Fermented Food: Benefits of Lactic Acid Fermentation

Fermented food, enjoyed across the globe, conveys health benefits through lactic acid fermentation. The fermentation process can transform the flavor of food from the plain and mundane to a mouth-puckering sourness enlivened by colonies of beneficial bacteria and enhanced micronutrients. While fermented food like yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir are well-known many other lesser-known foods also benefit from the lactic acid fermentation process. Indeed, virtually every food with a complex or simple sugar content can be successfully fermented.

Born of both necessity and practicality, lactic acid fermentation proved to be not only an efficient method of preserving food for our ancestors, but also a critical one. Indeed, fermented food like sauerkraut, cheese, wine, kvass,   soured grain porridge and breads often sustained tribes and villages during harsh winters when fresh food simply wasn’t available let alone plentiful.

In many societies including our own where yogurt has been heralded as a health food since the 19th century, fermented food has gained a reputation for its beneficial effects on immunity, intestinal health and general well-being. Modern researchers are just beginning to understand what the sages of old were tuned in to: fermented food conveys clear and calculable health benefits to the human diet. Lactic acid fermentation in and of itself enhances the micronutrient profile of several foods.

For example, milk that undergoes lactic acid fermentation either in the wild as in the case of clabbered milk or inoculated by a starter culture as in the case of yogurt, piima, matsoni and other fermented dairy products conveys more vitamins to the eater in comparison to raw milk and, particularly, pasteurized and ultra-high-temperature pasteurized milk. Fermented dairy products consistently reveal an increased level of folic acid which is critical to producing healthy babies as well as pyroxidine, B vitamins, riboflavin and biotin depending on the strains of bacteria present. [1. Vitamin Profiles of Kefirs Made from Milk of Different Species. International Journal of Food Science & Technology. 1991. Kneifel et al]

The increases in the micronutrient profiles of fermented food aren’t just limited to yogurt, bonny clabber and kefir. Vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains subjected to lactic acid fermentation also see increases in both their macro- and micronutrient profiles. The bioavailability of amino acids – particularly lysine with its antiviral effects and methionine – increases with lactic acid fermentation. [2. Evaluation of lysine and methionine production in some Lactobacilli and yeasts. International Journal of Food Microbiology. Odunfa et al.]For grains, sprouting prior to souring can increase the availability of protein even further. Vegetables that have undergone lactic acid fermentation as in the case of sauerkraut and kimchi, often see an increase in the activity of vitamin C and vitamin A.

While lactic acid fermentation does not usually increase the level of minerals present in fermented foods unless unusual circumstances are present (as in fermenting food in a metal or earthen container), it does decrease the activity of phytic acid content naturally present in grains. Phytic acid is an antinutrient that binds up minerals – preventing full absorption of minerals in the gut. Since souring grains reduces the phytic acid content, the lactic acid fermentation process actually enables your body to absorb more minerals from the grain than you would be able to otherwise absorb. The end result is that you get more bang for your nutritional buck by souring the grains you eat.

So now that you’ve eliminated modern sweeteners and learned to use mineral-rich bone broth, your next step on the traditional foods journey is to better incorporate fermented food into your diet. Take advantage of all the health benefits that lactic acid fermentation offers. Next week the Traditional Foods primer will build upon our knowledge of fermented food by examining just how they can improve our health.

In the meantime, check out these recipes which takes advantage of lactic acid fermentation: