Welcome to the brave, new, slightly sour and rather pungent world of fermented food.
Our guts have a lot to answer for (in more ways than one). A huge range of health problems are linked to the gut, including heart disease, a poor immune system, diarrhoea and constipation, autoimmune diseases, acid reflux, obesity, mental health disorders, skin problems, sinus infections, asthma, cancer, type II diabetes and Parkinson’s disease to name a few.
One of the best ways to ensure a healthy gut (and potentially your general health and wellbeing) is to regularly eat traditionally fermented foods, also known as probiotic foods. Over the last few decades, the amount of probiotic foods and enzymes in the average diet has declined sharply – as pasteurised milk and yogurts have replaced raw, homemade varieties, and vinegar based pickles have replaced traditional lacto-fermented versions – so eating traditionally fermented foods is more important today than ever before.
These are just a few of the things the Ape team learnt in our recent fermented foods workshop with Olivia Wall from Wild Cultures. As well as learning all about the fermentation process, we made our own sauerkraut (using nothing more then cabbage and a pinch of salt), we tasted a range of fermented products, including different types of kimchi, kombucha, kefir (water, dairy milk and coconut milk varieties), ginger beer and elderflower cordials, and we witnessed our first ever scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a jelly-like disc that is the living home for the bacteria and yeast that transforms tea into kombucha. Our tastebuds were opened up to a whole new world of flavours: some sweet, some sour, some rather smelly. It was a lot of fun.
Whilst fermentation is definitely having a moment in the world of food and fashion, it’s a process that’s as old as time. From kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, pickles in the US, anglo saxon beer in the UK and dried fish in Scandinavia, people have been eating fermented food for thousands of years.
Most things we eat – bread, cheese, yogurt, coffee, wine, beer – have all been through a process of fermentation. While yeasts are added to kick start fermentation in wine and beer (to create alcohol), natural bacteria from the air are used in the lacto-fermentation process that produces traditionally fermented foods; these natural ‘good’ bacteria (Lactobacillus) feed on the sugar and starch in food to create lactic acid, a natural preservative that helps fight ‘bad’ bacteria and preserves the flavour and texture of food. Lactic Acid also creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids and various strains of probiotics which lead to a healthy gut and a healthier life.
With more people aware of the health benefits, the market for fermented products has been growing quickly. Supermarket shelves are increasingly full of new brands of kimchi, kombucha and kefir drinks. In 2015 the sales of kombucha in US supermarkets generated $180m with a forecast of $1250m by 2024, a phenomenal growth of just under 700% in less than 10 years. Last years acquisition of leading kombucha brand KeVita by PepsiCo is an indication of how mainstream fermented drinks could become. In the UK, supermarkets are selling more cabbage, with Sainsbury’s reporting sales up 39pc since last Christmas, and sales of cider vinegar (commonly used for pickling cabbage) are up by 17pc over the same period compared to last year.
There’s been a few regulation issues along the way too with Whole Foods removing kombucha from its shelves in 2010 after an inspection revealed slightly elevated ABV in some products. With alcohol a by-product of the fermentation process, this is something that needs to be monitored. But at the end of the day, it comes down to education, awareness, and knowing what’s good for us. If fermented foods are as good for us as studies suggest, can we afford NOT to eat them?