Fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition. Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced. Think of stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso, smooth sublime wines. Though not everyone loves every flavor of fermentation, humans have always appreciated the unique, compelling flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi.
One great practical benefit of fermentation is that it can preserve food. Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid and acetic acid, all “bio-preservatives” that retain nutrients while preventing spoilage and the growth of pathogenic organisms. Vegetables, fruits, milk, fish and meat are highly perishable, and our ancestors used whatever techniques they could discover to store foods from periods of plenty for later consumption. From the tropics to the Arctic, fermentation has been used to preserve food resources.
Microbiodiversity and Incorporating the Wild
By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote microbial diversity in your body. The live bacteria in those ferments not heated after fermentation enter our bodies, where some of them survive the stomach and find themselves in our already densely populated intestines. There, they help to digest food and assimilate nutrients, as well as stimulate immune responses. There is no one particular strain that is uniquely beneficial; rather the greatest benefit of eating bacteria lies in biodiversity. Few if any of the bacteria we eat take up residence in our intestines, but even so they have elaborate interactions with the bacteria that are there, and with our bodily cells, in ways that we are just beginning to recognize and that remain little understood.
Biodiversity is increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems. Earth and all its inhabitants comprise a single, seamless matrix of life, interconnected and interdependent. The frightening repercussions of species extinctions starkly illustrate the impact of the loss of biodiversity all over our planet. The survival of our species depends upon biodiversity.
Biodiversity is just as important at the micro level. Call it microbiodiversity. Your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse microorganisms. Sure, you can buy “probiotic” supplements containing specific strains. But by eating traditional fermented foods and beverages, especially those you ferment yourself with wild microorganisms present in your environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment literally becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.
Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods, microbial cultures included, possess a great, unmediated life force, which can help us lower our susceptibility to disease and adapt to shifting conditions. These microorganisms are everywhere, and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.
Are live fermented foods the answer to a long, healthy life? The folklores of many different cultures associate longevity with foods such as yogurt and miso. Many researchers have found evidence to support this causal connection. Pioneering Russian immunologist and Nobel laureate Elie Metchniko studied yogurt-eating centenarians in the Balkans early in the 20th century and concluded that lactic acid bacteria “postpone and ameliorate old age.”
Personally, I’m not so inclined to reduce the secret of long life and good health to any single food or practice. Life consists of multiple variables, and every life is unique. But very clearly fermentation has contributed to the well-being of humanity as a whole.