The modern consumer is not disconnected with fermented foods, they’re disconnected with the fermentation process. In a discussion between fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz and well-renowned epidemiologist Tim Spector, the two experts agree that, if gut health is going to improve, humans need to eat a diet rich in fermented foods.
“The thing that has disappeared from most people’s lives is familiarity with the process of fermentation. And because it has largely disappeared into factories, we imagine that it must require sterile conditions, require a microscope or a knowledge of microbiology,” says Katz, fermentation author and educator. “We project all of our anxiety about the idea of cultivating bacteria onto the process of fermentation, when in fact fermentation is a strategy for safety and people have been doing it with the simplest of facilities without any knowledge of microbiology for literally thousands of years.”
Katz and Spector, professor at King’s College London and author of the book “The Diet Myth,” discussed fermented foods on an episode of the ZOE Science & Nutrition Podcast. Listener questions revolved around safety. Consumers understand fermented foods are good for them, but are still leery about eating live bacteria.
“Fermentation is the hot craze in fancy restaurants across the western world. But these foods make us uneasy,” said Jonathan Wolf, podcast host and CEO of Zoe. “The idea of letting food rot and then eating it goes against everything our parents taught us. …Five years ago, when I started Zoe, I really had no idea what fermentation was. To be honest, fermented foods sounded like something I would have to throw in the trash.”
Wolf asked Katz why even talk about fermentation if it’s a niche. Katz, credited with revitalizing fermentation in the U.S. and Europe, disagreed.
“Every person in every part of the world eats and drinks products of fermentation almost every day. I’m not sure how you could call that a niche type of food,” Katz said, listing off popular fermented foods: bread, cheese, cured meats, condiments, olives, pickles, coffee, chocolate, vanilla, wine and beer. “Foods that are really everyday foods are products of fermentation.”
Most of today’s consumers are victims of what Katz calls the “war on bacteria…the indoctrination that bacteria are our enemies.” Fermentation, though, is an integral part of foodways all over the world. He adds: “Fermentation is an essential part of how people everywhere have been able to make effective use of whatever kinds of food resources are available to them.”
Fermented foods and beverages are experiencing a popularity boost in part because of the growing health and wellness trend. Ferments have a high amount of nutrients and live microbes, which improve gut health. While there are some cases of proven health benefits of consuming fermented foods, Spector points out fermented foods have not all been fully tested.
Still, there’s enough evidence to indicate we should be eating fermented foods. Korea, Spector says, has one of the healthiest westernized populations. They’re eating an average of 36 kilograms a year per person. That’s an extra probiotic supplement of 20 species, including yeasts and fungi, things you won’t find in a health food store, Spector says.
“It helps your gut microbes (because)…you’re getting the prebiotic and the probiotic. The fertilizer and the seeds both at the same time,” Spector says. “That’s what’s unique about those sorts of types of fermented vegetables that we don’t often talk about. And that’s probably why they potentially have greater health benefits than just the pure microbes on their own. … It’s that double system of both feeding the original contents of your gut microbes, stimulating new ones to grow more of the good guys, and consuming these probiotic microbes that don’t live in humans. Just passing through has a beneficial effect.”
Spector compares those commensal microbes to a rich, American cruise ship passing through a poor, island community. They come in, spend loads of money to dispense through the local economy, then leave.
Live vs. Shelf Stable Products
Though products like bread and sauerkraut are fermented, that doesn’t mean all bread and sauerkraut are fermented. Highly processed, shelf-stable versions kill off the beneficial live microbes.
“There’s been an explosion in the UK of things like kefirs and kombuchas that you can buy in stores, and there’s a suspicion that many of them do not contain live microbes,” Spector says. Brands use ultra-fine filtration systems to get rid of microbes; they pasteurize products to ship it around the country; they add lots of sugars that inhibit the microbes; they make vinegars with such high acidification that it kills the microbes and the mother.
“It’s great to have these products, but I feel they could be exploited,” he adds.
Spector said there’s not a word for a true fermented food yet – he suggested using the term “live fermented food” – so consumers need to read labels at the grocery store. A kefir or kombucha can have between 10-30 varieties of microbes, but you may only be getting only one depending on what brand you buy.
Live ferments will generally be in the refrigerated food section. Heat processed, shelf stable foods are usually on the grocery store shelf.
Katz encourages consumers to steer away from bigger, national brands when purchasing ferments and instead buy from smaller, regional brands who don’t need to process their ferments to ship.
“The more educated you are, the more quality products you can find,” he says, advocating for people to research their food.
He points out the trend of the “lightly fermented soft drinks” can fool consumers, too. These drinks often have a high sugar content with no real benefit to the microbiome, Katz says. Though they can be a great replacement for traditional, sugar-filled sodas, you’re still drinking a lot of sugar.
“Anything sugar-sweetened, you really want to exercise restraint and moderation,” he says.
Katz ended the podcast with his five tips for anyone wanting to try fermented products.
- Don’t be afraid to try it. Katz: “Do not project all of the anxiety you’ve ever had about bacteria onto the process of fermentation. Understand that these are ancient practices that have been tested over time and that they are extremely safe.”
- Understand the conditions. Fermentation is about manipulating the environment for optimal growing conditions. Understand what they are to support lactic acid bacteria and avoid spoilage organisms.
- Don’t overthink it. Accept the simplicity of the fermentation process. Don’t obsess over what could go wrong.
- Experiment. Katz points out there are unlimited variations of fermented food combinations. “Don’t be afrait to play around.”
- Be creative. There are many fermented foods to incorporate in the diet. The hard part for beginners is getting accustomed to them. Try combinations that work for you – kimchi on eggs or pickles in salad dressings, for example.