Fermenting foods: is it just hype?

09 November 2015

Fitness and foodie nuts love nothing more than sending us bananas over the latest health food craze. There’s been kale chips, quinoa smoothies, acai bowls, chia puddings, coconut water, cold-pressed juice cleanses, overnight oats, ‘clean’ microwave cakes in a mug – we’ve seen it all. Even fruit and veg blasting machines are still getting a good run.

Well, now we have yet another health craze upon us. These days it’s all about fermenting.

If you’ve ever splashed a bit of Tabasco, Worcestershire, soy or fish sauce over your food, then you’ve participated in the fermented food craze without even realising it.

Then there’s sourdough bread, pickles, sour cream, crème fraiche, sauerkraut, alcohol, olives and salami – all fermented foods. And a common household staple – yoghurt.

But it’s the more peculiar fermented foods which are getting our passionate foodies into a health food tizz. Kombucha, for example, is a fermented tea gaining sensational popularity among the health conscious. Often seen bottled in its earthy-tones – complete with funky floaty bits – kombucha is popping up at local farmers’ markets, gourmet purveyors and health-focused cafes.

One of Australia’s biggest suppliers of kombucha is Brisbane-based company Buchi Fermenting Foods, owned by business partners Dr Sarah Lantz and Jason Callender.

The grass-roots company began small, selling all 20 bottles at their first farmer’s market. This grew to 50 bottles, then 100, and now thousands.

Sarah, who has a PhD in environmental health and is the author of Chemical Free Kids: Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World, says the health benefits of fermenting are “all about the microbes (probiotics)”.

“Researchers are finally coming around to the idea that in order to maximise health, people need exposure to more microbes and that one of the significant problems with the western diet – besides all the trans fats, preservatives, colourings and refined sugar – is that it is largely devoid of any living cultured foods. These little critters perform some of the most important physiological functions in our lives,” Sarah says.

"The most important function of probiotics is to maintain the health of the gut wall," she says.

“Besides being protective, our resident gut microbes are also accomplished and proactive creators. Not only do they create organic acids in the body, they can help us harness energy and nutrients from our food, influence how much energy we burn, how much fat we store and contain pathways for carbohydrate and amino-acid metabolism. Some specific gut microbes are even known to play a role in regulating the hormones that control appetite.”

Our bodies are an ecosystem, Sarah says, which functions most effectively when populated by diverse species of microorganisms. “By fermenting foods and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you as you invite the microbial populations you share the earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.”

Also on the fermenting band wagon is Brisbane mother-of-one and blogger Nicole Lutze who is often found whipping up a batch of sauerkraut, fermented carrot, beetroot and ginger, and jun tea (made from green tea and raw honey) for her family.

“I will also lacto-ferment sauces like chilli or tomato sauce; you can ferment almost anything.” Nicole says.

“I also make our own homemade sourdough bread which is so much easier and quicker than people would think. I've dabbled at making cultured butter too and sometimes make a fermented fruit paste which is fabulous stirred through porridge in the winter.”

Nicole’s love affair with fermenting foods began simply by making her first batch of yoghurt with an Easiyo yoghurt maker. From then on she was hooked, and after attending a cheese-making class with a friend, she learned just how beneficial the fermenting food process is.

“The lady hosting the course did more than teach us how to make fetta. She showed us how to make a variety of fermented foods. Lots of these recipes use whey (leftover from cheese making) to lacto-ferment the foods, so there was an obvious relationship between cheese making and fermenting.”

Nicole says society has lost touch with the traditional ways to prepare food. “You might not think that's such a big deal at first, but there are so many vital nutrients and benefits that arise from doing things the traditional way instead of choosing the most convenient pre-packaged option. Every convenience comes at a cost, whether it's loss of nutrients, illness or environmental impact.

“I think fermented food is having a bit of a ‘moment’ in the spotlight over the last couple of years which is great; it's one of the oldest methods of food preparation and has so many health benefits particularly for your gut health. I think that people are also realising how important gut health is to your overall wellness so it's natural that the two topics would become more interesting to the general population during a time when allergies and the like are on the increase.”

Nicole says she believes fermenting adds vital probiotics and nutrients to her family’s diet.

“I believe in eating whole foods and following traditional ways of preparation for optimum nutrition and health.”

But according to Elizabeth Borgo, an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist from Nutrition Australia Queensland, while it’s great people are interested in eating wholefoods – and fermented foods are certainly a healthy choice – the long-term impact of a diet high in fermented foods is largely unknown.

“Research into the effect of fermented foods for certain medical conditions is still evolving and requires further investigation,” Elizabeth says.

“The areas where considerable research is taking place include blood glucose control, cholesterol regulation and inflammatory bowel conditions. With all foods, balance is important.”

Elizabeth agrees, however, that while the overall research into probiotics is still evolving, consumption of probiotics is showing to be beneficial for improving bowel health, digestion and immunity.

“Having the right balance of gut bacteria and enough digestive enzymes helps you absorb more of the nutrients from the foods you eat.

“Incorporating small amounts of fermented foods as part of a healthy, high fibre diet can be beneficial for our health.”

Fermenting foods is nothing new and is relatively easy to make, Elizabeth says.

“People have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years and most cultures have their own version of a fermented staple. Awareness of the benefits of fermented foods is increasing as more research into probiotics and their role in promoting healthy gut flora emerges. People may be drawn to fermenting foods at home because it is a relatively simple process especially for vegetable-based products like sauerkraut.

“Other common ones are fermented milk-based products like yoghurt and kefir, fermented cabbage products like sauerkraut and kimchi, and soy product like tempeh and miso.”

Elizabeth says many factors can have a negative influence on our gut flora including certain medications, stress and a diet high in processed food and low in fibre.

So to encourage the growth of good bacteria we should ensure we are consuming a high fibre diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruit and legumes.

“Fermented foods can help the balance of our gut bacteria, but the focus on wholefoods is still important.”

For those who don’t have the time or inclination to ferment foods, Elizabeth suggests looking for commonly available fermented products such as natural yoghurt, miso and raw sauerkraut.

Fermented tea history and its use today:

Fermented tea, otherwise known as kombucha or jun, has a rich history. Estimates approximate the origin of kombucha to around 2000 years ago, though the potion's original shaman is hard to pin down. Many attribute the drink to the Qin Dynasty of China, while others believe a Korean doctor, Mr Kombu, presented Japanese Emperor Inyoko with his homebrew. Other legends reference Genghis Khan, founder and emperor of the Mongol Empire, and his travelling armies as inventors.

While many of the health benefits are not officially qualified by research, beyond the indisputable positive effects of digestion-aiding probiotics, testimonies to the power of kombucha range from improvement in skin to body detoxification and reveal valuable enzymes, electrolytes, vitamins, and energy as chief benefits reaped by kombucha drinking. The appeal of an energy-sustaining health drink that excites the palate as much as the immune system has gained the support of many communities across the globe.

Source: Dr Sarah Lantz, co-owner of Buchi Fermenting Foods

Popular worldly fermented foods and drinks:

Kimchi

A traditional Korean dish, kimchi is made of fermented seasoned vegetables, often with added dried or fermented fish.

Kombucha

A variety of fermented, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drinks. It’s often thought to originate from China, Japan or Mongolia.

Jun

A fermented drink using green tea and honey, thought to originate in northern China and Tibet.

Kefir

Kefir is a Russian creamy, carbonated milk drink made from kefir ‘grains’.

Tempeh

A popular Indonesian soybean cake, made from fermenting cooked soybeans.

Miso

A traditional Japanese salty paste made from slowly fermented soybeans and commonly enjoyed as a soup.

For more facts on download our Fermented Food Fact Sheet.

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Written by

Penny Shipway

Penny Shipway has more than 10 years’ experience as a print journalist in newspapers, magazines and online. She climbed the ranks at News Corp, editing many of the Quest Newspapers in Brisbane, and broke news stories for Australian Associated Press (AAP). Now a mother of two, Penny has shed the fast-paced city life to dip her toes in the ocean, settling on the Sunshine Coast to raise her beautiful girls. She juggles parenthood with freelancing, and is writing a novel for tweens.

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