and Its Health Benefits
By Robert L Lawrence M.Ed., D.C., D.A.C.B.N.
Fermentation and Fermented Foods:
The Mingling of History and Culture
The origin of fermented foods is lost in antiquity,
but fermentation is one of man’s oldest attempts at food preservation
and preparation. There are biblical references to fermented wine
production and recorded indications of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal
(668-626 BCE) on what he considered to be the best wines of his time.
Fermentation, however, predates even these early writings. It is
suspected that the natural fermentation processes for grains and dairy
led to the development of beer, wine, cheese and yogurt about the time
early man moved away from a hunter-gatherer society into an
agriculture-based society. To survive, ancient man had to harness
nature. Food begins to spoil the moment it is harvested, but food
preservation enabled man to put down roots, live in one place, and
form communities. He no longer had to consume the kill or the harvest
immediately. Fermentation became popular at the dawn of civilization
not only because it preserved food, but also because it provided a
variety of tastes and food forms.
The astonishing fact about food preservation is
that, historically, it has permeated every culture. The cultural
heritage of virtually all civilizations includes fermented foods made
by the souring action of microbes. Fermented foods are consumed in
every country throughout the world and have played an important role
in our diet for centuries. Similar foods can be found in every
culture, with only the name changing, indicating that fermentation has
universal application and appeal. Additionally, there are nutritional
benefits from fermented foods.
Historical, Cultural Fermentation
Fermenting food occurred among various native
peoples, and was propagated through oral communication. During the
Middle Ages, various fermented foods and drinks depended upon raw
materials, environmental conditions, and the local taste preferences.
Among the vegetables preserved through lacto-fermentation—using
lactobacillus (and lactic acid)—cabbage has been preferred. In China,
records date that cabbage has been fermented for over 6,000 years. In
Europe and today in North America, the principal lacto-fermented
vegetable food is cabbage—in the form of sauerkraut. Described in
historical Roman texts, sauerkraut was prized for its delicious taste
and medicinal properties. Tiberius carried a barrel of sauerkraut with
him during long voyages to the Middle East because the Romans knew
that the lactic acid it contained protected them from intestinal
Captain James Cook, during his sailing trips (1768
to 1780), forced his crew to eat sauerkraut. He became well known for
the extraordinary survival record and health of the shipmates on board
his ships. The sauerkraut provided vitamin C to protect the entire
crew from scurvy—with no cases occurring during the 27-month voyages.
Russia and Poland use pickled green tomatoes, peppers and lettuces.
Lacto-fermented vegetables form part of Asian cuisines as well. The
peoples of Japan, China and Korea make pickled preparations of
cabbage, turnip, eggplant, cucumber, onion, squash and carrot. Korean
kimchi, for example, is a lacto-fermented condiment of cabbage with
other vegetables and seasonings and is eaten daily. Early American
tradition includes many types of relishes, developed primarily to mask
the taste and odor of less than fresh food. In India, varieties of
chutneys, all of which were originally lacto-fermented products, are
One striking observation of ethnic cuisines is that
it is rare when meals are eaten without at least one fermented food.
In France if one were to take away bread, cheese, wine and beer—all
produced through fermentation—meals would be much impoverished. In
Japan, it’s not a complete meal without miso, soy sauce and
pickles—all fermented foods. In India soured milk is consumed at
practically every meal. In Indonesia tempeh is eaten regularly, and in
Africa porridge of fermented millet, corn, cassava, and sorghum are
daily staples. In Moslem countries they consume fermented-grain breads
and milk products.
Fermented foods are usually produced as a means of
preserving perishable ingredients such as milk, vegetables, and fish
when refrigeration is unavailable or too costly. Beyond its use as a
valuable food preservation method, unique nutrient complexes are also
created during fermentation. The abundant microorganisms in the
fermentation process produce vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, beta-glucans,
The Fermentation Process— The Role of
Microorganisms in Food Preservation and Nutrition
The first life forms were microorganisms; fossil
organisms have been found in rocks 3.3 to 3.5 billion years old. Since
then, microorganisms have recycled organic matter in the environment,
making them essential to the health of the planet. By studying
fermentation, we become involved in the most intimate relationship
among man, microbes, and food. Early man very likely consumed fruits,
leaves, berries, seeds, nuts, and tubers, and their bodily wastes (as
well as their bodies at death) were recycled by microorganisms. The
human body also had to accommodate this sea of microorganisms by
developing internal and external systems of protection against
invasion by harmful microbes. Hence, normal, healthy flora (or
microorganisms) live in the skin, mouth, throat, vagina, and
intestinal tract, protecting us against invasion from disease-causing
organisms. The human fetus, while in utero, is essentially sterile,
but is exposed to an array of microorganisms during the birth process.
If, however, the infant is breast-fed, its intestinal tract becomes
colonized by beneficial bacteria, thus producing lactic acid—which
aids in protection against intestinal and respiratory illnesses.
There is something fascinating about microorganisms.
They are everywhere—in the air, in water, in food, and in our bodies.
They are invisible and without number, capable of multiplying with
extraordinary rapidity. Some are agents of illness and even of
death—but some are the very foundation of life and health.
The process of fermentation:
- Renders food resistant to microbial spoilage and
the development of toxins.
- Inhibits the transfer of pathogenic organisms.
- Improves digestion and nutrient absorption of
- Preserves food between the time of harvest and
- Enhances flavor and nutritional value.
The Myriad Health and Fermentation Benefits of
Lactic Acid Bacteria
The ancient Greeks understood that important
chemical changes took place during fermentation. Their name for this
change was “alchemy.” Like the fermentation of dairy products,
preservation of vegetables and fruits by the process of
lacto-fermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple
preservation. Starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits are
converted into lactic acid by the many species of lactic
acid-producing bacteria. These lactobacilli are present on the surface
of all living things, and are especially numerous on leaves, roots,
and plants growing in or near the ground. The proliferation of
lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and
increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms also produce
numerous helpful enzymes. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only
keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation, but
also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestines.
Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying
bacteria. Other alchemical by-products include hydrogen peroxide and
small amounts of benzoic acid.
Our bodies’ many systems and functions continuously
rely on the balance of nutrients required to fuel our complex
physiological needs. The intestinal tract is home to some 100 trillion
living bacteria of over 400 different species. Because the organisms
are living, they need a certain environment in which to thrive.
Beneficial bacteria living in the intestines favor an environment that
remains slightly more acidic than alkaline in ratio.
It has been said that what is old becomes new again.
The ancient wisdom of lacto-fermentation has truly proven itself
through time and cultures as an invaluable artisanal craft with
far-reaching nutritional benefits to the health of modern man. Got
culture? If not, then investigate the health benefits of fermentation
and fermented foods.
Note from Christine:
Garden of Life utilizes a unique “PotenZyme” fermentation process
to enhance the absorption and utilization of their product’s nutrients
in the body. The inclusion of probiotic nutrients in many of their
products also encourages a balanced, healthy internal environment. For
more information about the
Garden of Life products, click here.
Dr. Robert Lawrence has been in private practice
since 1983, emphasizing nutrition, athletics, and positive lifestyle
changes to attain improved health and personal achievement. He has
worked closely with athletes as a basketball coach and as a physician
at both the collegiate and high school levels, emphasizing lifestyle
choices off the court and performance impact on the court. He serves
as the director of physician education for
Garden of Life’s Original Medicine brand of nutraceuticals. In
addition, he is the clinic director for the Goldberg Clinic of South
Florida. The Goldberg Clinic emphasizes the evaluation and management
of chronic illness, the ultimate goal of which is to allow the patient
to be largely independent of physicians. Credentials: Doctor of
Chiropractic Medicine, National University of Health Sciences;
Diplomat, American Clinical Board of Nutrition; Graduate, Institute of
Functional Medicine; Master of Science Education, Temple University;
Bachelor of Science, Piedmont College.