Have you been to your local healthy grocery store and wondered about all those “pickled” looking vegetables in jars that have shown up in the refrigerator section? Chances are these vegetables are fermented. They might seem strange to you if the only fermented vegetables you have tried before are sauerkraut (cabbage) and pickles (cucumbers), two foods that originated in Europe and found their way into the American diet.
However, when you dig a little deeper, these fermented foods have been eaten by people all over the world as part of their daily diet. They have wonderful health benefits, especially when it comes to your digestive system. This month we dedicate our newsletter to introducing you to these health-promoting, gut-supportive vegetables, so that you can bring them into your food-as-medicine pantry.
Initially, fermentation was created as a way to preserve foods before refrigeration. In addition to pickles and sauerkraut, there are many familiar and maybe not-so-familiar foods to explore. From Europe, there are beets and carrots, grape leaves for dolmas, and olives. From Asia, umeboshi plums, tempeh, miso, kimchee, and assorted pickled vegetables such as turnip, carrot, cabbage, onion provide great variety. And from India, various fruit chutneys are also fermented.
Here’s how the process works. All vegetables and fruits have beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus on their surfaces. The process of lacto-fermentation combines starches and sugars with salt in an oxygen-free, or anaerobic, environment. The Lactobacilli bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid that kills harmful bacteria and acts as a preservative. The sour flavor comes from the fermentation process. The end result is a deliciously sour vegetable that also has Lactobacilli, known as the good bacteria “probiotic” most commonly found in yogurt and supplements.
As you can see, these fermented foods act as natural probiotics, and because they are also high in fiber, they provide prebiotic nutrients, too, that help the good bacteria grow. Numerous studies have proven the connection between gut flora and illness: not enough good bacteria, or overgrowth of harmful bacteria or yeast, increase your risk of chronic disease, especially inflammatory illnesses and autoimmunity.
Think of eating these foods every day as health insurance!