Consumers and health professionals alike sit at a crossroads, caught between minimizing risk of food contamination and cultivating a healthy and diverse population of gut microbes. Too many of the processes that keep our food safe from pathogens also destroy beneficial microbes. We need to eat more of the kinds of foods that contribute to a healthy gut.
Let Them Eat Dirt
My mom caught me eating a snail when I was young and promptly called our family doctor. To her surprise, he basically waved off her concerns and told her we should be eating some dirt every day. Today his advice sounds like genius.
Population studies suggest that kids who grow up on farms suffer far less asthma and allergies. Animal studies suggest a too clean environment could be a factor driving the escalation of a full range of autoimmune disorders. The ‘hygiene hypothesis” proposes that the dramatic increase in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases since the mid 20th century may be linked to changes in our exposure to microbes.
Living in the Pasteurian Era
Ever since Louis Pasteur connected the dots between bacteria and food spoilage, man has been on a demolition mission. The trouble is that most methods of preserving foods like canning and pasteurization kill benign and beneficial bacteria as well as the pathogenic strains. Beneficial bacteria like lactobacillus and other healthful microbes grow best at temperatures less than 112 degrees.
Even foods that are consumed without cooking like packaged lettuce may be rinsed with a chlorine based solution for the same effect. Food manufacturers irradiate spices, fruit, and poultry to both decrease spoilage and destroy pathogens, but that means killing off the beneficial bacteria as well.
Fermented Foods: Where the Bugs Are
Ironically, the oldest means of preserving food actually increases our consumption of healthy bacteria. Fermented foods represent over 1/3 of all foods consumed on earth, with a rich and tasty legacy from every corner of the earth.
Currently fermented dairy products like yogurt, cheese and kefir are the most popular foods with live cultures sold in this country. Their benefit is somewhat limited since most of the milk is first pasteurized and then inoculated with a few strains of live cultures.
In contrast, foods that are traditionally cultured via lacto fermentation like pickles and sauerkraut may offer hundreds of different strains of beneficial bacteria, although public health officials are quick to remind consumers that fermentation practices cannot replace basic food safety precautions. Basically we still need to wash our hands.
Exploring the World of Ferments
Fermented foods enjoy a prominent place in diets around the world, but not so much in the United States. Many of these foods are cured with salt. How often do Americans stay away from fermented foods because they are trying to reduce sodium in their diet? We need good research to highlight the benefits versus risks of eating fermented foods to navigate through this conundrum.
In addition, the food industry uses vinegar to short circuit the process of producing products that taste like ferments. Vinegar pickles the products, but we miss out on the bacterial boost. If you want to reap the full benefit of eating ferments, look for products that state they are “lacto-fermented”, or check that the ingredients don’t include vinegar.
Ideally our diet can be an effective and economical means to feed a healthier gut by including judicious portions of fermented foods.
Who already enjoys a range of fermented foods in your diet? Which are your favorites?
For novices, which fermented foods are you game to try? Here’s a short list of ferments easily found in local markets.
- Lacto-fermented pickles
- Raw milk cheese aged for at least 60 days
- Beer and wine
- A wide range of ethnic condiments and sauces including soy sauce, fish sauce and countless others