We sell alcohol products, so it’s pretty obvious we like fermented stuff! But what is fermentation, anyway, and why should you consume fermented products?
It’s basically a chemical transformation of organic matter into similar organic compounds by way of enzymes and other catalysts produced by micoorganisms (most notably, yeast, mold and bacteria.) Enzymes break down complex molecules into more readily digestible substances and nutrients so they can be assimilated by your body. We have enzymes in our bodies, too, and the complex “microbiome” of enzymes, bacteria and such that lives in our guts are important to good health.
Fermented beverages like wine, cider, and beer were important in the old times because they were often safer to drink than the local water supply. And fermenting foods was often the best way not only of preserving the harvest, but making it through to the next growing season, until the advent of reliable canning methods. Fermentation was simply necessary and practical, but now we are discovering a side benefit to consuming fermented products: better health.
It’s pretty well-known today that wine has benefits for the body. Compounds in the skin of the grapes help the heart, vascular system, colon, bones and cholesterol levels. Writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is famous for saying “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” When you think about the fact that it takes 600-800 grapes to make one bottle of wine, you are getting a good amount of a plant-based substance when you have a glass of wine. Pollan may not have been talking about wine as food, but wine contains clorophyll and other compounds we usually associate with fruits and vegetables (sunshine in a bottle, then?)
Similarly, beer is made from plants, and has some similar benefits as wine. Beer happens to have a lot of B-vitamins, and appears to be better for workout recovery than sports drinks. It might also help prevent kidney stones and cut stroke risk. One caveat, however, is that beer drinkers might tend to choose less healthy foods to have with a cold one, whereas wine drinkers tend to make better food choices, according to people who study this stuff.
Speaking of healthy foods, fermented products are finally making their way into the mainstream as health foods, as the importance of gut health is becoming more prevalent in the news. Naturally pickled foods like sauerkraut, rather than those pickled in vinegar, for example, contain lactobaccillus bacteria which also reside in the gut, and are needed in keeping the body healthy. These microbes are also found in everyday foods such as yogurt and certain cheeses.
A number of factors, including widespread antibiotic use and poor diet, have been contributing to damage of the human microbiome over the years in Western countries. People with diminished gut flora, or dysbiosis of the gut bacteria communities, are at risk for many chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, cancer, and even autism may be associated with it. It also could be a factor in the rise of liver cirrhosis. A healthy microbiome is necessary for proper nutrient absorbtion, synthesis of Vitamin K, digestion of cellulose (plant fiber, essentially) and the development of new blood vessels and enteric nerve function (the nervous system that causes the gastrointestinal system to work.) It’s also linked to a healthy immune system. In a nutshell, you need that balance of good bacteria and such in your gut for everything else to work right. I’m sure there’s a car maintenance analogy someone out there could come up with to parallel this!
At any rate, there are lots of things people can be doing to maintain a healthy gut, like cutting down on junk food, eating fresh local foods when they can, and seeking out naturally fermented foods. Try a little kimchi the next time you have Korean food or stop at an Asian grocer. In Door County, I have noticed lately that many restaurants including home-pickled vegetables with their entrees; they are fresh and wonderful foils which give your palate a break from rich foods, and likely are going to aid in their digestion, so don’t be shy about trying them. Make you own fermented pickles at home–you can pickle just about any vegetable, including sweeter ones like carrots. Sauerkraut made at home is practically a no-brainer, trust me, and you don’t need to make a ton of it.
And what if you don’t like the sour stuff? Maybe you weren’t raised eating it, and it’s hard to overcome the sharp taste. Often you can find Kombucha sweetened to your liking in the store, or sweetened kefir blended with fruit. (Kefir is a fermented dairy product and it’s smooth and drinkable like a milkshake.) If you’re not a fan of kraut, you might still make a small batch in a mason jar, and just have a pinch of it now and then on the side of your plate. If you find yogurt too tart, try mixing in honey or jam.
Personally, I’m kind of a fermentation addict. I have made wine at home from our local cherries and my own honey, I’ve made sauerkraut and kimchi, my own sourdough starter, I’ve made yogurt with commercial starters, I’ve made beer and on and on… I like to have things bubbling away in my kitchen, and the putting things together and waiting to see how they turn out– the mad scientist in me, I think! We call it, “Jennifer’s experimental kitchen.” I have to say things almost always turn out well– that’s how easy fermentation can be. I once made a wine from beets that tasted like a red wine made from grapes– I kid you not!
We recently brought in some of the Cultures for Health products http://www.culturesforhealth.com/ as an adjunct to the sale of wine in our shop, to encourage people to give fermentation a try at home. I listed what we have in a Facebook posting a couple days ago. It’s easier than one might think, and it’s an affordable way to get probiotics into your family’s diet, and on a regular basis. It’s much tastier, I might add, than swallowing probiotics capsules, and it’s probably much more reliable as a probiotics source since those supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA anyway and who knows what conditions they were exposed to in the manufacturing and shipping. The Cultures for Health web site has a lot of ideas, help and recipes, and I am willing to help you by answering questions and troubleshooting.
To your health, as they say!