Fermented Foods: A Flavorful Journey into Ancient Culinary Traditions
Fermentation, a captivating chemical process that unveils hidden flavors and enhances nutritional value, has been a part of human food culture for millennia. Although the term "fermentation" might immediately evoke thoughts of beer or other alcoholic beverages, its scope is far broader, encompassing a rich variety of foods that have been transformed by the magical touch of microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and fungi.
Unlocking the Magic of Fermentation: More Than Just Beer
Fermentation, in a chemical context, refers to the conversion of sugars into alcohol, energy, and carbon dioxide, all without the presence of oxygen. Yet, when we talk about incorporating fermented foods into our diet, we aren't advocating for excessive beer consumption. Beer, though itself a product of fermentation, is just a single facet of this diverse culinary landscape.
While beer contains certain health-promoting compounds like B vitamins, especially folate, it's important to approach consumption with moderation in mind. Clinical studies have highlighted that moderate beer intake can contribute to increased folate levels and beneficial organic acids in the colon. However, excessive consumption of beer can lead to undesirable consequences such as weight gain and health issues. It's a reminder that just because something is fermented doesn't necessarily equate to it being universally beneficial. Context and balance are key when considering nutrition choices, as we discussed in a previous article.
Beyond Beer: Fermented Foods Unveiled
Moving beyond the realm of beer, fermented foods hold an entire universe of flavors, textures, and health benefits. Recent research has shown that you need not turn to alcohol to reap the rewards of fermentation. For instance, kombucha, a fermented tea, offers an even broader range of nutritional and probiotic benefits compared to beer. Recent research reviews have shown that this effervescent elixir not only reduces oxidative stress and inflammation but also enhances liver detoxification and cultivates a healthier gut microbiome, supporting obesity and metabolic health management.
Kombucha is still an active product of research as it continues to reveal its complexity and secrets secrets for health. Among its many components, GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), a neurotransmitter which is responsible for a sense of calmness and contentment, stands out. While studies are ongoing, we are trying to understand the potential of GABA in fermented foods and kombucha to influence brain function and promote a tranquil state. It sort of makes sense as when we get the excitement of eating food from glutamate, we then turn that into GABA that gives us a sense of contented calm. Whether we can get that sense from foods with GABA is something we have yet to learn.
A Wide Spectrum of Fermentation
Fermentation is a process in which microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and fungi break down complex foods into simpler compounds. This transformative process occurs both within our own bodies, driven by our gut microbiota, and externally, as seen in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, vinegar, yogurt, and cheese. This age-old technique plays a pivotal role in enhancing the flavour, texture, and nutritional value of these foods, making them culinary delights loved worldwide.
Fermenting for Health: A Multifaceted Approach
The benefits of fermented foods stem from various levels. These foods can serve as natural probiotics, contributing to a healthy gut microbiome. Additionally, they produce valuable organic acids, such as acetic acid found in vinegar, and butyric acid, an indicator of good colonic health. Many of these fermentation processes mirror what occurs within our own guts, presenting us with an opportunity to consume the products of microorganisms outside our bodies, to bolster our well-being.
Exploring Ancient Wisdom: Fermented Traditions
Across cultures and millennia, fermented foods have been revered and consumed. From Vikings (fil and beer), to Gladiators (cheese and wine) to Samurai (natto and sake), and Aboriginal Australians (mangaitch beverage from Banskia and kambuda from pandanus nuts), fermented foods are the stuff of legends. The fact that humans have evolved over thousands of years with fermented foods as a part of their diet, is a strong indicator that we should not have eliminated these foods from our diets. Real fermented cheese for example is a strong and healthy part of the Mediterranean diet and includes so many different types of microbes and their products. I only just appreciated recently in Italy that as I sat there drinking a glass of red wine and slices of Pecorino, that I was eating the food of Gladiators since thousands of years, in exactly the same place.
Beware of Imitations: Embrace Authentic Fermentation
It's crucial to differentiate true fermented foods from their imitations. Industrialized yoghurts that lack genuine fermentation microorganisms or their products, fall short of providing the true benefits of fermented foods. Thickeners and preservatives can't replicate the intricate microbiome ecosystems present in authentic fermented foods. These imitations cannot replace the true goodness that comes from embracing genuine fermentation, which can help us reduce our reliance on chemical preservatives and supplements while expanding our nutrition and flavour horizons. Industrialised food simply doesn't cut the mustard! (excuse the pun - yes mustard traditionally was meant to be a fermented product).
Embrace the Magic of Fermentation
We have extended the rediscovery of fermentation to that of seaweed, and there are many future product concepts in development here. However, we have already launched seaweed-based kombucha, Phycobucha, offering an enticing blend of seaweed and fermented molecules, a fusion of flavours and nutrition. Like a drink of SeaFibre with vitamins. While Phycobucha might not be widely available yet due to the cold distribution requirements of a live culture, it is on tap and by the bottle in selected cafes, pubs and shops across Australia. Make sure you ask for it in your local store to spread the word!
A Bounty of Fermented Delights Awaits
Whether it's the tang of lactic acid fermentation found in yogurt and kimchi, the tradition of sourdough bread and kombucha, the tangy allure of vinegar, or the protein-packed promise of tempeh, the world of fermented foods beckons with open arms. As you explore these culinary wonders, remember that fermentation is a testament to the art of balance, tradition, and the transformational power of microorganisms.
Here are some different types of fermentation processes and the foods they produce, and how you can get the benefits of both seaweed and fermentation nutrition into your diet:
Lactic Acid Fermentation:
- Foods: Yogurt, kefir, fil, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, some cheeses.
- Microorganisms: Lactic acid bacteria (e.g., Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Bacillus).
- Process: These bacteria convert sugars (usually lactose) into lactic acid. The acidification preserves the food, imparts a tangy flavour, and creates a sour environment that inhibits harmful bacteria. Pecorino is the choice of Gladiators, Natto, the breakfast of Samurai is growing in interest because of the bacteria that are used, Bacillus, that produce lots of Vitamin K. This process also reduces, but does not eliminate, the amount of lactose in foods which is enough for some lactose tolerant people.
- What to eat:
Ethanol and Lactic Acid Fermentation (Mixed Fermentation):
- Foods: Sourdough bread, Kombucha,
- Microorganisms: Wild yeasts (for ethanol) and lactic acid bacteria.
- Process: In mixed fermentation, a mixture of yeast and lactic acid bacteria is used, and usually it is a wild type culture and a balance that is maintained, sometimes for months to years. But the yeast and bacteria in the “starter culture or SCOBY” (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) can be the naturally occurring wild type in flour and vary over time. Yeast produces ethanol and carbon dioxide which leven (rise) the dough, while lactic acid bacteria contribute to the sour flavour and improved keeping qualities. This shifting of fermentation processes is why mixed fermentations can take some time, like you might have heard of a 36 hour sourdough bread. This process also reduced the amount of gluten left in bread substantially, although not gluten free which is important for the protein content and texture of a good sourdough.
- What to eat:
Acetic Acid Fermentation:
- Foods: Vinegar
- Microorganisms: Acetobacter bacteria.
- Process: Ethanol is oxidised by Acetobacter bacteria to produce acetic acid. This process gives vinegar its characteristic tangy taste and is used in the production of various types of vinegar. A classic of the Mediterranean Diet.
What to eat:
- Natural vinegars in salad dressings, try a pasta salad with Sea Shells or Sea Sprials.
- Foods: Tempeh
- Microorganisms: Rhizopus mould.
- Process: Cooked and de-hulled soybeans are inoculated with Rhizopus mould spores. The mould binds the beans into a compact cake, producing enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates and proteins, making them more digestible.
- What to eat: Add tempeh to seaweed noodle laksa for a delicious Asian meal full of nutrition.
There are even Fermented Meats:
- Foods: Salami, pepperoni, sausages, sour herrings.
- Microorganisms: Lactic acid bacteria, various moulds.
- Process: Lactic acid bacteria help preserve the meat and contribute to the tangy flavour. Molds on the casing can also help with drying and flavour development. Some flavour development is on the way to strong side, like sour herrings in bulging cans of gas, and eaten only by the hardiest of Vikings alive today in the north of Sweden. However, processed meats, like alcohol, should be consumed in moderation and few of the industrialized products are actually fermented.
These are just a few examples of fermentation processes and the foods they produce. But watch this space as we are actively developing new fermented seaweed products. Fermentation has played a significant role in creating diverse, healthy and flavourful foods enjoyed around the world for thousands of years – let’s go back to basics for a better future.