he very best thing about a traditional diet has got to be the ferments! Mmm! I’m talking about kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and fermented dill pickles! But, if I’m being honest, these foods used to be terrifying!
Kombucha was nothing like sweet tea (which I fell in love with after living in Virginia). Milk kefir was pretty tart compared to the vanilla flavored yogurt I used to buy. Sauerkraut? GROSS! And fermented dill pickles were a far cry from those crunchy dills you buy in the refrigerator section at the store! (You know the ones I mean!)
I used to conjure up images of rotting, putrid food when I’d hear someone mention “ferments”, but this was the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, there is an adjustment period for your taste buds when you first try fermented food. They are much more “tart” or “sour” than the average person is accustomed to. But the benefits to the body are soon felt, and even craved. I wouldn’t have believed it until the day I started craving sauerkraut! #WHAT?
The sad truth is, our society (as a whole) eats far too many processed, sugar-laden foods, devoid of any real nutrition or benefit to our bodies. And these foods have altered what “good” actually tastes like.
We don’t like beverages unless they’re highly sweetened (typically by high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners, both of which are highly damaging in their own ways). We’ve become accustomed to foods that have hidden sugar lurking inside. You may not want to look, but do you know all the ingredients in your food? I was surprised by how much sugar is hiding in such unsuspecting places! It’s in salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, condiments (woah ketchup!)…and even cans of soup!?
Sugar makes things taste better. Well…more accurately…sugar makes little receptors in our brain fire, which releases a feel good hormone, which equates pleasure with the sugary food we’re consuming. So, in a sense, we think the food tastes better, but what’s slowly happening is an addiction to sweet, which in turn makes healthier foods taste bitter or sour.
Because of these “high-sugar, low-fat” diets, our bodies not only crave more sugar, but they also crave more refined carbohydrates. Remember our discussion of “good guys” and “bad guys“? The harmful bacteria in our gut thrives off of sugar. When we cut back on sugar and empty carbohydrates (modern grains, white sugar, cereal, cookies, etc.) these bad guys cry out for their food source, causing some serious cravings for empty carbs which would result in a flood of insulin and sugar for “quick energy” (as well as fat storage…sigh!).
How exactly does fermenting work?
Fermentation occurs when bacteria (either naturally present on the food or from a culture) transform sugar and starch into beneficial bacteria and acids. These fermented foods and beverages supply lactobacilli which helps us feel satisfied after a meal. They also provide lactic acid and enzymes that aid in digestion and proper absorption of nutrients.
For fermented beverages, you will often need the help of a culture, such as a SCOBY or kefir grains (milk or water). These SCOBY’s, or Symbiotic Cultures of Bacteria and Yeast, are what consume the sugars present in milk, sweet tea or sweetened water. However, in the case of raw milk, natural fermentation can occur when the milk is left at room temperature. After a couple days, the naturally occurring bacteria will cause the milk to spontaneously separate or “clabber”. This happens because the lactic-acid producing bacteria have digested both the lactose (milk sugar) and casein (milk protein) preserving the milk from spoilage for several days.
Fruits and vegetables are fermented by the lactic-acid producing bacteria that is present on all living things and feeds off the sugar and starch present in the food. Typically, the foods are chopped or diced and mixed with salt. They are then pounded to release their natural juices and pressed into an air tight container. The salt inhibits putrefying bacteria until enough lactic acid is built up to preserve the food for many months. Another option is the use of fresh whey (not powdered or store bought), this reduces the amount of time needed for lactic acid to preserve the food.
Why are fermented foods so good for us?
Fermented foods and beverages can play an important roll in finding the right balance of good:bad bacteria in your gut (as will healthy fats).
Because fermented foods are low in sugar and high in probiotics, they are a fantastic way to find balance in your gut. Many fermented foods contain Vitamin K2 and B-Vitamins, and can help ward off illness due to the production of antibodies to pathogens.
Fermented foods aid in detoxification because they contain some of the best chelators around (agents that bind to heavy metals removing them from our system). These chelators are the beneficial bacteria which are capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals.
Is there a downside to fermented foods?
Yes, every path has its puddle, and it is possible to experience some adverse and uncomfortable side effects when introducing fermented foods. For this reason, it is my recommendation to start small (say 1 teaspoon with each meal) and wait to see how your body responds.
Symptoms can include gas or bloating, headache, nausea, constipation/diarrhea and even hives or rashes*. If you’re able, do try to ride these symptoms out. Don’t assume these side effects are your body not responding well to fermented foods, quite often it’s the exact opposite. We don’t want to let the temporary bad keep us from the long-term good. So start slowly and listen to your body. If symptoms are too severe, back off a little and only have fermented foods once a day, 1/2-1 teaspoon at a time.
*Die-off symptoms are usually accompanied by stricter dietary changes such as the “Candida Diet” where all sugar, fruit, dairy and grains are eliminated until the bad bacteria starve and “die off”. These symptoms tend to be more severe than side effects you may notice from simply adding fermented foods.