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The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

If there's one food you should add to your journey to optimum health, this may well be it.  If you’re thinking dodgy supermarket sauerkraut in vinegar, think again, real fermented foods are so much better than this!

Fermenting is a bit of an art.  But there’s definitely some fun to be had in the kitchen.  This article is merely an introduction. To explore more, there are lots of free resources on the internet.  If you need a book recommendation “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz is excellent. And there are a number of workshops popping up these days.  We are sponsoring some workshops associated with the London chapter of the Weston A Price Foundation by proving some healthy Celtic Salt for the events.  Follow our Facebook page for details on workshops across the country. 

 

Why Ferment Foods?

We should probably look at this first. Without knowing "the why", a new taste sensation may not be quite enough (and the unusual flavours are intense, and a lovely culinary experience!).  

All fermented foods require an anaerobic (without air) process that either works because of naturally occurring bacteria, or introduces a starter culture, or both!    The types of food vary tremendously, but the methods are basically very similar, although with lots of interesting nuances and variations.

However they are made, fermented foods are packed with good bacteria. Different foods have different micro-organisms, so eating a variety has benefits.  It's no surprise that these foods are wonderfully healthy and healing for the digestive system.  The immune system and body pH are also positively affected, both important foundations for good health.

Certain nutrients and vitamins and minerals increase, concentrate, and become more bioavailable (easier to absorb).  Particularly worth highlighting is vitamin K2which can be very hard to acquire in adequate amounts in the diet. It's the least know vitamin, but the most common deficiency.   In part this in because of the rich array of enzymes found in fermented foods.   The amino acids are also more concentrated, and make a huge contribution to health and vitality. So really worth adding fermented foods to solve this issue.

Fermenting also breaks down nutrients that can be difficult to digest for some.  Phytates for example bind to minerals making them nutritionally devoid, but fermenting makes phytates useful in themselves.  Or another example, fermenting milk breaks down the lactose making it more suitable for those with dairy intolerance.

In short, fermented foods are really natural food supplements that you can make yourself!

 

Types of Fermented Food

People all over the world have been fermenting for thousands of years.  In times before freezers, or even cold storage, fermenting was a way to ensure vegetables were available at all times of year.  Often eaten in small amounts; it's about an incredible quality of nutrition not the excessive quantity of food that is often the norm in the West.  In many cultures, small amounts of fermented foods are eaten with every meal, and of course this has significant digestive benefits.   

 

Fermented Dairy

The obvious starting place is here. There’s simple yoghurt of course, but we have to be wary of many modern yoghurts that contain many anti-nutrients.  Here's our look at the crazy modern yoghurt industry.  In short, look for good quality live yoghurt that details the bacteria.

One of the very best types of fermented dairy, and the easiest to get hold of in this country is Kefir.  You can even buy this online these days with chilled deliveries, or buy starter grains and do it yourself, it takes up to 48 hours from introducing the cultures to reach the fully fermented state.   Or if you have a Polish delicatessen near you, they often stock it.  Truly, it is lovely, quite a different taste to yoghurt, and it is unsweetened of course.  Here’s a lovely company who sell both kefir drinks (from organic milk) and kefir starter grains - http://www.nourishkefir.co.uk.

For vegans, Kefir can also be made with coconut milk.

When we look to other cultures we find lots of fermented dairy...

  • Mongolia - tarag, a sour yogurt. 
  • In India, chaas - buttermilk flavoured with salt and spices.
  • Matsoni comes from Russia and gives a smooth pouring yogurt.
  • In Sweden it’s Filmjöl.
  • Viili uses yeast and lactic acid bacteria and is loved in Finland.
  • Piimä is also Scandinavian and is very sour, and quite like cheese.
  • Matsoni is Eastern European.

 

So it seems everywhere ferments dairy except us? It's so common in the world's healthiest cultures.

Actually, once upon a time this was from the case. Buttermilk is still found on shop shelves, but it’s a world away from traditional buttermilk.  Today it is nutritionally devoid, skimmed and pasterurised milk.  But really, this is a wonderful food that should be fermented slowly for as long as 36 hours.  You can make your own of course if this is something you would like to experiment with.  Also in the UK, from Scotland is a drink made from separated milk solids called Blaand.  This one has high alcohol levels.

Real aged cheese is of course fermented, but many modern processed cheeses are not.  Once again, the big food companies have a lot to answer for here.  Traditonally matured cheese from your local producers are best on this front, or try some of the online retailers. 

 

Fermented Vegetables

This process uses salt, or brine.  When done properly, they will be crunchy and full of taste.  Sadly, a lot of foods that were traditionally fermented have found themselves on supermarket shelves in jars of vinegar, these don’t have the same benefits.   Many shop bought products are also pasteurised which destroys the very bacteria that makes real fermented foods so valuable.  Fermenting vegetables is not a process that lends itself well to mass production and is therefore not something the large food companies are interested in. 

But when it comes to pickles, you can often find some good ones just in a salt solution even in supermarkets.   But your local delicatessen or international food store is likely to have an array of fermented vegetables and pickles, such as olives, onions, cucumbers, artichokes, peppers and mushrooms.  Sauerkraut and kimchi are two of the worlds most well known fermented vegetables, and they are incredibly good for you.

The key ingredient is the salt.  And for the very best results, this should be the wonderful Celtic Salt which itself is packed with minerals and trace elements.  If you make your own with this healthy salt, you are going to have the best fermented veg possible.  We have been very proud to sponsor the Weston A Price Foundation London conference for the past couple of years, and provide Celtic Salt for fermenting workshops and for delegate’s lunch!

If you want to experiment, you will need a recipe book (again, Sandor Katz is a great starting place) and some relevant jars.  Whilst fermenting, these “crocks” filled with brine protect the veg from any air reaching and spoiling the contents.  For vegetables, these are simply diced and pounded with the salt for ten minutes or so to release the juices.  Some recipes call for spices such as chilli or other flavours to be added.  

Vegetables can be fermented from just a few days to many months, and can range from a mild sour taste, to an incredibly potent one.  Everyone’s tastes are different, and it is really a case of experimentation.   There is so much variation, and so many ideas you can try, investing in a book is worthwhile.

 

Fermented Bread

Sourdough is probably the best known of these.  We don’t advocate the over consumption of grains, but this is wonderful now and again, whole wheat sourdough of course being preferable. It requires the use of a starter culture, you can try it yourself, and you can also pick this up quite easily these days from both supermarkets and bakers (do make sure it is a brown sourdough however).   The slow process breaks down the carbohydrates into a far more digestible food enhanced by the friendly bacteria.  Additionally, unlike many home baked / fresh breads that are really only lovely on the day of baking, sourdough lasts much longer. 

You can also now buy sprouted flours, and these are even better again for making fermented bread, with the grains being far more digestible even before the fermenting process!

There was a brilliant piece on Radio 4 on Sourdough bread on Sunday 16th September, well worth a listen - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mnpzv

 

Fermented Fish and Meat

This concept might strike horror into some, fermenting rather than cooking sounding a very risky procedure indeed!  But in fact, this too is a very traditional (and safe) way of preparation.  In Scandinavian countries, fermenting fish remains ever popular, but these techniques are also found all over the world. Africa for example has many dried, salted and fermented meat products.  Asia of course is well known for some intense fish sauces, many of these are traditional fermented products.    Salt is again a key part of this process.  And these methods are really far healthier than additives and processing ingredients found in many products found on supermarket shelves!

It is worth mentioning here the Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil.  This is the only supplement of its kind in the World, and we are extremely proud to supply it.  Other cod liver oil is refined and processed so much that synthetic vitamins A and D have to be added back because they have been destroyed! The Blue Ice Cod Liver Oil is however is literally one of the most nutrient dense supplements available today, and the best natural way to get vitamin D.  The Vikings loved fermented fish livers, it is an ancient tradition.  Still today it is carried out slowly, and gently, just with modern manufacturing and hygiene standards rather than vats outside the back door!

 

Fermented Soya

The only soya you should be eating is fermented soya, and this is the way it is enjoyed in the East, where they eat small amounts as a condiment, it is most certainly not a staple food.  The non fermented soy that we are seeing in virtually all processed foods these days is not the same thing at all, and should be avoided. There are a number of issues with soya, and especially highly processed GM soya which unsurprisingly, much soya in the West is.  Fundamentally, it has become a huge part of the food chain because it is a by product, that has been transformed into a staple food stuff, as a very successful money making exercise by the big food companies. 

The fermented types of soya are miso, tempeh, natto, tamari, and some tofu – be careful with this, because not all tofu is the traditional fermented type.

 

Fermented Drinks

Some of these are worth seeking out as well.  The first is very familiar – ginger beer, this British beverage is a fermented drink if you can find a traditionally made one.  And real traditional ales are also fermented, so pop to the pub and enjoy these now and again, they really are very good for you!  

The most well known of the international ones is kombucha which is a fermented tea.  It dates back to the Chinese dynasties of 200bc!   It has wonderful health properties, and in the East it is considered to help good "chi" within the body.   There are now several online suppliers of this lovely drink and some health food stores stock it, raw and unpasteurised is the best.  You can also buy starter cultures and make this yourself. 

Other fermented drinks include Kvass which is found in much of Eastern Europe.   Sima is from Finland and is made from lemons, sugar and yeast.  Boza is found mainly in Egypt and Turkey and uses millet as a base.

 

Fermented Probiotics

We have an amazing probiotic supplement that starts with fermented foods as base, then probiotics are added.  It is very interesting as this means that the probiotics travel with their own food source. This makes them so much more effective than normal probiotics.  A true living food that makes it convenient to get the benefits of fermented foods every day - see Supergreen Probiotic.

 

A Note for The Sensitive Type

If you are extremely sensitive, it may be wise to introduce slowly to fermented foods, but we would certainly encourage you to stick with this area of nutrition.  It is something that will support very sensitive allergic types become more robust in their system.

 

And finally....

We hope you have enjoyed this introduction to fermented foods, and that it is something you might experiment with, do let us know how you get on! 

 

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