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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Fermented foods and your gut health

Saturday, March 19, 2016

“So what are we going to do with this big pile of cabbages?” You can imagine the dilemma faced by the early adopters of agriculture practices some 10,000 years ago. As we moved from hunting & gathering to growing our own food new challenges emerged: we used to just forage what we needed at the time and move on, now we grew what we wanted to eat. But there are only so many ways you can cook fresh cabbage. Some seasons were amazingly abundant; hence the pile of vegetables to be used somehow. Or maybe it was olives.  Or apples. Perhaps milk. Could they be preserved for the hungry winter months?

Who knows how the early adopters of fermented foods developed sauerkraut, pickled olives, turned apples into apple cider vinegar, cultured milk into yoghurt, or transformed rice into miso. Whether it was accidental or a long process of trial and error, the outcome was a really helpful food that also tastes good. Our ancestors didn’t realise it, but they had developed the first functional foods that could boost health as well as taste good and preserve food.
Whatever the form of fermented food being created, the process is the same: Create an environment that commensal (friendly) bacterial like to live in: Short on oxygen, rich on foods they like to feed on; similar to the environment in our intestines. 

Although it’s inside your body, as far as your immune system is concerned the lining of your gut is like an inside skin, to protect you from invaders as well as enable absorption of nutrients. So your immune system patrols your intestines as carefully as it patrols other inside/outside surfaces like the inside of your nose and lungs. Helpful resident bacteria like those found in fermented foods help maintain health by outnumbering and out-competing disease producing bacteria that could incite inflammation and infection. 

We’ve learnt to coexist happily with good bacteria like the lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species. We provide a comfortable base on mucous, and keep up a supply of food the bacteria enjoy, like soluble fibre from vegetables. The bacteria, in return, digest and ferment the food, enabling it to be absorbed as nutrients. What fermented food does is provide a fresh supply of those friendly bacteria. 

Different cultural groups have developed their own unique fermented foods based on abundant harvests, and then recipes to enjoy them. You don’t have to develop or buy your own exotic cultured food; every day foods like olives, yoghurt, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut and pickles all qualify as fermented good-for-you foods. Eating healthy made easy!

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How Can I Get Probiotics If I Can't Eat Yoghurt'

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