by Catherine Haug, June 18, 2011; updated August 4 & 28, 2011
ESP recently hosted a panel presentation at our August 2011 gathering, on the topic of lacto-fermentation (See Gathering Summary: Lacto-Fermentation, with Don Bates & Jeanette Cheney). But perhaps you’re not sure what that means, or why it is important for your health. If so, read on….
Examples of lacto-fermented foods
[NOTE: ESP has hosted events in the past on how to make some of these items, as indicated by the links to gathering summaries/files.]
- yogurt or kefir
- sour cream
- creme fraiche
- cream cheese (June 2011 gathering; summary not yet available)
- cheese; see also Making Cheese with Kalispell Kreamery Pasteurized Milk
- salt cured meats, such as summer sausage and dry salami
- sauerkraut (not cured with vinegar)
- pickles (not cured with vinegar)
- Greek olives (Kalamata)
- brined olives
- real chutney, marmalade
- sourdough starter *
- beer & wine *
Note that many of these foods can also be made without lacto-fermentation; for example, pickling in vinegar, but then they are without the flavor, health and nutrition benefits of lacto-fermentation. Or they can be lacto-fermented to create the flavor in the food and then canned or otherwise heat-treated, which ‘undoes’ the health benefit of the lacto-fermentation (and seriously degrades taste and texture).
* Those foods marked with the asterisk are yeast-dominant ferments. See the next section for more on this.
What is lacto-fermentation?
This is certainly a big word that is not used much in ordinary conversation. Perhaps this is why Sandor Katz decided to give his book the sexy title of “Wild Fermentation” (1).
Fermentation involves the working of beneficial microbes on food to make it more nutritious and to prolong the life of the food (preservation). These microbes produce lactic acid, acetic acid (vinegar) and other acids; alcohols; carbon dioxide; enzymes; antioxidants; and vitamins.
- Lacto-fermentation: For some ferments (such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles), the predominant microbes are bacteria that digest sugars to produce lactic acid.
- Yeast fermentation: For other ferments (such as sourdough starter and beer), the predominant microbes are yeast that produce CO2 and alcohol.
The balance between these types of fermentation is affected by the pH of the fermenting mixture, temperature, and other factors.
Main benefits of fermentation:
- Improved nutrition: as opposed to canning, which diminishes much of the nutrient content in the food, lacto-fermentation adds nutrients to the food (like enzymes, vitamins, and cofactors), and disables anti-nutrients (like phytates and lectins), so that you can absorb nutrients already present in food.
- Improved digestion: provides probiotic microbes that produce enzymes, acidifies the bowel (making bad microbes unwelcome), and improves bowel transit time. Many cultures practice an ancient tradition of consuming health-promoting lacto-fermented foods and beverages before and during a meal to enhance digestion. For example: Lassi or Dahi in India (cultured yogurt beverage); Kefir in Bulgaria (cultured milk beverage); Pickled Veggies in Japan & Korea; Fil Mjolk or Villi in Scandinavia; Sauerkraut or Kimchi in Germany & Korea; Marmalade and Chutney in Britain and India.
- Detoxifies certain foods: Foods such as raw grains contain toxic substances, primarily lectins (gluten contains a lectin) that cause distress for many people. Fermenting these foods breaks down much of the lectins, reducing toxicity (See The Problem with Unfermented Grains for more). Cassava is a fruit that contains cyanide, a known poison; but a soaking process involving lacto-fermentation breaks down the cyanide to render the fruit edible.
- Improved flavor: Do you prefer the flavor of yogurt or kefir to that of milk? Or dill pickles to that of raw cucumbers? Or mango chutney to that of fresh mangoes? Or sourdough bread to that of white bread?
- Preservation: the lactic acid produced by the fermentation process makes the food too acidic for most bad microbes, so they won’t attempt to set up housekeeping in your sauerkraut.
- Pro-life (probiotic): The beneficial microbes involved in lacto-fermentation are common probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidus bacteria, and beneficial yeasts. They are an important part of a healthy diet, as some colonize and others transit the bowel, providing our first line of defense against invading microbes and illness. See the next section for more.
You may already be taking probiotic capsules for digestive health, but eating a lacto-fermented food with every meal provides far more probiotics than the capsules.
Where do the fermentation microbes come from?
All healthy creatures (plant and animal) have an acid mantle on the surface, which provides a home to beneficial microbes. For example, that lovely bloom on the surface of grapes, plums and berries. It is these microbes that do the work of fermentation of that food. For example, the bacteria and yeast that form sourdough natural leaven are present on the grain and in the flour.
Mothers’ milk is also rich in lacto-microbes; this includes milk from dairy animals such as cows, sheep and goats, as long as it is raw. The whey which naturally separates from the casein portion of milk when cultured, is very rich in lacto-microbes and can be used to jump-start lacto-fermentation of other foods.
Even the bacteria in supplemental probiotics are grown by lacto-fermentation of a substrate such as milk (but these supplements provide far fewer probiotic bacteria than a small serving of a lacto-fermented food).
A note on the probiotic power of mothers’ milk:
Inside the womb, we are fed from our mother’s placenta, and protected by our mother’s immune system, but once we are born we are on our own. Our first drink of mother’s milk provides us with billions of lacto-fermenting microbes that form colonies in our guts, to protect us from harmful microbes and to help us digest the milk and other foods. Each subsequent drink of that precious white blood fortifies our microbial colonies (provided it is raw).
While these should not replace lacto-fermented foods in your diet, they are a good supplement to add to your daily regime. Choose one that contains several species of both Lactobacillus and Bifidus strains; for example, Jarro-Dophilus EPS (from Jarrow) or Primadophilus (from Nature’s Way).
Dr. Mercola (3) provides the following advice to optimize the benefits of probiotic supplements; however, these should not be a substitute for lacto-fermented foods.
- Take it prior to eating breakfast with a glass of pure water
- Wait 10-15 minutes after taking it before you eat because stomach acid from your meal could impact some of the ‘good’ bacteria (you could lose 5-10%)
- Avoid taking it within 3 hours of taking any antibiotic
To which I would add:
- Keep your probiotic capsules in the refrigerator as much as possible, even if the container says ‘refrigeration not required’
- Take another one right before bed, but at least 1 hour after a meal
- Take your capsule with a glass of kefir or lassi (Indian yogurt drink)
- Take a capsule after an enema
Sources and References
- The EssentiaList: Pickling and Lacto-Fermentation (pdf)
- The EssentiaList: Culturing MIlk – Making Yogurt at Home (photo essay)
- The EssentiaList: Using Kefir Grains
- Cured vs Processed Meats
- Preserving Produce without Heat
- Preserved Lemons, etc.
- Gathering Summary: Putting Food By, July 22, 2009
- Sugar and Salt in Food Preservation
- The Diet of Traditional Peoples: the Work of Weston Price & Frances Pottenger
- Gathering Summary: Sourdough, a Panel Presentation (051811)
- Gathering Summary: Sauerkraut and Lacto-Fermentation (10/22/08)
Other sites and sources:
- Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz (see Amazon for a peek inside) and his related website: WildFermentation.com
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D
- Dr Mercola on Probiotics