The art of fermenting foods is not a new thing, nor is it purely for the Paleo enthusiast. An ancient method of preservation, fermentation has given us coffee, chocolate, bread, and cheese; granted not all Paleo foods but important contributions to the culinary world nonetheless. Essentially a process that breaks down carbohydrates into acids, fermentation covers a wide range of foods. Many, form the basis of traditional diets across the world. Some, are probiotic whilst others are not.
What does probiotic mean?
Probiotic means that which contains beneficial bacteria. It can be a supplement, a product from the shelf, or a raw homemade ferment. Only raw foods can be probiotic; cooked fermented foods contain no live bacteria. Over the last couple of weeks I have looked in detail at gut health and inflammation; in fact both articles sprang from an interest in fermented foods. All part of the same picture, I decided to leave the fermented foods until now.
So, why do we need beneficial bacteria?
As we saw in my previous article on gut health (Why gut health is so important), our digestive tract is filled with bacteria; some potentially harmful, others potentially good. Unless the balance is kept in favour of the good bacteria then your gut will not be able to do its job properly. Not only could you experience some of the discomfort associated with gut issues, but you won’t be able to absorb nutrients effectively either. By eating foods that place a load on our digestion we are encouraging proliferation of the bad bacteria and will need to introduce good bacteria to redress the balance. To do that, we can reduce the toxic load on our gut and ingest some form of probiotic. Generally that means taking a good probiotic supplement or eating particular fermented foods.
Why are fermented foods more beneficial than a probiotic supplement?
Probiotic supplements come in many forms and are, at the end of the day, a chemically manufactured product. Numbers and strains of bacteria will vary, as will their potential benefit. Bacteria are living organisms so it goes against logic to find them in the form of an inert pill. As well as positive signs of life within raw fermented foods, there are also the benefits of the ingredients inside. Studies have shown that the vitamin content of certain ingredients such as cabbage actually increases under fermentation.
There is also another reason, beyond probiotic benefit, that makes fermented food a better choice for digestion; it is simply easier to digest.
Why are fermented foods easier to digest?
The process of fermentation breaks down carbohydrates and converts them to acid. Not only is the food physically broken down, but the indigestible carbohydrates have already been converted into a form that can be digested easily. Certain foods that cannot be tolerated by many people are actually easier to digest once fermented. The more we eat these probiotic foods, the better the capability of our digestive system to absorb the nutrients within the food. The same goes for the increased vitamin content of raw vegetable foods such as kimchi. Once the body has more vitamins on board, the more prepared it is to absorb nutrients. All connected, and all part of the same cycle, the better we feed ourselves, the more efficient our bodies become. With fermented foods, digestive enzyme activity (another biochemical process involved in efficient nutrition) is improved as many of the anti-nutrients that can inhibit enzyme activity are actually broken down and rendered benign.
How should I eat fermented foods?
Start slowly, with a few tablespoons each day, gradually building up to what you feel works for you. Depending on the conditions of your gut flora to begin with, change may need to occur slowly. Listen to your body and judge what is right for you. Stick to raw fermented vegetables such as kimchi, sauerkraut and fermented pickles. Raw apple cider vinegar is also a raw ferment with probiotic activity and is actually the Paleo vinegar of choice.
How can I make my own fermented foods?
I will be following up this article with a recipe for homemade kimchi that has all the instructions you need to get started with a quick fermented food, as well as basic guidelines and pointers on the process of fermentation in your own kitchen. Keep an eye out for this later in the week.
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