What is Gut Microbiota?
Our bodies contain tens of trillions of bacteria cells, which actually outnumber our human cells 10 to 1. The majority of this bacteria is found in our gut, or the intestinal system, where it is lined with billions of microorganisms collectively called gut microbiota (or previously ‘gut flora’ or ‘gut microflora’). Because of its metabolic activity, it has sometimes been regarded as an actual microbial organ, or ‘the forgotten organ’. Babies were thought to be born sterile, or without this microbiota, although there may be evidence that these microorganisms are present in the fetus. As the infant grows, it’s gut becomes colonized by bacteria from its mother and the environment and by three years of age, its microbiota more closely resembles that of adults.
Gut microbiota is considered ‘good’ bacteria and is not harmful to the human host like pathogenic bacteria is. If fact, gut microbiota is critical to overall health and well-being. Research of the gut microbiota and its relations to metabolic health has been steadily growing and is showing that these microorganisms are responsible for ensuring proper digestive function, synthesizing Vitamins B and K, and aiding in the development and function of the mucosal immune system. There are even studies that look at the link between the human microbiome and mental health, suggesting traditional dietary practices, namely the consumption of fermented foods, may contribute to positive mental health.
What are fermented foods?
Foods are fermented when naturally-occuring bacteria feeds on simple carbohydrates and converts it to lactic acid rendering it FULL of probiotics, beneficial bacteria and other micronutrients. With some foods, the taste becomes a bit more pungent and sour, but is packed with strong flavor.
Fermented foods actually date back thousands of years and are apart of a wide array of cultures all over the world. Fermentation was crucial for preserving foods in those times and was especially important during harsh winters when access to fresh produce was limited.
Where have they gone?
These days, fermented foods are not typical of the modern diet. Foods that have been considered traditional fermented foods in the past now pale in comparison to what they used to be. Pickles are made with vinegar instead of just salt and water, and they are pasteurized, killing off the good bacteria anyway. A lot of cheese is made from pasteurized milk from questionable cows. Store-bought sourdough breads aren’t typically made from real fermented sourdough starters.
New methods to aid in preservation have developed because of technology and that could be a big contributor to the huge decline in the presence of fermented foods. I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as an advancement. Although technology has served us in ways, it’s also created a space where we have become so far removed from our environment and the traditions that served our ancestors for so long. Sandor Katz, the author of The Art of Fermentation, expands on this:
“Every living creature on this Earth interacts intimately with its environment via its food. Humans in our developed technological society, however, have largely severed this connection, and with disastrous results. Though affluent people have more food choices than people of the past could ever have dreamed of, and though one person’s labor can produce more food today than ever before, the large-scale, commercial methods and systems that enable these phenomena are destroying our Earth, destroying our health, and depriving us of dignity. With respect to food, the vast majority of people are completely dependent for survival upon a fragile global infrastructure of monocultures, synthetic chemicals, biotechnology, and transportation.”
One way to connect to our roots, eat local and still embrace tradition is to reintroduce fermented foods into our diet. And you’ll enjoy all the benefits, of course!
How do I include them in my diet?
There are tons of fermented foods from all over the world, but here are just a few. When you are out shopping looking for any of these, be sure and read the labels for any and every clue about the quality of your product. For the most success, you’ll want to shop at natural grocery stores and health food stores. Don’t expect to find great things at your typical supermarket or anything like Wal-mart. You’re better off making a lot of these yourself. It’s cheaper anyway.
Cultured Vegetables (here are brine recommendations to make your own) – use firm vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, fennel, red onion, zucchini, asparagus, green beans. Here are some recipes for different cultured foods. If you don’t feel like making your own sauerkraut, you can try one from The Brinery, a company from Ann Arbor, MI. They have some incredibly delicious, raw and unpasteurized sauerkraut. This flavor is my favorite. But they have so many other goods ones. You should check them out. There are also lots of cultured veggies out there to buy, but just make sure they are raw, organic, unpasteurized and the only ingredients are the vegetables, spices, water and salt like this one. You don’t want ones made with vinegar.
Kimchi – this is a traditional Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables and spices. I love having kimchi with scrambled eggs or you can just eat it by itself. Once again, you can buy it or make it homemade.
Fermented Soy products – miso, tempeh and soy sauce
Sauces/dips/dressings – check out this page and you’ll know exactly what I mean
Sourdough bread – NOT processed junk from the store that contains yeast, which is an indicator that it’s not real sourdough – either make your own with a sourdough starter or find a good brand in your area like this one. Sometimes you can find them being sold at farmer’s markets.
Kvass – a fermented beverage traditionally made from rye bread. You can try making beet kvass.
Fermented Milk Products – Yogurt, kefir, cheeses, sour cream – Although you can buy these at the store, most of the time these products at the store are loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives and come from cows that are not treated right. Something like this one out in California looks really good, but may not always be an option. Read labels really good or make your own with milk from a local farm you trust. You can buy starters at Cultures for Health.
Kombucha – Kombucha is a fermented drink made from tea. Get a SCOBY from a friend or buy a starter online.
If you’d like to read more about these topics:
What are some of your favorite fermented foods I may have missed??