What are Lacto-Fermented Foods?
Lacto-fermented foods are made using a natural process whereby beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli convert the starch and sugar in fruits and vegetables to lactic acid. The lactic acid acts as a preservative, which is why this process has been popular since ancient times when there was no refrigeration or means to prevent food from spoiling.
Some examples of naturally fermented foods include cultured dairy products such as buttermilk, yogurt, kefir and cheese; sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), pickles, Greek olives, and kimchi (also spelled kimchee), a delicious, spicy fermented food from Korea. Kimchi is usually made with hot red chili peppers and Chinese or Napa cabbage, but different variations may contain other vegetables such as radishes, cucumbers, scallions and ginger.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
The fermentation process enhances the nutritional value of foods in many ways. Fermented foods have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals. Since they have undergone fermentation, the foods are already partially digested; this makes them easier to digest, and eliminates digestive disorders sometimes caused by fresh vegetables and dairy products.
Fermented foods contain live, active cultures of probiotic bacteria, which help to restore and maintain balance of the intestinal flora and contribute to a healthy digestive system. The beneficial bacteria produce enzymes that aid in digestion and short-chain fatty acids that nourish the cells of the intestine; they also enhance the immune system by deterring growth of pathogenic microorganisms.
Choose Non-pasteurized, Naturally Fermented Foods
A distinction must be made between naturally lacto-fermented foods and many commercially fermented products. Naturally fermented foods are allowed to go through the fermentation process slowly, with no artificial ingredients added.
Many commercially processed fermented foods are not actually fermented at all, but have chemicals added to artificially produce some of the qualities of traditionally fermented food. Olives are treated with lye and then soaked in a brine solution with acetic and lactic acid, and chemicals such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. Similarly, pickles are not fermented, but soaked in salt and vinegar. Sauerkraut often has vinegar added to create the sour taste, rather than allowing the natural sour flavor to develop as a result of fermentation.
Most commercially fermented products are pasteurized. Pasteurization, which kills the beneficial bacteria and stops the fermentation process, is considered necessary in large-scale production of foods that will be bottled and transported because it extends the shelf life and halts the continued production of carbon dioxide by the live bacteria, which would cause dangerously high pressure to build up inside sealed jars and could lead to explosions.
Naturally fermented products are available in many health food or natural food stores, at farmer’s markets, and from local producers. it is also easy and inexpensive to make your own fermented foods at home. See this Herb Companion article for more information on fermentation.