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Fermented Foods: A Healthful Tradition Makes a Comeback by Moni Schifler

While our great grandparents did without many of the conveniences of today—like electricity, cars and refrigeration—they embraced ways of eating that are getting a lot of attention these days. Granted they may not have been aware of probiotics or the gut microbiome, but somehow instinctually, the most probiotic rich foods were created with recipes passed on from generation to generation. The development of traditional brewing methods for beer, cheese and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and pickles all harks back to thousands of years of cultural heritage. Thankfully, we’re re-embracing these foods as we come to understand their full health-promoting potential.

While probiotic supplements certainly have a place in today’s search for the missing microbes, there are some aspects to beneficial probiotics in foods that deserve a closer look.

What are probiotics?

In its widest definition, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms (bacteria) that support the health of its host. Their ability to repopulate a host’s gut is a crucial distinguishing factor, since not all microorganisms survive digestion. Many people believe that the more probiotics consumed, the better. We tend to equate quantity with quality. However, studies on probiotics have shown that not all types need to be present in billions; as a matter of fact, there seems to be a balance between different strains where the desired ratio of one probiotic strain over another may be 100 to one.

How do we ensure we’re getting enough probiotics and in the correct ratio? Very much like our great-grandparents, we can just embrace raw, fermented foods as the probiotics naturally regulate themselves during the ferment. The microbes themselves figure out their own biome within sauerkraut or kimchi.

What about probiotic virility?

Probiotic virility is a concept we don’t hear much about, but nonetheless is worthy of our attention. Probiotics are living organisms—which means they need what we all need to survive: food, shelter and an opportunity to reproduce. This last need is only partially tongue-incheek because probiotics have a generational life span of about 20 minutes, so reproduction is indeed an urgent need to survive. Probiotic reproduction is through binary fission since they are bacteria, but the emphasis on living conditions still is valid. Once again, fermented foods offer an ideal scenario. In the case of sauerkraut, the carbohydrates in cabbage serve as food and the fiber as shelter, while the salty brine crowds out the competition of other microbes

How does the fermentation process work?

Fermentation happens in two ways. The first way is controlled fermentation which uses a starter culture to introduces specific probiotic strains in a medium such as milk to make yogurt or cheese. The second way is wild fermentation, which nurtures the variety of probiotics that are naturally present on vegetables to develop at their own rate. No culture is introduced to refrain from disturbing the natural sequence of probiotic strains.

There are so many factors that can enhance probiotic variety or which particular strain is in dominance at any given time. These factors include the soil the cabbage was grown in, the field the harvest was grown in and what was growing next to it, what other ingredients are present in the kraut, how long the barrel fermented, the exact temperature in the fermentation chamber, and the time of year. All these factors, and many more, influence which of the many probiotic strains is in dominance at any given time.

The development of probiotic cultures in wild fermented foods goes through an elaborate dance, where different strains first dominate and then ebb and make way for another strain to dominate. The use of the word ‘culture’ for these populations of microorganisms is fitting as it seems to relate to the coming and going of our own cultures and tribes in a macro sense. Who is inspiring who, is probably one of the most fascinating questions that research has yet to answer.

Moni Schifler is an herbalist, fermenter and owner of Superkrauts, a Hudson Valley sauerkraut producer. Superkrauts produces 17 flavors of sauerkraut using only local, organic produce and is a pioneer of herbal fermentation. For more information, visit RawSuperkrauts.com.

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