Pungent powerhouses finding favour with foodies
Fermentation, in all its permutations, is one of the biggest food trends in 2017. Like unattended kefir grains, it has mushroomed into a formidable foodie movement, invading menus and health stores with the promise of umami flavours and superior digestion.
Along with its de rigueur bedfellows of virtue — matcha and broth — fermented foods are nothing new. But with the emergence of the mainstream health movement and emphasis on gut health, the revival of this ancient method of preservation is enjoying a bubbling comeback.
James Kuiper, founder of probiotic-centric brand Sexy Food, says fermented foods are "as old as the hills. Before we had freezers and canned food, everyone had to do this, and in Southern Africa cultured foods have been part of a traditional diet for centuries. Records from the 17th century show evidence of communities fermenting milk, maize meal, sorghum porridge and beverages."
Fermentation is achieved when "good for you" bacteria and yeast are introduced to foods to preserve them, transforming carbohydrates or sugars into lactic acids under anaerobic conditions.
It is a low-cost form of food preservation. The lactobacillus bacteria that develop create beneficial forms of probiotics, enzymes and vitamins that improve gut health — or the maintenance of a diverse colony of microbes in the intestines.
Fermented foods provide healthy bacteria that may strengthen the body against chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disease.
The rise of mass production and the ubiquitous presence of cheap, refined foods have caused a marked change in diet, which Kuiper describes as a crisis in food safety and security.
"Many of the fermentation traditions have been lost and consequently there has been a notable rise in disease and conditions linked to the depletion of good gut bacteria.
"Foods that are not organically grown, are genetically modified, refined, pasteurised and chemically modified have little to no nutritional value. Rather than feeding and nourishing the body, they take away from the body, leaving it susceptible to various diseases and ailments.
"Cultured foods naturally begin to restore the beneficial bacteria in the body essential to health and make other foods more nutritious and digestible."
A survivor of lymphoma, Kuiper found that incorporating fermented foods into his diet helped to quell his pervasive digestive discomfort and restore his overall wellness.
While chocolate, coffee, beer and all cheeses undergo fermentation of some kind, Kuiper does not encourage people to help themselves to more Stilton. "Good probiotic-rich foods include fermented veggies like sauerkraut and kimchi, grain-based kefir milk and the more unusual kefir water, sparkling kombucha teas, sourdough bread and soya-based miso and tempeh."
Try one form of fermented food and then the next and see which ones work best for you
How much should be eaten is largely a personal matter, dependent on lifestyle. James drinks kefir every day but says that beginning slowly and with variety is part of his ethos.
"Try one form of fermented food and then the next and see which ones work best for you. Each ferment has a different strain of bacteria [there are tens of millions of strains] and so by trying a few, your body should feel which one you need and you’ll gravitate towards it."
Incorporating fermented foods into an everyday diet is far easier than overhauling an eating plan or switching to a vegan or Banting regime.
As basic as using stock, fermented foods offer a umami-rich, tangy taste that can be added to each meal. "They’re not a vegan or vegetarian trend and suit all styles of cuisines, making them a very inclusive way of eating," says Kuiper.
The health benefits of the pungent powerhouses make up an extensive list, often exaggerated. They are purported to increase the bioavailability of nutrients, can decrease lactose intolerance, have been linked to reducing the risk of certain cancers and may stave off depression.
Kuiper believes wholeheartedly in all these benefits, noting that the gut "has more neurotransmitters in it than our entire brain". He adds that regular bowel movements and a lighter feeling can be expected by all who eat or drink fermented foods.
For those who can’t bear the burden of feeding hungry kefir grains or separating layers of symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, health shops and a smattering of on-trend restaurants offer an array of the pickled produce incorporated into dishes.