Getting Started with Fermenting
First of all, this information is…well…just information and not intended to be medical advice. I am a registered nurse, and even I see a doctor from time to time to make sure I stay healthy. The information here is not intended to replace the sound medical advice from your physician. Seek the advice of a doctor before implementing or stopping any treatments, prescribed or otherwise. We’re going to talk a bit about Lacto Fermentation.
If you’ve never had fermented foods before, you are in for a treat. Folks have been practicing Lacto Fermentation and fermenting foods for 5,000 years (or longer). Think about the world before refrigeration. The food would sit out, and, if good bacteria found its way, the food would ferment and last longer. If the bad bacteria found its way, the food would putrefy and spoil. A cabbage will mature, sit for a bit while rooted in the ground, and then the head will begin to burst if it’s not harvested before a period of time. How would you keep that cabbage edible in some form for the next few months? What if you had 100+ heads of cabbage you grew that season? Fermentation was the answer. This article is lengthy and discusses many different aspects of fermenting and probiotics: one of the main health benefits of food fermentation.
If you are eager to get started and want to look at the hows before reviewing the whys, then feel free to follow these links: If you’d like to learn about fermenting pickles, click here. If sauerkraut sounds better, click here. There’ll be many more links to different fermented foods in the days and weeks to come; ginger beer, kombucha, and other goodies will be added soon. But, if you want to know why you’ll love fermented foods, keep on reading…
|Making Sauerkraut||Making Fermented Pickles|
What lives in your gut – The Poo Zoo
There are live, little critters in your belly from your mouth to your “behind” that keep you alive. Well, they support your life and your good health. During the life-activity or metabolic activity of a cell, certain elements are created. One of the bacteria in our gut known as Escherichia coli (commonly known as E. coli), is responsible for creating B vitamins that fire up our bodies and help convert foods into the fuel that keep us energetic and functional on our day-to-day activity. Without the B vitamin nutrients, we’d feel tired and have less motivation to get out and pull weeds.
E. coli is also responsible for the production of vitamin K. Most folks don’t know too much about vitamin K. After the next few words, you’ll become very interested in the function of this vitamin in your body. If you were to get injured, and there was no such thing as vitamin K, you’d bleed and bleed out of the smallest little cut because you’d never form a clot or a scab. Vitamin K is responsible for forming scabs…or blood clotting, to be more specific. Vitamin K works hand-in-hand with vitamin D to drive calcium into our bones and teeth.
Along with vitamin production, the “good” bacteria keeps the “bad” bacteria from growing too much and making us sick (Gause’s law — we’ll talk more about this very soon). However and too often, we are killing off our “good” bacteria when we try to kill off the “bad” bacteria. We don’t want to be sick, and in our attempts not to get sick, we are making ourselves sick.
Antibiotic is Anti-Life.
Yea for antibiotics! We are prescribed antibiotics when we get an infection (and sometimes when we don’t). Today, there is a 10 percent death rate from bacterial meningitis. Before the 1940s*, the death rate was about 90%. Preemptively, let me clarify, as a registered nurse, I LOVE antibiotics. Like most folks, I agree that they are over-prescribed, but the benefits are very clear. So, don’t get me wrong. If I get an infection, and I need antibiotics, I will be happy that they are available. However, antibiotic means anti-life. The Greek word bios (bee’-os) means “life.” Anti-bios…antibiotic…against life. Consider the day-to-day use of non-pharmaceutical antibiotic products that we use every single day. We flood ourselves with these chemicals thinking that if we sterilize our lives, we won’t get sick. But this sterilization of our homes and of our foods has actually made us more sick rather than more healthy.
Pasteurization** You’ve heard this term before, right? Pasteurization is a 100-year-old practice that will reduce the numbers of bacteria by applying heat to the food, but not necessarily cooking the food (for the most part). If you reduce the pathogenic microbes in food, the risk of illness is greatly reduced. Straightforward and simple to understand. However, this process is nondiscriminatory. Pasteurization kills the “good” bacteria as well. Not to mention that the level of heat necessary for pasteurization “kills” some of the nutrients as well. Is pasteurization a good thing? SURE!! I ain’t about to drink no milk from just any dairy without the milk having gone through the pasteurization process. Tidbit: It may “kill” the microbes, but the remains of the microbes and the “filth” that introduced the microbes into the food are still there…gross…
Anyway, now we have what’s called cold pasteurization. Sounds pretty benign, right? This is the process by which we bath our food with low-level gamma rays (also known as x-rays) or an electron beam to reduce or kill microorganisms, such as e-coli, listeria, salmonella and campylobacter. Again, this process will kill off the “good” bacteria as well. Not to mention…where there any residual levels of radiation in that glass of milk you enjoyed this morning? Hummm…
Probiotic is For Life.
With every negative, there’s usually a positive. We know about how to kill the bad bacteria and inadvertently kill off the good bacteria. But, how do we promote the good bacteria without promoting the bad bacteria? How do we replace and maintain the good bacteria population in our bodies?
Take in more probiotics! We hear this all the time, “Eat more yogurt because it’s good for your gut.” But, what makes it “good” for your gut? Yogurt, like buttermilk and keifer, is basically spoiled milk. The spoilage is not by bad bacteria, or pathogens — the “spoilage” by the good bacteria, or the probiotics.
When we eat the yogurt, we take in more of the bacteria that our bellies need and thereby increase all the goodness these good bacteria give us like more energy, better bowel motility, more vitamins, and on and on. But (there’s always a “but” when discussing commercially prepared foods), in the case of yogurt and many other commercially available “fermented” foods, the food is fermented, then pasteurized, and a carefully controlled strain of probiotic bacteria is introduced into the sterile food. This controls taste, consistency, and reduces the risk that a pathogen (bad bacteria) has sneaked its way into one of the batches. Makes sense? Sure it does, but GREATLY reduces the benefits that we are looking for.
We want a variety of foods in our diets to promote health. Just like the different foods, we need a variety of probiotic strains of bacteria in our bodies to promote health and to reduce the risk of die-off when presented with antibiotics or other medications / foods that are known to kill off our normal flora. Furthermore, just as all bad bacteria are not affected by all antibiotics, all of the good bacteria are not affected, either. You’ve heard of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Sure! That doesn’t just mean that some of the bad bacteria are resistant to some of the antibiotics. If we have a variety of different genetic strains of good bacteria in our bellies, we decrease the risk of becoming sick(er) when we take antibiotics.
Taking antibiotics can make you sick.
Don’t you love my scare-tactic title there? Unless you are allergic to the antibiotic, it is not likely that the actual antibiotic itself will make you ill. Chances are, your initial illness will resolve. BUT, the effects of the antibiotic can make you feel sick. You see, there is a community of bacteria and yeast in our bellies. They all live together with some version of the symbiotic relationship (see below for the definition of symbiotic relationship***). It’s a good-versus-evil world in the land of the bowels. One of the bad bacteria in your belly is called Clostridium Difficile, better known as C. Difficile or C. Diff. When there is an imbalance of good-vs-evil, the C Diff has an opportunity to proliferate in the absence of the good bacteria. The infection is known as Clostridium Difficile colitis and can make you feel like…well…like poop! The toxins of these bacteria irritate the bowel wall and cause belly pain, diarrhea, and even some bloody stool at times. What’s gross is that when a healthy person not taking any antibiotic gets C. Diff, it’s usually because they touched something that was contaminated with the bacteria and they put their hands in their mouth. Yes, many times a C-Diff infection is because you got someone else’s poo-poo in your mouth…let that sink in for a bit…
So, we’re back to fermented foods and the “WHY” question.
Why do we need to add fermented foods to our diets? To put it simple, it’s so that we can introduce an array of different probiotics to our gut and keep us healthy. Na, we won’t leave it at that. Let’s do some explaining. However, it’s at this point as the author of this article that a decision needs to be made: 1) are you done reading because you are sold on the idea of taking in more probiotics or 2) do you need more information to convince you to start fermenting foods and taking in lots natural probiotics from many different, exciting, and tangy foods. After all, in a way, you are letting perishable foods sit at room temperature to allow controlled “spoilage,” and then eat them with your family. Maybe, I will do some more “selling” on the concept. If you’re “sold,” click here to get started fermenting pickles… Or here to get started making sauerkraut…
Types of Probiotics
There are so many types of bacteria that are classified as probiotics. Each and every one has similar yet different benefits; the two most common are known as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (Man! That’s mouth-full…literally!). Let’s discuss the big-boy probiotics; the little guys are important, too, and you’d be amazed how many of these guys show up for the party in just your attempts to ferment for the BIG 5. It’s my theory that there are three major Lactobacillus strains and two Bifidobacterium strains that you’ll be able to colonize and consume on a regular basis to get the best health benefits from the simplest of the fermented foods.
Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic as well as the most commonly known probiotic. Lactobacillus strains are important due to their many health benefits. Lactobacillus bacteria produces lactase; that’s the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk (have you ever wondered why folks are all of a sudden lactose-intolerant?). This and other benefits helps prevent and treat diarrhea. With a healthy population of Lactobacillus, the population of pathogens in your gastrointestinal tract are held at bay. For those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and gut dysbiosis, Lactobacillus helps relieve the symptoms that are associated with these conditions. Likewise, if the population of yeast gets out of hand, folks (and not just girls) can suffer from yeast infections and urinary tract infections. Lactobacillus helps “police” the over-population of these disease-causing cooties (and we all have cooties). Like many of the infections we humans get “down below,” Lactobacillus can help with conditions “up and above,” such as treating respiratory infections like sinusitis and bronchitis by increasing your immune response.
There are so many different strains of Lactobacillus. Let’s discuss the three that are most common in the foods you are likely to ferment:
Lactobacillus plantarum – Who doesn’t love a bit of sauerkraut? Not me! I love a bit of tomato sauce on a bowl of sauerkraut…cold…for breakfast…with cottage cheese. Sauerkraut is loaded with this bug. Not to mention loaded with vitamin C…about 28% of what you’d find in a medium-sized orange. Funny…200 years ago, the English were sailing around the sea on wooden boats with bleeding gums and their teeth falling out (scurvy). Vikings were sailing in their ships with most all of their pearly whites because they ate rotten cabbage. You’ll also find Lactobaccilus plantarum in kimchi and other cultured vegetables.
We ingest lots of stuff. What I mean by “stuff” is that “stuff” that piggy-backs our food. It’s this “stuff” we didn’t intend to ingest in the first place that creates the health concern over food safety. Lactobacillus plantarum is so powerful in the body that it, in essence, will help block bad bugs…the “stuff”…from entering into the venous system (your bloodstream) via the stomach and intestines.
Similarly, it helps block the nutrients from entering the blood stream before they are ready to enter the blood stream. This reduced permeability is not to the nutrients that we need, but to the nutrients that are not ready to enter into the bloodstream (a condition that may be referred to as “leaky gut”).
Most food allergies are associated with some sort of allergic response to a protein. L. plantarum helps in the digestion of proteins down to their “usable” form: amino acids. This may help reduce the frequency of allergic reactions.
Move over Prozac, now there’s L. plantarum. L. plantarum has the ability to promote the absorption of omega- 3 fatty acids, which is said to play a paramount role in optimizing many facets of brain function, from depression, cognition, and memory to mental health. So, break out the cabbage, cauliflower, and carrots and culture yourself some Lactobaccilus plantarum.
Lactobacillus acidophilus is found in most fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. However, many non-dairy goodies have L. acidophilus such as miso and tempeh. Of the Lactobacillus strains, L. acidophilus is the most well-known, but what does it do for us? Isn’t it great that it’s found in many fermented dairy products? It helps with the production of lactase and that helps break down lactose (milk sugar) and increases its bioavailability to the body. If your body is able to use the lactose, that will make you a bit less…well…gassy. You see, some sugars are not bioavailable to the body and are consumed by the flora in our bodies for their own nutritional needs (we’ll talk about prebiotics in just a bit). When the bacteria “eat,” they produce gasses. We make carbon dioxide when we breathe (based on cellular metabolism). Many bacteria make their own carbon dioxide as well…and another gas called methane…pewee!! Yep, stinky and very flammable. When we, with the help of L. acidophilus, can break down these sugars into a usable form, we have less GI upset and…to put it plainly…fart a whole lot less.
Who needs statins? So you saw your doctor and he/she said that you have a cholesterol and triglyceride problem, “Let’s start taking statins.” Wait! Hold the phone! First of all (if I can get on my soap box), what if your cholesterol level is the right level for you specifically? Second of all, statins? For real? Statins are a class of drugs often prescribed by doctors to help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. But what about the side effects? You may have lowered your cholesterol and reduced your risk of a stroke or a heart attack, but increased risk of muscle pain, liver damage, kidney failure, and death. Death? Sure, risk of these very serious side effects is very low, and only happen in a few cases per year of the millions of patients taking statins. But, what if you could bypass the “death” risk and drink / eat rotted milk to lower your cholesterol? Maybe add a bit of natural coco and the old banana sitting on your counter to your keifer. Man-oh-man! What a treat!
Lactobacillus brevis is the third of the most popular Lactobacillus strains. If you are interested in fermenting pickles, you’ll be adding a lot of L. brevis into your diet. L. brevis is found in fermented pickles, vegetables, sauerkraut, and even sourdough (though not as much in cooked sourdough). It also likes to piggy-back on hops and is the bug usually responsible for beer spoilage (raw beer is another fermented goodie that has many health benefits).
L. brevis is said to improve your body’s immune function. Who knew that eating fermented pickles could protect you from the flu, colds, and a whole array of other “I-feel-bad” conditions? Feeling bad may not always be secondary to any particular illness. Inflammatory responses within the GI tract may be the culprit to the “in the dumps” feeling (no pun intended). The cool thing about L. brevis is its anti-inflammatory properties. Like an over-worked muscle that becomes sore after a hard-day’s work, our innards can become inflamed as well. Pain and discomfort and a general state of malaise can be associated with system-wide inflammation. Eating fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and many fermented dairy products can help with this inflammation though the support of live L. brevis.
It has cool anti-cancer properties, as well. Digestion of these L. brevis by test animals resulted in a striking suppression of colonic tumor formation and reduction of DNA damage (finally doing something good to those poor test animals).
Because L. brevis produces lactic acid, it will thrive in a low pH environment (acidic). One of the most acidic places on the earth is right in your stomach. The pH of stomach acid is 1.5 to 3.5. In comparison, battery acid is 1.0. L. brevis is able to survive this extreme acidic environment. L. brevis converts carbohydrates into lactic acid creates an environment with dependably low pH. Many pathogenic bacteria cannot tolerate the high acidity and are less likely to colonize in our bodies.
L. brevis is a natural treatment and prevention of vaginosis or trichomoniasis. L. brevis also produces high levels of hydrogen peroxide. Seems strange? Not really. Water is only ONE molecule away from being hydrogen peroxide, H2O vs. H2O2. This production of H2O2 is thought to remediate vaginosis and trichomoniasis. Like remediation of the pollution from a factory, L. brevis can remediate the pathogens that cause vaginosis and trichomoniasis.
Have you ever heard of Gause’s law? Gause’s law is also known as “the competitive exclusion principle.” To put it very simply, this law clarifies the principle that two species competing for the same resource cannot coexist. Have you ever been to a sold-out show or movie? There’s no place to sit, right? You look all over for a place to sit and to get established, but there are just no chairs. Consider yourself as the pathogen and all the other folks sitting in the chairs as L. brevis. If the pathogen has no place on the lumen walls in the intestine “to sit” then the pathogen cannot attach and begin proliferation thereby causing illness. Taking in more L. brevis from your fermented pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt will bring in more L. brevis to fill the chairs of the ones leaving the auditorium before the waiting pathogens can find a seat.
Bifidobacterium is a lesser-known probiotic that will support brain health! Wow! Who knew that eating rotten milk (yogurt, keifer, and buttermilk) would make you smarter?? Bifidobacterium can also help with the symptoms associated with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Though there are many strains of this beneficial probiotic, we’ll discuss the most popular two.
Bifidobacterium lactis is an assiduous (that’s a fun word) little bug that works wonders in your belly. Have you wondered why folks are all of a sudden being diagnosed with lactose intolerance? Maybe the intolerance is truly an intolerance, or maybe it’s because they need a bit of help breaking down the milk sugars with lactic acid-producing bacteria. It’s no wonder that B. lactis is found in raw and fermented dairy products (and not in ultra-pasteurized dairy products). But, you want to know something cool? The pasteurized dairy products in our grocery stores can be fermented and we’ll get all the cool health benefits from these foods.
Remember that we’ve talked about antibiotics and probiotics? Now we’re going to talk about prebiotics. Prebiotic means BEFORE life. All of the negative connotations of lactose is usually associated with the condition called lactose intolerance. Unlike the leg warmers everybody was talking about way back in the 80s, lactose is a naturally occurring sugar that has nothing to do with generational fads. So why are so many folks suddenly talking about lactose intolerance these days? Lactose is a prebiotic… a non-digestible components of milk that acts like “fertilizer” to probiotics. When that prebiotic sugar is not used by the probiotics in our bellies due to an absence or a reduced flora population, the sugars ferment by other means and bloating and discomfort can occur resulting in bowel inflammation. This condition will make you feel like the very “stuff” that’s in our bowels in the first place.
Like all of the probiotics, B. lactis uses the lactose in milk as its food and proliferates to an amazing number in our bellies. Sure, there are those folks that will have true lactose intolerance and those who may genuinely be allergic to milk (likely the milk proteins). But for many, they are missing out on the amazing benefits of lactose.
Bifidobacterium longum is found in all kinds of different fermented foods and even non-fermented foods. Did you know that Bifidobacterium longum or B. longum is found in breast milk? This is one of the first probiotics to colonize itself in the baby’s belly. What’s cool is how many probiotics we gather when at birth when we pass through…well…that may be a discussion for a different blog.
B. longum is found in yogurt and other types of fermented dairy foods, as well as cultured cruciferous vegetables like sauerkraut. Seems like sauerkraut keeps coming up. Hummmm…. And, like the other four popular probiotics, B. longum can help with diarrhea prevention, helping to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and super-charge your immune system. B. longum can grow in an anerobic (without oxygen) environment as well as an aerobic (with oxygen) environment. In other words, it’s an “aerotolerant” organism. I am not sure why that matters all that much to this topic, but was an interesting tidbit nonetheless.
What’s cool about this good bacteria is its appetite for pathogenic agents and free radicals. It munches them down like a Pac Man after eating a power dot!
Different probiotics will proliferate in different environments. What probiotic thrives in fermented milk may not thrive in sauerkraut. Likewise, your local flora will be different than another area’s local flora (what’s in Boise, Idaho may be different than what’s in Las Vegas, Nevada). But, unlike the old saying, “What happens in Vegas does NOT have to stay in Vegas.” Many cultures of good bacteria can be ordered from other communities around the world and cultivated on your very own kitchen counter top. Let me add this thought to change the resistant paradigm: Ever heard of sourdough bread? What about San Francisco sourdough bread? Marketing ploy? Nope! It’s because since the Gold Rush days, folks have recognized sourdough from San Francisco, California as being the BEST because of the unique local flora in that region. That local yeast flora was what gave the San Francisco sourdough its wonderful flavor. You can get different genetic strains of probiotics, just like you can get different strains of sourdough yeast, from all over the world on the good ol’ Internet. Check out eBay for a whole array of keifers, kombucha scabies, and kojis from all over the world.
You’ve sold me on health, now what about taste?
I remember my first attempt at making sauerkraut. I fermented pounds and pounds of cabbage and did not know what good, home-fermented foods taste like. I was a little afraid if the truth be known. So, I packed some up and went to see a friend of mine who is from Romania. I call him “Bud.” I went up with my pint-sized jar, “Here Bud, try this amazing sauerkraut.” (Yes. I am a little ashamed).
“Man, that’s good sauerkraut.”
So, I tried it and, sure enough, it tasted WAY better than that stuff in a jar.
I could suggest keifer or kombucha, but I’d rather make a suggestion that will not be such a shock to your taste buds that you never want to ferment again. It’s not that these foods are gross or taste bad, they just taste different. Sure, most fermented foods are an acquired taste. They are tangy, buttery, and sometimes even sour. If you ever get to try regular, raw yogurt for the first time and without all the fruit and cool flavors, you’d pucker up like you were the star at the local fair’s kissing booth. You’ll want to ease into this fermented world, and soon you’ll be craving the different flavors. I bet that your counter top will soon be full of many different bubbling and burping concoctions. I love the way sauerkraut tastes like tangy, buttered cabbage…well…that’s the way my taste buds “pick up on it.” My suggestion for your very first fermentation experiment is pickles. Yes, fermented dill pickles. If you ferment pickles just right, you’ll never go back to regular pickles (well, store-bought anyway). My second suggestion would be good ol’ fashion sauerkraut. I would love to share with you my recipes. If you’d like to learn about fermenting pickles, click here. If sauerkraut sounds better, click here. I will add more recipes and videos every once in a while, so come back often to see what’s what. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Instagram, and You Tube so you don’t miss the next posting.
So, that’s about it. Check out these two videos to see how to get started in fermenting your own foods. If you’re ready for the recipes, click the associated links. ENJOY!
* Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. People began using it to treat infections in 1942. Folks tend to try new things during desperate times…like war. Penicillin was initially used to treat soldiers who were ill or injured.
**A French chemist / microbiologist by the name Louis Pasteur invented the pasteurization technique in 1864.
*** There are three main forms of symbiosis: mutualism (both species WIN!), commensalism (one species WINS, and the other GETS NOTHING), parasitism (one species WINS, and the other flat-out LOSES).