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The Alchemy & Magic of Cultured Foods: Why Fermentation Is Vital to Our Health

Posted: 09/20/11 11:34 AM ET

By Jill Ettinger


Long before microwavable frozen burritos and canned beans, we had limited resources when it came to food preservation. We learned to dry and salt foods to endure long winters, and we also discovered fermentation. Culturing our foods is not just a preservation method though; it's also integral to our health -- something those frozen or canned foods can never offer.

Asian cultured foods like kim chee and the healthy hipster beverage du jour, kombucha, made their way to Europe centuries ago mostly in the form of what we now call krauts. Typically, krauts are cabbages infused with regional herbs, vegetables and spices, salted, sealed and allowed to ferment, according to Marni Wahlquist, founder of Vital Cultured Foods, a live sauerkraut manufacturer in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

The process of pickling and fermenting, which allows healthy bacteria colonies to break down the food, actually makes the food more digestible and nutrients more accessible, says Wahlquist. Fermented foods also help with the digestion of other foods -- especially tough proteins (which is why Germans serve kraut with meat) -- and make up as much as 40 percent of some diets around the world, according to Wahlquist. (Koreans eat kim chee at most meals, cultured soybeans like tempeh and natto are served throughout Japan, and India pickles mangos and limes.)

Probiotics: It's a word you might have heard a lot recently -- from yogurts (another cultured food) to over-the-counter capsules and pills purportedly full of these "friendly" bacteria. Like it or not, we're hosts to billions of microbes that actually play a critical role in our health. Our Standard American Diet, which often includes products from animals fed excessive amounts of antibiotics, and our own routine exposure to antibiotics (approximately 10-20 different types before we hit puberty!) create imbalances among friendly bacteria colonies.

The damage is so significant that new research suggests these probiotic cultures may never fully recover, leading to a number of health issues from diabetes and obesity to more serious gastrointestinal issues.

And, says Wahlquist, many of these processed probiotic pills and foods marketed for digestive health aren't actually offering us any real active probiotics. "Traditional methods preserve and prolong the good bacteria vital to our digestive health. Cooking and heating [cultured foods] kill the bacteria and prevent the diverse probiotic populations from entering our systems."

The pre-digested nature of cultured foods can prevent and repair digestive disorders and decrease sugar cravings, which may be why people eating probiotic-rich foods report weight loss, says Wahlquist. And new research also shows a link between diets rich in living cultured foods and improved mood, likely a result of a well-balanced system.

Or, as Wahlquist suggests, maybe it's just that "when you eat a really good fermented food, there's a magic that happens." Alchemy has always been at the core of preparing foods and alcohol -- magic at work indeed. And although we may think there's a good bit of that in tasty fast junk food, true magic occurs when something we eat enhances the whole system -- our health and our spirit, not just our palates.

So, what's the best way to boost your probiotic intake? Wahlquist suggests using a living kraut or kim chee as a condiment to any meal. You can tell they're living products if they're sold in the refrigerated section, or if you make your own. People avoiding sugar and caffeine should also skip the trendy kombucha drinks, which contain both.

And while probiotic yogurts and kefir drinks can also contain a good amount of friendly bacteria, dairy products that are not organic can also contain harmful pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals best to avoid.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Photos Courtesy of Marni Wahlquist