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Fermented Foods are Our Friends

The right nutrition can help your body not only heal itself, but possibly even reverse chronic disease. One or two servings a day of fermented foods will get you started down a healthier path.

But what is fermentation?

Technically speaking, fermentation is the addition—deliberately or by chance—of lactobacillus bacteria, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus or Lactobacillus acidophilus, to milk or other foods to convert the carbohydrates to an organic acid.

It’s how we get yogurt—the bacteria convert lactose into lactic acid, which curdles the casein to make yogurt. It’s also how we get beer and wine. Sugars are fermented into alcohol with the help of yeast rather than bacteria, so they are a different kind of fermented food.

Fermentation has a long history. It was used in pre-modern times primarily to preserve food. Yet over the years, science has learned that the process of fermentation yields powerful health benefits. Fermented foods…

  • improve gut health
  • enhance digestibility
  • enhance nutrient content.

You can easily get the benefits of fermentation in your diet by enjoying delicious foods like yogurt, kefir, marinaded vegetables and miso.

The people who live in the Longevity Hot Spots like to eat certain foods which are teeming with friendly bacteria. Put another way, they are expert zymologists, meaning they know all about the science of fermentation.

Whether it’s an aged lump of pungent cheese, a piquant caper in a jar, a square of melt-in-the-mouth tofuyo, or a marinated olive, they know how to make it, they love eating it, and it brings them good health.

Then and Now

People began fermenting foods and drinks long ago to keep them from rotting. If you dip a stick in the ground or run your finger along some tree bark in Bulgaria, it will emerge covered in the beneficial fermentative bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Add those bacteria to milk, and the milk ferments.

The Thracians of ancient Bulgaria found they could preserve their milk this way by putting it in lambskin bags and carrying the bag around their waists to keep it warm. In fact, it’s thought that the word yogurt comes from the Thracian yog (“thick”) and urt (“milk”).

The Bulgarians weren’t the first, of course. There’s evidence the ancient Babylonians drank fermented milk circa 3000 BC, and its use probably dates long before that. Miso, sauerkraut, yogurt, and many other fermented foods are ancient culinary traditions all around the world.

And they are still popular in areas where modern cooking methods have not yet taken over—places like the Longevity Hot Spots.

Great for the Gut

Fermenting foods gives them a stronger flavor and enriches their nutrient content. Plus, fermentation begins the breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, making the foods easier to digest.

For instance, when milk is turned into yogurt or cheese, much of the lactose is broken down. That’s why lactose-intolerant people can usually eat yogurt.

When you eat fermented foods, you introduce friendly bacteria, or probiotics (“for life”), into your digestive system. What they do in food, they also do in the gut—they repel pathogenic bacteria and help break down nutrients so you can absorb them more easily.

Friendly bacteria are fundamental to good health in so many ways. They…

  • Protect the integrity of the intestinal lining.
  • Maintain immunity, since around half of the body’s immune cells are in the intestines.
  • Manufacture B vitamins (useful for vegans).
  • Manufacture essential fatty acids.
  • Extract calcium from dairy products.
  • Aid absorption of vitamins and minerals.
  • Produce enzymes to break down foods.
  • Produce butyric acid, required for building colon cells.
  • Produce anti-tumour substances.
  • Produce antiviral substances.
  • Produce anti-fungal substances.
  • Prevent candida overgrowth.
  • Destroy e coli, shigella, and salmonella by making the intestinal tract more acidic and by releasing substances such as lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and selective antibiotics.
  • Neutralize endotoxins produced in the body.
  • Neutralize potentially carcinogenic nitrites in the digestive tract.
  • Aid peristalsis (the movement of the gut muscles for stool elimination) to prevent constipation.
  • Get rid of excess cholesterol by breaking down bile.
  • Regulate cytokines so as to reduce inflammation.
  • Produce anti-cancer isothiocyanates, such as sulfurophane and indol-3-carbinol from foods. (These beneficial compounds are also found in fermented foods.)

Get more flora

The modern diet lacks beneficial bacteria—and is high in factors which prevent it from colonizing in our guts as it should. Dysbiosis, a bacterial imbalance, is common in Western society thanks to diets high in sugar and meat, but low in probiotics.

Dysbiosis encourages yeasts and putrefactive bacteria to flourish, instead of fermentative beneficial bacteria. In turn, toxins build up and damage the sensitive microvilli brush border that lines our intestinal wall. When it’s healthy, that area helps assimilate nutrients and prevent toxins from passing through the gut wall into the bloodstream.

The modern diet also causes inflammation of the gut and excessive intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), leading to conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Allergies, systemic candida, eczema, autoimmune disease, arthritis, and even mental illness have all been linked to dysbiosis. If your stool smells unpleasant, it is a good sign of too much putrefaction and an imbalance of gut flora.

So how can you get more of the good stuff?

Making sure you get enough probiotics from fermented foods or Akea can protect you from these illnesses and help you attain optimum health. Another tip: By eating plant foods rich in plant fibers, you also provide fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), the food beneficial bacteria feed off, thus helping them thrive in your system. Avocados, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes are high in FOS.

When researchers analyzed the stool of people aged 80-109 years old in Bama, a Longevity Hot Spot in China, they found that it contained from 53 to 87 percent bifidobacterium—significantly more than elderly Chinese from other districts. This finding was attributed to their diets rich in FOS and their intake of fermented foods. It’s likely the findings would be the same for people in the other longevity communities, given their intake of FOS and probiotics.

Here’s how to increase your levels of friendly flora:

  • Eat more fermented foods, including live yogurt. See the list below.
  • Take probiotics.
  • Avoid excessive sugar and animal fats.
  • Avoid stress, which can kill friendly flora.

To add probiotics to your diet, choose from among these fermented foods:

Yogurt

Yogurt is milk which has been fermented by live cultures so as to enhance its nutritional value and digestibility. The best yogurt is low fat with a creamy, slightly sweet texture which has been fermented with one part L. bulgaricus to seven parts S. thermophilus, these being the best yogurt cultures. Yogurt which has been pasteurized after the addition of probiotics will not contain live cultures and will not provide the same benefits. Pasteurizing live yogurt is forbidden in some states including New York.

To test whether or not the ‘live’ yogurt you buy is really live, mix a tablespoonful with a cupful of milk which has been heated but not boiled. Leave overnight in a warm place. If the mixture has thickened by morning, you have live cultures present.

Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk product originating in the Caucausus. The word kefir (which rhymes with ‘see-her’) means ‘pleasure’. Kefir is tangy like yogurt, and contains a mix of cultures such as Saccaromyces kefir, Torula kefir, Lactobacillus brevis and Streptococcus lactis, amongst others. True kefir has a slightly alcoholic content due to the presence of yeast, which gives it its unique flavor (and presumably its name).

Aged cheese

Symiots, Hunzakuts, Sardinians, and Campodimelani all eat traditionally fermented cheese made from sheep’s, goat’s, or cow’s milk. Hunzakuts also enjoy maltash, a fermented butter which is wrapped in birch bark and buried underground for years or even decades and served at weddings, funerals, and births.

If you want to eat cheese, choose high-quality matured cheeses which have been made in a traditional way, rather than processed cheese.

Crème fraiche

Crème fraiche is cream which has been soured with bacterial culture. It is thick with a slightly tangy taste and is popular for making sauces in French cuisine.

Traditionally fermented soy products

miso, tempeh, traditionally brewed soy sauce

Fermenting soy products raises their levels of isoflavones, the beneficial plant estrogens thought to protect against breast cancer and osteoporosis. It also makes them much more digestible than modern processed soy products, which are an invention of the West and are not eaten by long-lived Japanese or Chinese populations such as the Okinawans or people of Bama.

Sauerkraut

This pickled cabbage dish is popular in Eastern Europe. Its origins trace as far back as the 13th century, when Genghis Khan fed fermented vegetables to his plundering hordes. Captain Cook also used sauerkraut to prevent scurvy in sailors.

Traditionally fermented pickled vegetables

capers, olives, pickles

Capers are traditionally preserved by the Symiots and used as a relish and for stomach ailments. Modern pickled foods such as capers and olives are mass-produced and do not contain beneficial bacteria. However, traditionally marinated and fermented vegetables such as olives, artichokes, peppers and mushrooms can be obtained in specialist delicatessens.

Sprouted foods

Soaking a bean, grain, or seed in water causes the outer hull to be broken down by probiotics—fermented—which enables the sprouting process. Foods treated in this way have higher, more easily absorbed nutrient contents. Sprouting also reduces the content of antinutrients, such as phytic acid, which inhibits the absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc from these grains.

Sprouted wheat or rye bread can be obtained from good health food shops. Some delicatessens make sourdough rye bread from dough which has been fermented with lactic acid. These breads are much more digestible than ordinary bread.

You can make porridge by buying organic whole oats and soaking them overnight, then adding yogurt after cooking for a creamy texture. This will make a filling breakfast which is far more digestible than packaged cereals which are processed in a modern way and contain anti-nutrients such as phytates.

Umeboshi plums

These are small, reddish-purple, wrinkled, salty and very tangy pickled plums which are sometimes eaten in Japan after a meal as they are thought to aid digestion. Good umeboshi plums are left for six months to ferment in a mixture of salt and shiso leaves. They are sometimes referred to as ‘The King of Alkaline Foods.’ Japanese scientists studying umeboshi plums have found them to contain probiotics with powerful antibiotic properties and they are also thought to be beneficial for hangovers and bad breath. They are very potent (and salty) and two or three a week is enough!

Thai fish sauce

Known as Nam Pla in Thailand, is a fish sauce made from fish (often anchovies, but sometimes whatever comes up in the net) which have been allowed to ferment and is popular in Asia as a dipping sauce and for use in cooking. Nam Pla which has been allowed to ferment for a long period has a slightly nutty, cheesy flavor whereas sauce which has fermented for only a short time tastes more fishy.

Tofuyo (fermented tofu)

Also called “the cheese of the east,” it’s an Okinawan delicacy made from tofu which has been fermented for three to four months in awamori (rice wine) and malted rice. It is prized for its medicinal properties, mellow flavor, and succulent texture. Okinawans will eat a single cube while sipping awamori and watching songs or dances; they describe this as Nuchi-gusui—”the medicine of life.”

When tofuyo was given to hypertensive rats, it was found to significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol due to its angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitory activity (1).

Contraindications

  1. If you have candida, you may want to use caution. Fermented foods contain yeasts and molds that are unlikely to cause candida—but your body might be sensitive to them.
  2. Fermented foods such as capers, olives, and umeboshi plums can be very high in salt. If you are on a low-salt diet, keep these to a minimum.
  3. Cheese and wine are high in histamines. Avoid or limit them if you are intolerant.

Download a printable list of fermented foods here.


Fermented Foods References

(1) Kuba M, Shinjo S, Yasuda M. Antihypertensive and Hypocholesterolemic Effects of Tofuyo in Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats. Journal of Health Science, vol 50 (2004), No 6. 670-673.

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