Fermentation is essentially a process where food substances are broken down into simpler pieces. By example sugar is broken down and eventually becomes alcohol. It is mainly carbohydrates that gets fermented by example – the lactose in milk ferments and we have sour milk (amasi and yoghurt), the starch in maize ferments and we have mageu, the fruit sugar (fructose) in fruits like grapes get fermented and we have wine and vinegar.
Historical documents have shown that fermented foods have been part of most cultures of our modern historical and modern world. Chinese workers ate fermented vegetables while building the Great Wall of China. For hundreds of year the Japanese have routinely served a small serving of pickled vegetable with their meals.
Before the time of Christ, the Greeks wrote about the health benefits of fermented cabbage. The Romans used sauerkraut to treat and prevent intestinal infections. Captain Cook used sauerkraut and lime juice to prevent scurvy on his three-year journey around the world. Throughout Europe, Russia, and the Balkans, sauerkraut and other lactic acid fermented foods (e.g. kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, kapusta, kvass, borscht, etc.) have become entrenched in the diet after centuries of use.
The traditional fermentation of foods was achieved by using microorganisms, especially lactic acid producing bacteria (LAB), and yeast. Sometimes these foods were referred to as acidified or soured foods due the use of lactic acid producing bacteria (LAB) in their production process. Although this is an ancient food preservation technology, it is still part of our cultural practices throughout the world. Some of the common acidified foods that we still eat in South Africa include ting, soft ting porridge, fat cakes, dumplings, sorghum beer, yoghurt and mageu.
Had it not been for a scientist by the name of Metchnikoff who observed that communities in Russia and Bulgaria who regularly consumed fermented milk, lived longer, we probably would not have consumed as much yoghurt today. He found that consuming fermented milk products ‘seeds’ the intestines with lactic acid producing bacteria, which suppress the growth of other harmful bacteria. His theory was that ageing is caused by putrefactive bacteria that produced toxins which causes physical changes associated with old age. His theory flourished for a time, then drifted to the fringe of medical practice before re-emerging in the mid-1990s as a concept worthy of mainstream medical attention.
Many bacteria that cause disease do not like acidic environments. In fact, it has been shown throughout the ages that certain fermented foods can help kill bad bacteria. One such example was shown in 1950’s Europe when it was shown that sauerkraut was very effective in killing the typhoid bacteria that was causing a lot of deaths throughout Europe.
The concept of using naturally occurring "bugs" in fermented foods to eliminate harmful bacteria is thus not a new concept. Current science has just confirmed the importance of the friendly bacteria (Lactic acid producing bacteria – LAB or probiotics) found in soured foods and their importance in killing the bad bacteria that can cause diseases such as diarrhoea.
With scientific advancement we now know that lactic acid producing bacteria which are used to ferment foods are in fact nature’s own way of keeping us healthy: What are the benefits of acidified foods?
1. Acidified foods help with digestion
In children and older adults the digestive enzymes and stomach juices required for good digestion are either too little or start to decrease. Fermented foods ease discomfort by increasing acidity when required and protecting the stomach lining if there is too much acid. It is recommended to eat fermented foods regularly.
2. Acidified foods can help ease constipation
Soured foods help the body produce a substance called acetylcholine, which can help increase bowel movements, which could help ease constipation. Acetylcholine has also been shown to help increase the release of digestive enzymes and juices from the stomach, pancreas and gallbladder which help in the digestion of food. Due to an increased acidic environment in the intestines, the good bacteria tend to become much more. (It is estimated that the total amount of bacteria in the intestines can go up to 2 kilograms!). During their stay in the intestines they release water, which helps to soften stools, they release mucin (similar to mucus) which ensures a smooth movement of the stools and due to the increased number of good bacteria in the intestines they add to the faecal matter which helps to stimulate the large bowel movements.
3. Acidified foods produce good bacteria and compounds that kill bad bacteria.
Fermented food destroy and inhibit the growth of bad (pathogenic) bacteria. The pathogenic bacteria do not grow in an acidic environment and lactic acid producing bacteria are capable of killing the pathogenic bacteria than can cause diseases such as diarrhoea.
In conclusion, the value of acidified foods in improving our health is not a new concept. However modern science is showing us that those foods that our moms made us eat because they “will make us strong” is actually proven to be true! So make sure that you include soured foods in both you and your family’s diet every day to help keep them healthy the traditional way!