To Ferment or Not


Humans have been consuming fermented foods and beverages as a part of their traditional diets for centuries. Early in history, humans discovered that when food or beverage ferment due to bacterial action, they actually become a lot more enjoyable to consume. Fermentation is a great way to consume foods as it has health-promoting properties and helps maintain gut health. In this article, Palak Shah tells you all about fermentation and its benefits.

Fermentation is the process of breaking down complex substances into simpler forms. It is a slow and controlled process that converts carbohydrate or sugar in the food into acid or carbon dioxide, with the help of bacteria and yeast. All plant and animal products that make up our food are populated by microbial (bacteria) communities that allow the fermentation process to take place under the right conditions. The process of fermentation may occur naturally or through careful addition of a starter culture. The most frequently used
microbes in fermentation are bacteria and yeast. During yoghurt fermentation, lactic-acid-producing bacteria feed on the sugars and other nutrients in milk, producing compounds that change the flavour, texture and nutrients present in the milk. In some fermented foods, microbes are still alive when consumed, for example yoghurt, some cheese, fresh kimchi and traditional salami. In the case of other fermented foods, these microbes are destroyed by further processes such as heating, baking, filtering or pasteurisation and storage, for example, soya sauce, sourdough bread, cottage cheese and aged cheese.

Fermented foods provide several health benefits, such as:
  • They enhance nutrients and remove anti-nutrients
  • They are the most convenient way to obtain a daily dose of beneficial probiotic bacteria
  • Probiotics are known as good bacteria; these bacteria help produce nutrients, promote healthy digestion and enhance immune function
  • In addition to vitamins and minerals, fermented vegetables carry bacteria and live enzymes that are highly beneficial
  • They increase the nutritional value of the food
  • They improve the functioning of the immune system
  • They improve lactose tolerance and digestive function
  • They regulate blood-pressure levels
  • They enhance nutrient absorption

Stress, chemicals, medication, pollution, radiation, binge eating, refined sugar and over cleansing of the body and an extra-clean environment create an imbalance of good bacteria in the body. Health conditions such as cancer, arthritis, allergy, lethargy, malnutrition and mental illness are linked to poor good bacteria or high bad bacteria levels in the body. Good bacteria plays an important role in achieving and maintaining optimal health and happiness.
The health benefits of good bacteria are:
There are thousands of food-microbe combinations that are used in different foods and beverages to create unique flavours and textures. Earlier, fermentation was used as a simple form of food preservation. However, with modern use of chemical preservatives and refrigeration along with industrialisation, the food industry didn’t need fermentation anymore. But that also resulted in depleting gut health. This led to research that proved the importance of fermentation. Today, most dieticians and health experts suggest consumption of fermented food. Here are some of the popular fermented dishes from around the world:

  • Kimchi: Any Korean meal is incomplete without kimchi.It is a spicy side dish usually made by fermenting cabbage and other vegetables for four to 15 days with spices.
  • Sourdough: Different flours are mixed with wild yeast and water and are baked into spongy breads with a distinct sour taste.
  • Kefir: It is a healthy beverage popular in eastern Europe. It is obtained by adding kefir grains to milk and allowing it to ferment for 12 hours.
  • Tempeh: Originally from Indonesia, tempeh is created by fermenting soya bean.
  • Sauerkraut: It is one of the oldest traditional foods that is popular in Europe, especially Germany. Finely chopped cabbage pieces are left to ferment in their own juices or salt water for three to four weeks.
  • Miso: It is a semi-solid, paste-like dish that has a sweet and salty flavour. A popular dish in Japan, miso is created using koji (fungus), soya bean, salt and brown rice or barley. It has anti-ageing properties.
  • Kombucha: It is a popular fermented beverage made with black tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. It helps to reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, improves cholesterol levels and detoxifies the body.
  • Natto: It is a traditional Japanese dish made from fermented soya. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Yoghurt: Probiotic yoghurt is extremely high in calcium, zinc, vitamin B, probiotics and protein.
  • Idli: It is a popular breakfast dish in south India. Rice and black bean are ground into a smooth batter that is fermented overnight. The batter is then steamed and served with chutneys and sambar. The batter can also be flattened on a large cooking plate to make dosa.
  • Dhokla: It is a popular dish amongst Gujaratis. Chickpea flour, salt, spices and rock salt are ground into a smooth batter, which is later steamed into soft cakes. The cakes are cut into pieces and served hot along with chutneys.
  • Jalebi: A famous Indian deep-fried dessert, jalebi is made from fermented wheat batter.