial growth and contamination. Pickling foods with vinegar and preserving fruits with sugar followed later. As the 1800s rolled around cellars caves and cool streams were used to freeze or cool foods while a French confectioner Nicolas Appert was discovering how heating and cooling could seal jars unveiling the first canned food. Today modern preservation methods include pasteurization vacuum packing irradiation artificial food additives and electroporation (pulses of a strong electrical field). Ancient preservation methods were not only sustainable and environmentally responsible but they did not carry the carcinogenic risks associated with our modern methods of preservation.

Modern preservation methods are also notorious for destroying health-promoting nutrients from foods. Many micronutrients and naturally occurring enzymes are destroyed in the presence of heat or pressure leading to the noted labeling of canned foods as “dead foods.” Ancient methods of preservation such as fermentation are more likely to preserve nutrients and enzymes. In the case of fermented foods nutrient quality can actually be enhanced and when coupled with the living microbes produced by the fermentation process fermented foods can become a storehouse of health.

Interestingly healthcare practitioners are witnessing the negative health effects of insufficient microbiota and turn to probiotics acknowledging the need for gut and immune restoration. Is it possible that we created some of our own health problems by eliminating the important role of fermented foods in our diet? Fermented foods naturally provide small amounts of probiotics keeping the body’s microbiota populated and healthy. Naturally-occurring enzymes are also present in fermented foods and can improve digestion and the utilization of micronutrients. The invention of “dead” foods lacking in probiotics and living enzymes leaves the gut deficient and ushers in a host of health problems related to insufficient microbiota.

Historically fermented foods have been part of almost every culture. Romans consumed sauerkraut ancient Indians consumed lassi – a fermented milk – prior to dinner Bulgarians enjoyed kefir Asian cultures routinely consumed fermented vegetables. Even today kimchi (vegetables) natto (soybean) mám (seafood) douchi (black beans) and banchan (side dishes) are popular foods in Asian cultures. In the US we are beginning to see the rebirth of kumbucha kvass kefir sauerkraut and kimchi among health-conscious individuals. Fermented dairy in the form of yogurt sour cream and butter has been abundantly consumed; however the use of commercial dairy and copious amounts of added sugars in the production of these foods has compromised any potential health benefits from fermentation. Over 3500 fermented foods and beverages have been noted globally and include fermented cereals vegetables legumes roots/tubers milk products meat and fish products and alcoholic beverages. Whether hip or healthy – or perhaps both – renewed interest in homemade fermented foods is growing.

Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) including species of Enterococcus Lactobacillus Lactococcus Bacillus and others are among the most common microorganisms present in fermented foods. Several species of beneficial yeasts have also been isolated from fermented foods especially in dairy. Studies have focused on the functional properties of the most common microorganisms found in fermented foods and found them to include probiotic properties antimicrobial properties antioxidants peptide production fibrinolytic activity poly-glutamic acid and degradation of anti-nutritive compounds. As an antimicrobial agent LAB in fermented foods have been shown to inhibit Listeria S. Aureus E. coli and Salmonella. This activity is especially strong in fermented vegetables such as kimchi. Strong free radical scavenging activity is noted with fermented soy products common in Asian foods. These foods include natto douchi kinema and tempe. Fermented foods contain proteolytic microorganisms that produce bioactive peptides that can act as immunomodulatory agents and possess antithrombotic and anti-hypertensive properties. Other enzymes produced by microorganisms of fermentation include amylases proteases and lipases that assist in assimilating nutrients and increase the bioavailability of micronutrients. Health-promoting functional compounds such as isoflavones saponins and poly-glutamic acids are synthesized by the fermentation of specific foods and are beneficial for helping to prevent cardiovascular disease hypercholesterolemia and suppressing colon cancer cell proliferation. 

The health benefits of fermentation products are numerous and give evidence to the improvement in health witnessed by those who routinely consume these foods. Several forms of fermented foods are used for the prevention of cancer. LAB-fermented foods not only contain anticarcinogenic enzymes but also s-methylmethionine and L. Acidophilus which assist in the degradation of carcinogens activate the immune system and have been shown to reduce the risks of stomach colon bladder and cervical cancer. LAB have been well-established as organisms helpful in improving common gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease ulcerative colitis and acute diarrhea. Lactobacillus isolated from kefir and kimchi may be protective against allergic reactions and increase tolerance. It has been found to positively influence dermal presentations of allergies by modulating Th1/Th2 balance.

Encouraging routine consumption of fermented foods promotes responsible food production sustainability and environmental protection while subsequently supporting global health and disease prevention. Fermented foods are incredibly medicinal and a perfect example of the holistic philosophy that “food is medicine.”