Learning to Love Microbes

Fermentation. The ideas that this word brings to mind aren’t necessarily the most pleasant: rot, mysteriously bubbling liquids, putrid stench, sourness. When my professor told us that we would be fermenting our own vegetables and eating them, one of my classmates was absolutely horrified by the thought. To ferment is to decay, to decompose, to die – surely we shouldn’t eat spoiled food!

But fermented food isn’t spoiled: it’s pre-digested. Specifically, as Michael Pollan describes it in his book Cooked (now a four-part Netflix series), “To ferment food is to predigest it, in effect, breaking long chains of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates our bodies might not be able to make good use of into simpler, safer compounds that they can.” In the simplest terms, fermenting is cooking without heat.

Beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, miso paste, fish sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and even chocolate are all common examples of fermented foods. Nonetheless, describing them as what they are, fermented, still makes some people’s skin crawl. In the hyper-sterilized culture of westernized society, the process of encouraging bacterial growth sounds unsafe if not flat-out disgusting. We trust the manufactured versions of these products to be sanitized by industrial food producers to meet government standards to keep us safe. On the flipside, we no longer trust the process of fermentation itself, which has nothing to do with the most notorious foodborne threats of salmonella, listeria, and E coli. “Bacteria” have just been given a connotation of disease and death, such that we perceive them as menaces to be eradicated rather than recognizing their beneficial, natural role in our bodies.

Pollan writes beautifully and thoroughly about how detrimental processing and pasteurization have been to our microbiome, the communities of bacteria thriving in our bodies. Basically, we have deprived our bodily systems of a lot of beneficial microorganisms that humans have historically received from fermented and other foods. The combination of a) a lack of gut bacteria and b) the nutritional imbalance of our diets, heavy in fats and carbohydrates and low in fiber, has been linked to the rising prevalence of gastrointestinal disorders and possibly other autoimmune diseases.

Hold on – didn’t I write a post about the dangers of raw milk just two years ago? “Others still believe [raw milk] to be a good source of healthy bacteria – but, really, it is safer to look for probiotic dairy products, which have been pasteurized and then had beneficial bacteria added to them.” I look back on that post now and laugh at myself for having such blind faith in industrialization. The fact that manufacturers deliberately kill the naturally-occurring bacteria in our foods only to reinject some of them with live cultures for the sake of boasting a “probiotic” label is ridiculous. Thousands of microorganisms are lost in the process, so the effect on our bodies is markedly different. For instance, many sources will tell you that kefir made from live grains contains at least 35 strains of beneficial bacteria, yet store-bought versions boast a measly 12 active cultures.

Don’t get me wrong: pasteurization is extremely important to ensure the safety of mass-produced milk products. However, I highly recommend trying to incorporate unprocessed fermented foods to your diet, if you can find them. If you have access to organic produce, you can even try your hand at fermenting with recipes like this – it’s shockingly easy!

As Hokuma said in a recent post, let’s see food as a living and breathing ‘thing’ that interacts with our body.” I’d like to build on that: let’s see our insides as living things that interact with our food. It doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s the truth that gives us life.

Eva

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