Do you remember your parents or grandparents talk about going down to the “root cellar?” Modern homes no longer have this one-time necessary storage space. Our ancestors survived winters by canning harvests to store in the underground rooms – root cellars – to feed families during the barren winter months.
Canning fruits and vegetables was a way to preserve them, and fermentation was one popular way to ensure these foods remained viable to eat and also to provide desirable flavor profiles. The fermented food recipes were very simple, often using vinegar, water, salt, sugar and of course, the main event (fruits, vegetables and even some grains and meats).
The practice of fermenting foods goes all the way back to Neolithic man – and science is revealing the benefits of the probiotics to the gut and the immune system.
If you love to eat pickles and/or sauerkraut, you’re in luck – those are the top (and pretty much only) fermented foods readily available in supermarkets and delis. Oh, and if you love yogurt, well, that’s a key fermented dairy food (of course, all the yogurt companies are now touting probiotics in their yogurt products.)
Home canning is growing in popularity as people look to replace manufactured, packaged foods with natural foods, notably home-grown produce they can rely on all year long. Specifically, lacto-fermentation is making a huge comeback. Vegetables like cucumbers, radishes, peppers, carrots, olives, cauliflower (gardinieres), and fruits and berries are being canned using lacto-fermentation, said to be the easiest and common methods to ferment. And of course, it provides your body with the good bacteria in a very natural form.
What is Lacto-Fermentation?
Fermentation often brings to mind beer and wine, which use yeasts to turn sugars in grapes into wine, and grains into beers. Lacto-fermentation relies upon various strains of Lactobacillus, the probiotics you know from the various brands of yogurts. When fermenting foods with Lactobacillus, these good bacteria enhance the bioavailability of minerals present in the foods you are fermenting – always a plus. And they even produce vitamins and enzymes that help promote effective digestion. And if all that weren’t enough, the lactic acid created by the Lactobacillus bacteria inhibit growth of harmful bacteria that can cause illness.
Lactobacillus bacteria are distinctive in that they convert the sugars, like lactose, found in foods into lactic acid. The Lactobacillus strain is so named because it was first studied in milk ferments. Despite its name, lacto-fermentation (“lacto” – milk sugar) the action is not limited to dairy foods as the substrate.
Lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) produce bacteriocins (a type of protein). For example, a probiotic strain, Lactococcus lactis, creates a bacteriocin called nisin, which has been shown to inhibit growth of the infection-causing bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.
Also, the use of salt in fermentation helps the Lactobacilli prevent colonization of harmful bacteria.
Why Should I Eat More Fermented Foods?
When you look at the expanding availability of foods in supermarkets there are very precious few fermented foods – so you likely are not eating nearly enough to benefit from the probiotics, not to mention the other nutrients. Fermentation preserves the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. When compared to cooked vegetables, for example, the nutrient content of the fermented versions is much higher.
And if you are trying to manage weight, fermented foods are low in calories – you can enjoy eating a large serving. In the case of fermented foods – more is more!
However, there should be some caution. Many widely available fermented foods like pickles (in increasingly exotic flavor blends like Mango and Habanero), and some sauerkrauts are high in sodium. Soy sauces are too, so opt for the low-sodium versions. If they are pasteurized, there’s a good chance that this process has killed off many of the beneficial nutrients – including the probiotics.
What is Gut Fermentation?
Your gut also acts as a fermentation tank; you ferment foods in your digestive tract. This fermentation is the action of enzymatic decomposition (taking apart food components such as carbohydrates) via beneficial microbes (probiotics). This is a process that when healthy, ensures you digest smoothly with no issues (constipation, diarrhea, cramping) and also enhances absorption of any nutrients in the food. And, the higher the number of good bacteria colonies living in your digestive tract, the better you ferment foods you consume. The area of your digestive system where fermentation takes place is the large intestine, and this is primarily where the bulk of your friendly flora reside.
The enzymatic action of fermentation doesn’t come from digestive enzymes as the cells lining the large intestine do not produce them. Instead, the enzymes come from the beneficial bacteria, which is another important reason why you need to ensure you supplement with probiotics such as Lactobacillus.
If you associate gut fermentation with, well, flatulence, yes, this occurs especially in vegans and vegetarians who consume a diet primarily of plant-based foods. Vegetables and fruits contain a sturdy fiber called cellulose that is difficult to digest because we as mammals don’t produce the enzyme cellulase, which breaks down the cellulose. However, several bacteria species can synthesize cellulase which then helps digest the cellulose. When the bacteria digest the cellulose (and other carbs), they produce volatile fatty acids, ethane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which causes lower GI gas, some of which escapes as flatulence.
But those volatile acids produced by gut fermentation of cellulose are also beneficial in that they help generate energy.
What Probiotics Help My Gut Improve Fermentation?
A variety of Lactobacilli can help promote healthy gut fermentation and are available as supplements. They help your gut more effectively ferment by colonizing, aiding digestion and blocking overgrowth of key pathogenic bacteria.
Several Lactobacillus strains to look for are:
Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1
Perhaps the most widely recognized strain, the DDS-1 strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus was discovered in the late 1950s and thus has a considerable amount of research behind it (“DDS-1” stands for Department of Dairy Science strain #1). L. acidophilus DDS-1 temporarily colonizes the lower digestive tract and one study shows it also helped relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance. Additionally, it has been shown to bolster immune function, regulate cholesterol levels and can even produce vitamins such as B6 and B12 within the gut. It also naturally produces lactase — crucial for the effective digestion of dairy products.
Interestingly, this strain is present in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles and in some brands of yogurt. L. brevis has been demonstrated to encourage activity of NK (natural killer) cells, which help fight off infection, in older people, and in children L. brevis may help reduce diarrhea.
Lactobacillus paracasei LP-DG™
This well-researched Lactobacillus strain has been shown in a number of studies to have wide-ranging benefits, such as encouraging growth of both bifidobacterial and other Lactobacilli in the gut as well as helping to control populations of Clostridium and E. coli, which are both disease-causing bacteria. L. paracasei also influences intestinal digestion, promoting more efficient digestion by restoring and preserving the barrier function of the epithelial lining.
As with other Lactobacilli, L. reuteri, once ensconced in the gut (and elsewhere) inhibits colonization of pathogenic bacteria, and also favorably impacts the immune system by reducing systemic inflammation. It does this by reducing production of pro-inflammatory cytokines while encouraging development and activity of regulatory T cells. Researchers have theorized that the decrease of this strain in the human gut is correlated with the increased incidence of inflammatory diseases.
Probiotics Supplements or Fermented Foods?
If you are trying to decide to take probiotics like the Lactobacillus strains or eat more fermented foods, the answer is easy – do both. We eat several times every day, and deal with stressors and other factors that tend to deplete our “good guy” population, making room for bad guys to try to muscle in.
Fermented foods are often deeply flavorful, healthy and low calorie. Lactobacillus strains are health multi-taskers, including helping your body ferment foods efficiently.