Traditional peoples around the globe have celebrated the eating of cultured foods (fermented food products that are rich in friendly bacteria) for centuries. Korean kimchi, Russian beet kvass, German sauerkraut, eastern European kefir, and Japanese miso are just a few examples of this time-honored culinary tradition.
The process of lacto-fermentation preserves the food and magically produces a lip-puckering sour taste that enlivens your body with healthy bacteria. Fermented food also aids in the digestion of what it accompanies, hence its everyday use as a condiment in many cultures. History tells us that men have crossed deserts and seas with their beloved fermented foods as their best protection against infection and for preservation of health.
The typical American diet is severely lacking in cultured foods. To add insult to injury, our addiction to processed food, antibiotics and stress leads to a pretty sad story in our guts. Furthermore, increasing numbers of babies are birthed through C-section and fed formula, which deprives them of crucial inoculation from mom’s good bugs. Without the right ecology in our gut, we are vulnerable to attack and our bellies are inefficient in doing all the things we need them to do. It is clear we are very deficient in friendly bacteria, but don’t despair! Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to get cultured foods into the diet and supplement with probiotics—like lactobacillus acidophilus- to start building a strong, efficient bacterial terrain.
First - Lets meet the bugs.
Our bodies, inside and out, are teeming with bacteria. In fact, it’s estimated that there are more bacteria living in the intestinal tract than there are cells in the body! It may sound creepy, but these little critters play several crucial roles for us and must be kept in a delicate balance. It’s a microcosmic jungle out there, and my mantra for keeping the peace is: You gotta have good bugs!
Healthy bacteria, or popular probiotics like acidophilus and bifidus, have some very important jobs.
Here we go:
Immune System: Think of probiotics as part of your body’s army. Probiotics act as the first line of defense on our skin, in our bellies and on all mucous membranes. They make anti-microbials, which kill off unwanted critters and physically crowd out bad organisms. Research shows that frequent probiotic use can reduce incidence of lung and urinary tract infections as well effectively prevent yeast overgrowth after antibiotic use.
Belly Health: A healthy digestive tract absolutely depends on having the right bacterial balance. And a healthy body requires good digestion. So probiotics are on the very top of my list to get in food or in supplemental form. Research shows that probiotics strengthen the stomach lining (reducing food allergy development) and prevent infectious diarrhea (food poisoning, stomach bugs). During a summer externship in India I took probiotics religiously, and I was the only one of 15 medical students who didn’t get the infamous “Delhi Belly.” Probiotics can also dramatically help problems in the digestive tract such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrhea and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).
Vitamin Production: Many people are unaware that probiotics are also hard at work making vitamins for us. They produce vitamin K, biotin, and folic acid as well as special fats like short chain fatty acids, which keep the colon healthy.
How can I get these awesome critters into my diet?!?
I’m glad you asked.
It is easier to get cultured food (and therefore healthy bacteria) into your diet than you may think. Here is a list to choose from (and if you make your own, the list is endless).
Yogurt (dairy or non)
Kefir (dairy or non)
Aged, unpasteurized miso
Fermented drinks: Rejuvelac, Good Belly, KeVita, Kvass
Supplement~ Nourish Me Superfood powder** has 3 billion probiotics per serving. There are many probiotic products on the market (good quality is important!)
Make your own!
It really is fun making your own lacto-fermented foods! You don’t need to mash cabbage with your feet in huge earthen pots that get hermetically sealed and buried for a year (although that sounds fun too). You just need some wide mason jars, good salt and clean organic vegetables. You can even add chopped cabbage and other veggies to your leftover live kraut juice and add some water, and it will begin the process again. You can easily make your own yogurt, kombucha or a huge variety of cultured vegetables. Perhaps it will appeal to the little kid in you who enjoys science experiments or make you feel more connected with your ancestors (picture them singing songs around the crock!).
This weekend we were feeling krauty and invited our friends over for a kimchi playdate (I know, really cool ;)). While the kids wildly ran around the house, the three adults cleaned, chopped and massaged veggies for an hour or so. We filled our ceramic crock (and again, you don’t need a crock, but I couldn’t resist getting one), and now we will wait for three weeks or so before unveiling our beloved culture experiment. We can start eating it after a week, and I may peek in a few days to make sure the veggies are at least an inch under the brine and to remove any “scum” forming on top. If you are jazzed up about fermenting on your own, below are some resources to get you started on your culturing voyage.
Our kimchi adventure:
Cabbage, radish, carrots, burdock, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic, and ginger.
Peeled and washed thoroughly, then chopped. Cabbage sprinkled well with sea salt and smooshed until the liquid was easily squeezing out (my husband’s job). Next, we poured it into a very clean crock, pushed it down as hard as possible, covered with big cabbage leaves, weighted it down with the ceramic thing that came with it, covered and then sealed with water.
Here are some of my favorite sources on cultured foods and building a healthy bacterial balance:
“Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz
“Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
“Body Ecology Diet” by Donna Gates
Gaps diet info: www.gaps.me
Portland, Oregon places to buy cultured foods: “Salt Fire and Time” and local co-ops.
NOTE: I find it really hard to trust the packaged kimchi in the Asian markets. They often are loaded with MSG and even food dyes. There are lovely packaged kimchis at the healthy markets though, and always look for raw or unpasteurized, as they have all the good bugs still intact.