Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Introduction to Fermented Foods: Getting to Know Your Bacteria

Fermented Jalapenos
A lot of people flinch when I tell them I eat bacteria. However those same people know that eating yogurt is good for them, especially if they're sick and have just taken a round of antibiotics. Whether you want to call it bacteria, probiotics, or pretend they don't exist while you're munching on some kimchi, there's an invisible world of creatures out there waiting to help or harm us.

For the longest time, we thought bacteria was bad and needed to be eliminated. For example, there was an attempt to eliminate helicobacter pylori since the 1980s because it can cause peptic ulcers and stomach cancers, and combined with science and an abundance of doctors, it has mostly been wiped out in this country.

 However, it also calms the immune system (so less allergies and asthma) and it regulates acid in the body so a person without h. pylori often suffers from acid reflux which can eventually lead to esophageal cancer. Perhaps most alarming of all, h. pylori also regulates an appetite hormone that tells you when you're full and when you should eat. It is speculated that we have so many problems eating today because of the lack of this bacteria.

I'm not suggesting we need to re-introduce h. pylori back into everyone's diets, as it can cause many devastating problems; however it's time to recognize that our gut bacteria has a huge affect on us, positive and negative, and being exposed to more bacteria at a younger age is the better option. Because we eat so many processed foods, we're essentially starving our gut. Many of our ailments, from autism and schizophrenia to cardiovascular disease and cancer are now being linked to inadequate a problem in our gut. Scientists are still studying it so most doctors aren't treating you with probiotics (though some are), but I can't see the downside.

Playing devil's advocate - let's say the link and early studies showing how bacteria work with us and against turn out to be wrong. How does eating and preserving foods harm us in anyway? I still love my yogurt, pickles, cheese, fish sauce - I love all my bacteria-laden foods, regardless of science.

While studying bacteria and our microbiome is a relatively new science, there is more than enough evidence out there to know that we need to begin making some radical changes in our diet and lifestyle. For some people that means letting their kids play in the dirt outside, and for others, those of us who are grown, with no children, and many prescriptions of antibiotics over our lifetime, that means turning our kitchens into a lab experiment.

Fermented Mustard
I started eating fermented foods for the bacteria. Bacteria live in and on us and outnumber us 10 to 1. We are not really human when you think about it or study it. If we ever develop the technology (or have advanced aliens drop in on us), we might be able to see completely new versions of ourselves, versions that might not necessarily even take us into account.

I decided I needed to start feeding the bacteria that I support, especially to help lower stress, anxiety, depression, and my general aches aches and pains - all things that are normal when you're approaching 30 and living in NYC.

When I read about what our bodies are capable of (with and without bacteria) and how dependent we are on bacteria (seeing as how we aren't even "human") and then in thinking how my body was struggling in the aforementioned ways, I felt that I needed more and better bacteria right away.

I briefly considered taking a probiotic in pill form, but that's generally a waste of money, as homemade is almost always better*. Anyway, I like being more hands on in my life so I started experimenting.

I have to say, while I don't always feel perfect, I think that has more to do with my environment and stress level than my diet. (Although when I feel absolutely terrible, I tend to reach towards take-out food, which only perpetuates the cycle.) A few weeks after I started adding fermented foods into my diet, I stopped craving take-out food and I only wanted to make my own version of everything. I found that snacking on fermented onions and peppers improved a stomach ache. Drinking a glass of kombucha made my stomach feel fuller. I started drinking milk kefir every day and instantly my mood got noticeably better. Milk kefir also works wonders as a moisturizer... but that's another post.

Fermented Hot Sauce
I don't want to turn this into ways fermented foods might have saved my life as there are plenty of those stories out there. Instead I want to present some facts on why bacteria is important and should be in your life. Because I'm not a doctor and have zero medical training, you should check out linked articles if you're interested. You should read Wild Fermentation and the The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, which also has a lot of great articles. Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation has an excellent section on fermented foods - the whole book is about food and is a treasure.

Find out more. Our body is fascinating, especially because it isn't even ours.

This is just a very brief intro to bacteria and our bodies and will hopefully get everyone interested! Next week, I'm going to write about how easy it is to cultivate and grow bacteria - and how to know when it's unsafe to eat. Stay tuned!

*A recent study looked at 14 probiotic products on the market and found that only 1 of them contained what was stated on the label.

Read more:
Fermentation: Not Just Good for Your Gut, Good for Your Budget!
How To Know When Your Ferment Has Gone Bad (AKA Fermenting is Really Easy!)

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