Every day, a battle rages between good and bad viruses, fungi and bacteria. The epicenter of this war? Your gut, where food breaks down and enters your bloodstream, delivering valuable nutrients throughout your body.
A host of health issues can result from imbalances in the gut, from headaches and inflammation, to a poor heart or foul mood. Fermented foods can be an easy (and delicious!) way to deliver your gut the ammunition it needs to maintain a healthy balance. Learn more about how fermented foods are made, how they help your body, why probiotics get so much attention and more in our handy FAQ.
What is food fermentation?
Microorganisms (like probiotics) convert starches and sugars into lactic acid, alcohol or other compounds through an anaerobic process. This process is what gives fermented foods their unique taste, texture and aroma — and their nutrient-packed boost.
Why is everyone so obsessed with probiotics?
Probiotics, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, are living bacteria (the “good” kind) and yeasts that support your immune, nervous and digestive systems, as well as hormone and brain function. When you eat probiotic-rich foods, these bacteria become part of your own microbiome.
Wait, what’s a microbiome?
The community of microorganisms living within each of us composes our personal “microbiome.” No two people share the same microbiome (including identical twins), and healthy bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa all play a part.
So, how does food fermentation work?
Foods are fermented when different microorganisms “eat” them and then generate a byproduct. For example, beer and wine are fermented by yeast, which is attracted to sugars (like the grains in beer or grapes in wine) and produce alcohol, acids and related flavor components as a byproduct. Sauerkraut, another good example, is fermented by lactic acid-producing organisms (like Lactobacillus), which favor the carbohydrates and starches in vegetables and produce their own distinct flavors.
Are there different types of food fermentation?
There are three main types of fermentation employed in food production:
Lactic acid fermentation. In a heat-free and non-oxygenated process, yeast and bacteria convert starches or sugars into lactic acid. Sauerkraut, sourdough bread, pickles, kimchi and yogurt are all made through lactic acid fermentation.
Ethanol or alcohol fermentation. Yeasts break down sugars into pyruvate molecules (a process called glycolysis) into alcohols, resulting in wine and beer.
Acetic acid fermentation. The sugars and starches in fruits and grains are transformed into vinegar — like wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar and kombucha.
How are fermented foods made?
Fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy can all be transformed into uniquely flavored fermented food. A similar two-step process is employed, no matter if the foods are “wild” fermented (when fermentation is allowed to occur naturally, in its own way and timeframe) or through a forced, commercial process:
Step 1. Primary fermentation: Microbes begin to naturally grow on fruits and vegetables bathing in their salty, seasoned brine or milky bath. During this stage, foods are tightly covered to prevent oxygenation. The salty brine used in this process helps preserve the food and keep it from spoiling — and it also slows down the fermentation process, giving the food time to reach its full flavor potential.
Step 2. Secondary fermentation: In this phase, which can take days or even years, good bacteria (like Lactobacilli) turn carbs into sugar — then convert the sugar into alcohol. As alcohol levels rise, food ferments and the yeasts and microbes that would normally feed on those carbohydrates die off.
Some food fermentation stops here, when alcohol finally transitions into acid — producing that distinct vinegary taste and smell. Winemakers and beer brewers go a step further, skillfully manipulating alcohol levels to achieve higher- or lower-proof beverages.
From miso-glazed eggplant to a ricotta ravioli dish, have fun with fermented foods.
What are some examples of fermented foods?
You may be surprised to learn that there are a dizzying number of fermented foods on the market today, including:
Adding fermented foods to your pantry or fridge is a fun and tasty way to expand your flavor experience. Plus, enjoying these unique foods means you’re getting a nutrient-packed boost every time you take a bite.