Food fermentation and its significance
Numerous useful properties of fermented products
Fermented products have a literally lively flavour and contain live nutrients. Their flavour is usually strong. Remember the fragrant ripe cheeses, sour sauerkraut, thick tart pasta miso, rich noble wines. Of course, you could say that the taste of some fermented products is for the amateur. However, people have always appreciated the unique flavour nuances and appetizing aromas that products acquire through the work of bacteria and mushrooms.
From a practical point of view, the main advantage of fermented products is that they last longer. The microorganisms involved in the fermentation process produce alcohol, lactic acid and acetic acid. All these “bioconservatives” help to preserve nutrients and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, thus preventing spoilage of food supplies.
Vegetables, fruits, milk, fish and meat spoil quickly. And when it was possible to obtain their surplus, our ancestors used all available means to preserve food stocks for as long as possible. From the tropics to the Arctic, fermentation has been used everywhere throughout history.
Captain James Cook was a famous 18th century English explorer. Thanks to his active work, the borders of the British Empire expanded considerably. Cook was also recognized by the Royal Society of London, Britain’s leading scientific society, for curing his team members of scurvy (a disease caused by an acute vitamin C deficiency). Cook was able to conquer the disease by taking on board a large supply of sauerkraut (which contains a significant amount of vitamin C) during his expeditions.
Thanks to his discovery, Cook was able to discover many new lands, which then fell under the power of the British crown and strengthened its power, including Hawaii, where he was later killed.
Indigenous Polynesians crossed the Pacific Ocean and settled in Hawaii more than 1,000 years before Captain Cook’s visit. It’s also interesting to know that, just like the Cook’s team, they were helped by fermented foods! In this case, “poi”, a porridge made from the dense starchy root of Tarot, which is still popular in Hawaii and the South Pacific region.
Fermentation not only preserves the beneficial properties of nutrients, but also helps the body to assimilate them. Many nutrients are complex chemical compounds, but during fermentation complex molecules are broken down into simpler elements.
Soybeans are an example of this transformation of fermentation properties. It’s a unique, protein-rich product. However, without fermentation, soybeans are hardly digested by the human body (some even claim that they are toxic). During the fermentation process, the complex protein molecules of soybeans are broken down, and as a result, amino acids are formed, which the body is already able to absorb. At the same time, plant toxins contained in soya beans are broken down and neutralized. The result is traditional fermented soybean products such as soy sauce, miso paste and temp.
Nowadays, many people have difficulty assimilating milk. The reason for that is the intolerance of lactose, milk sugar. Lactic acid bacteria in fermented milk products convert lactose into lactic acid, which is much easier to digest.
The same happens with gluten, the protein of cereal plants. In the process of bacterial fermentation with the help of inoculums (in contrast to yeast fermentation, which is now most commonly used in bakeries), gluten molecules are broken down and fermented gluten is easier to digest than fermented gluten.
According to experts from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), fermented foods are a source of vital nutrients. The organization is actively working to increase the popularity of fermented products around the world. According to the Organization, fermentation increases the bioavailability (i.e. the ability of the body to absorb a substance) of minerals present in products.
Bill Mollison, author of The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, calls fermentation “a form of pre-digestion”. “Pre-digestion” also breaks down and neutralizes certain toxic substances in products. We have already given soybeans as an example.
Another illustration of the process of neutralizing toxins is the fermentation of cassava (also known as yucca or cassava). This root vegetable comes from South America, which later became a staple food in equatorial Africa and Asia.
Cassava may contain high concentrations of cyanide. The level of this substance is highly dependent on the type of soil on which the root vegetable grows. If cyanide is not neutralized, cassava cannot be eaten: it is simply poisonous. A normal soak is often used to remove the toxin: for this purpose, cleaned and cut tubers are placed in water for about 5 days. This makes it possible to break down the cyanide and make the cassava not only safe to eat, but also to preserve the useful substances it contains.