Every year, it seems as if there’s some new health food craze that’s hyped up in lifestyle magazines, shows up all over the web and is a hit at your local health food store. After a few months, however, the buzz dies down and it gradually fades away, a questionable quick-fix that never quite did what it was supposed to, leaving you on a desperate hunt for answers all over again. Sound familiar?
This is not the case with fermented foods. The preparation of fermented foods is one of the oldest culinary traditions in existence, bringing with it a wealth of history, numerous health benefits and all kinds of ways to incorporate them into your diet.
So, How Exactly Does Fermentation Work?
You may not realize it, but many of the foods you eat and drink are fermented:
- Yogurt and cheese are the products of fermented milk.
- Beer and many breads (such as sourdough) are made from fermented grains.
- Wine is the result of fermented grapes.
- Miso and tempeh are made from fermented soy beans.
Beyond those you’re familiar with, there are literally hundreds of fermented foods and drinks you’ve probably never heard of.
In simple terms, we refer to foods as fermented when they have been aged with bacteria and/or yeast. In ancient cultures across this globe, this was one of the foremost ways to preserve foods beyond their usual lifespan so they could be consumed for months, even years on end.
In the process of preparing and eating these foods, it was discovered that this method not only preserved the nutritional content of the food, but also unlocked all kinds of new flavors and textures to delight the palate. Better yet, many of them were now enhanced with health benefits.
The magic of fermentation lies in how the process breaks down the food being fermented.
With time, fermentation creates and releases an array of nutrients, amino acids, vitamins and more. The key to this is bacteria.
Bacteria has gotten quite a bad rap in our modern world as a scourge to be eliminated with antibacterial soaps, sanitizers and all kinds of clinical means. Of course, this is sometimes necessary due to the havoc caused by bad bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which have become notorious to the public through dozens of outbreaks in everything from spinach to peanut butter.
What most people don’t realize is that there are also healthy, helpful strains of bacteria, which we rely on to survive. In fact, we’re filled with them, with the number of bacteria in your body outnumbering your cells by 10 to 1. We’re more bacteria than anything else! 
Your digestive system is home to billions of strains of friendly bacteria called microflora. Their job is to break down the foods you eat into a form that can be absorbed by your body. That’s the process we know as digestion. As such, if you’re not filled with these bacteria, you’re not getting all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you need from your food, and that’s the start of a whole host of health issues – food allergies, skin problems, you name it. There’s even evidence emerging that compromised gut health may play a role in degenerative diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Unbelievably, many of us deal with this predicament every day with nary a clue. For example, have you ever:
- Taken antibiotics?
- Dealt with a significant amount of stress that has left you feeling worn down?
- Had chlorinated tap water to drink?
- Eaten a diet laden with processed and fried foods without balancing it with fresh vegetables and fruits?
- Dealt with a food allergy?
Most of us would answer yes to at least two or three of these questions, and that presents a bit of a problem: these experiences have been proven to have a negative impact on the amount of microflora in our gut. As such, many people today are dealing with problems that begin in their digestive systems without ever realizing this.
This is the foremost benefit of eating fermented foods: repopulating your gut with the strains of bacteria that allow your digestion to function at an optimum level.
Everyone needs good, friendly bacteria in their gut, and can experience quite a bit of trouble if they don’t have it.
Why Fermented Foods Matter
Our modern society is filled with conveniences that aim to make our lives easier and more comfortable. We’ve seen more progress in our lifetime than any generation on the planet before.
If that’s the case, then why are people so stressed out? Worse yet, why are they getting sicker?
Whether it’s autism or diabetes, heart disease or cancer, major illness is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 7 out of 10 Americans die each year from chronic diseases – heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis – which are both among the most common and the most preventable of all illnesses in the country. Mental illness is rapidly increasing as well. Per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, mental disorders will surpass physical illnesses as the leading cause of disability worldwide by the year 2020.
You would think there’s been enough headway in cutting edge medicine and science to effectively combat these illnesses, but too often the only solutions available to the average person coping with sickness are pills, shots and surgeries that merely tackle their symptoms or slow the progress of their oncoming disease.
What if you didn’t have to get sick in the first place?
There is a place for clinical medicine in our lives, but because we’ve become so dependent on it as part of the framework of modern society, we’ve forgotten that we can make powerful choices on our own that keep us healthy and keep sickness at bay. It’s not about becoming a health food junkie or a fitness freak, but simply someone who makes informed decisions about how they treat their body. Chronic illness is not something that we should consider a regular part of life.
Fermented foods are important because they’re a powerful way for you to take a proactive approach to your health. So much of our health begins in our digestive system. In fact, between 70% and 80% of the cells that make up your immune system reside in your gut.  By taking responsibility for your digestive health, you’re potentially eliminating the root cause of so many problems you could face further down the road, be they skin problems such as acne or dryness; or bowel issues like gas and bloating; heart disease or conditions as seemingly vague as mental fogginess.
Repopulating your gut with friendly, healthy bacteria is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself and your family, and to be frank, preparing fermented foods is ridiculously cheap. It’s certainly less expensive than costly medication or treatments.
 “Humans have Ten Times More Bacteria Than Human Cells: How Do Microbial Communities Affect Human Health?” Sciencedaily.com. June 5, 2008 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080603085914.htm
 “BHIVA Foundation Lecture: The Role of the Gut in HIV Pathogenesis” Clerici M. BHIVA Autumn Conference, London, October 2008.