The process. Fermentation happens when microbes such as bacteria or yeast munch on carbohydrates in foods and metabolize them in the absence of oxygen. Byproducts such as acids or alcohol result. This typically gives a pleasing, more complex (and often tart) taste to foods and beverages. Fermentation is how cabbage becomes sauerkraut and milk becomes yogurt.
Fermentation perks. Fermentation helps preserve foods naturally, but that’s just the beginning. Fermentation has been described as a form of pre-digestion because the microbes produce enzymes that help break down proteins, starches and fibers. It also helps eliminate anti-nutrients that can block your body’s absorption of minerals from plant foods, and enhances the content of vitamins, antioxidants and other phytochemicals. “Fermentation also works wonders for your microbiome. Just a few of fermented foods’ benefits include helping increase good bacteria while decreasing bad bacteria, strengthening the gut lining and predigesting food to lessen the burden on the digestive tract,” says Kate Rhéaume, ND, health educator on behalf of Natural Factors.
Fermented foods versus probiotics. “By definition, probiotics are alive and the microbes have been specifically identified and tested for their health benefits,” says Robert Hutkins, PhD, a fermentation expert at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “In comparison, the microbes that produce fermented foods aren’t always individually identified or still alive when you eat the food, but the process may make the food more healthful or easier to digest.” For example, the microbes used to make sourdough bread help break down phytates in the flour that otherwise would bind to minerals and inhibit absorption. But the microbes are no longer alive after baking the bread because they’re heat sensitive.
Why the buzz? “The products of fermentation—such as wine, cheese and sauerkraut—have never waned in popularity,” says Sandor Katz, a fermentation expert and author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Cultured Foods, 2nd Edition (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016). “But, in the last couple of decades there’s been an explosion of consumer interest in the process of fermentation. I think that’s driven by awareness about the biome and the connection of bacteria to our overall health and wellbeing.”