Are Fermented Foods Harmful?
No, fermentation is not necessarily associated with mold. It “is a metabolic process in which an organism converts a carbohydrate, such as starch or sugar, into an alcohol or an acid.”During vegetable fermentation, you will cultivate lactic acid bacteria; hence, lactic acids are produced. They can effectively inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria like Salmonella, Escherichia coli (or, E. coli), Listeria, Clostridium, and other foodborne pathogens.
In other words, fermentation is a natural chemical process that, if done properly, can be used as a natural preservative to ensure food safety and to preserve foods for a longer period of time.
No, bacteria are not all bad. In fact, your body is covered with bacteria, and you are carrying 10 times more bacterial cells than your human cells. Most bacteria are crucial in sustaining life and making sure all systems are functioning properly.
Take the example of lactic acid bacteria (LAB). One form of LAB is Lactobacillus species. They are an important component of microbiota in the body. They help with digestion, inhibit overgrowths of pathogens in the digestive tracts, potentially relieve Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and increase* your overall immune system.
Meanwhile, Lactobacilli species dominate the healthy human vagina and play an important role in protecting the host from urogenital infections. According to The Good Gut by Erica Sonnenburg and Justin Sonnenburg, vaginally delivered babies tend to have more Lactobacilli, which develops the baby’s digestive system and plays an essential role in the postnatal development of immune system.
The microbes are faithful soldiers diligently fighting for our body. Yet, the way we live our life today may not give them the treat* and rewards they deserve to help them function at their best. Instead, our current lifestyle may even threaten their existence.
The over-consumption of industrialized processed foods, which contain questionable ingredients such as High Fructose Corn Syrup and processed vegetable oils, can cause alteration of gut microbiota, gut infection, and inflammation. Your gut is where the majority of the friendly bacteria reside. Therefore, if the gut environment is compromised, the health of these microbes will no doubt be threaded, too.
The overuse of antibiotics these days is another concern. As you learned earlier, bacteria are not all harmful; and bacteria-free is by no means the synonym of “being healthy”. The use of antibiotics without replenishing good bacteria is likely to lead to weakened immunity, digestion, and overall health. What’s more, your microbial profile will likely never be the same, even after you treat* the body properly later on. The take-home message is that: while we should acknowledge the contribution of antibiotics to the body, we also need to evaluate the downsides of what the overuse of it may bring. At the end of the day, it’s about making a calculated decision while respecting the existence of our microbes.
Eating fermented foods like fermented vegetables provides a solution to replenish the good bacteria and improve* overall health. The lactic acid bacteria introduced by consuming fermented vegetables are considered “transients”, which means that these are the microbes that pass through the digestive tract and leave the body eventually. Despite the short-term stay, they can do significant contributions to the body. First, the body might mistreat them as pathogens and therefore activate defense systems that would normally be turned off against harmful bacteria.
Next, the temporary introduction of these microbial visitors can stimulate the intestinal cells to produce more protein; this creates a sturdier gut barrier and forms a stronger defense. In addition, the process also stimulates the production of mucus on the top of the intestinal wall for protection from invaders. And a group of molecules called defensins will also be released to fight against harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Getting started with vegetable fermentation is easy, as you only need vegetables and salt. Choose a glass container such as a Mason jar, as the material would not be reactive to the acids generated in the process.
The golden rule is that you should always keep the vegetables submerged in the brine (the salted solution) to create a favorable anaerobic environment for the vegetables to ferment properly. Salt not only enhances* the flavor but also effectively inhibits the growth of harmful pathogens. You don’t need to add extra water. By massaging salted chopped vegetables, they will slowly produce their own brine. The ideal temperature ranges from 55 to 75 F to allow slow fermentation. This helps to produce fermented vegetables with nice flavors and textures.
After letting vegetables ferment on the kitchen counter for about a week, you can then transport them to the fridge to preserve them and start enjoying them by taking only one tablespoon at a time.
One mistake people often make is that they tend to over-eat fermented vegetables, which causes them to experience sickness, light-headedness, or another discomfort later on. It is important to remember that fermented foods should be consumed in moderation only.
If you are a beginner, I personally would highly recommend you use pH testing kits to measure the acidity levels of the fermented vegetables. According to Frederick Breidt, the microbiologist working for the USDA, pH 4.6 or lower can effectively inhibit the growth of harmful pathogens like Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium can cause botulism, a rare but serious paralytic illness which leads to weakness in the body, poor vision, trouble speaking, and even potentially death.
From now on, we should start re-evaluating fermentation and bacteria from a brand-new perspective. Fermentation can be an effective food preservation method, and most bacteria are our friends and allies crucial for the health of not only ourselves but also the next generations.
Meanwhile, we should also acknowledge and respect the contribution the microbes do to the body, examine our current lifestyle, and reflect on actions we can take to be responsible for their well-being. Their happiness is just as important as ours. And, finally, if you decide to give vegetable fermentation a try, make sure you follow the basic guidelines mentioned above to make and eat them the right way to enjoy the benefits.
You may learn more from Tracy’s recently-published book The Fermented Vegetables Manual.
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