Fermented foods and beverages continue to grow in popularity with consumers, but let’s take a step back and return to basics.
Fermented foods and beverages continue to grow in popularity with consumers, but let’s take a step back and return to basics. What are fermented foods, and what benefits do they offer? They’re often praised for an abundance of health benefits, unique flavor profiles, and they’re now easier to find than ever. You’ll see kombucha on tap in bars, sourdough bread loaves piled high in local cafes, and more varieties of yogurt and sauerkraut than you can count in the grocery store.
First things first, let’s talk about what fermentation actually is.
To put it simply, fermentation is a metabolic process that takes place in an anaerobic environment (without oxygen.) An army of yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates into natural preservatives like acids and alcohol. What you’re left with are foods that have been changed into more nutritious versions of themselves and are able to be stored for much longer time periods without spoiling. This process also inevitably changes the flavor of foods giving them stronger, tangier, and more sour flavors. That’s why some of our favorites like beer, yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, pickles and kombucha all have sharp, distinctive flavors — it’s a result of different kinds of fermentation processes.
There are actually three main types of fermentation processes. Let’s do a quick review of each one:
Lactic Acid Fermentation: Also known as lactate or lacto-fermentation, this type of fermentation is used to make many common foods like sourdough, yogurt, kimchi and cheese. It’s said to be one of the healthiest types of fermentation, because lactic acid aids with blood circulation, supports pre-digestion, and enhances pancreatic function. This process relies mostly on the growth of specific bacterias. (IE: Lactococcus ssp., Lactobacillus ssp., or Lactobacillus acidophilus. if you were curious.)
Alcoholic Fermentation: Alcoholic fermentation occurs when microorganisms convert carbohydrates to alcohol. This process relies mostly on the growth of [Saccharomyces] yeasts, and it’s how we get beverages such as kombucha, wine, beer, and spirits.
Acetic Fermentation: This type of fermentation takes place when alcohol is exposed to air and is converted into acetic acid. We all know it as vinegar!
If you want to do a little science experiment in your kitchen, leave raw apple cider at room temperature for a few days and watch it as it begins to ferment. After a few days, wallah! You’ll have some pretty potent apple cider vinegar on your hands.
The magic of kombucha fermentation
Since kombucha is our favorite fermented food, we wanted to touch on its fermentation process and history in more detail. While its fizzy personality and flavor is a big part of the reason why consumers love kombucha so much, the science behind how it’s fermented is a close second. Kombucha is fermented in a two-stage fermentation process. It’s unique because kombucha uses a starter culture known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) combined with sweet tea to kick start two processes.
The yeast converts sugar to alcohol under controlled conditions. After that, the bacteria convert most of this alcohol into acetic, gluconic, glucuronic and other organic acids. During both of these processes, the yeast and bacteria feast and multiply. And there you have it — kombucha!
Back to the beginning: The history of fermentation
Stretching as far back as human history, the beginnings of fermentation are a bit tricky to track down. However, historians have discovered traces of fermentation in foods and beverages as far back as 7000 BC. Since then, nearly every civilization in history has incorporated at least one fermented food into its culinary heritage — from Korean kimchi and Indian chutneys, to sauerkraut, yogurt, and cheeses. It’s even a well-documented part of select Chinese empires’ practices with grain-based beverages like rice wine.
So while humans in different cultures across the globe have enjoyed delicious fermented foods for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that people started to understand the reason why their food was fermenting. We owe this discovery to French chemist Louis Pasteur who connected yeast to the process of fermentation. This crowned him as the first zymologist (someone who studies the science of fermentation.)
Now, fast forward 200 years to the modern era, and we’ve learned so much more about fermentation. And the amazing thing is: there’s still so much more to learn.
So, why should we care about fermentation?
Not only does it provide incredible benefits to the nutritional value of the food and drink we consume, but it’s also an essential part of how our bodies produce energy and maintain a healthy livelihood. There’s continuous research coming out about the connection between your gut microbiome and everything from your skin, mental health and overall well-being. And as kombucha lovers, we sure can’t complain about the flavor it adds to our lives either.
While we could go on and on about the purpose of fermentation and the value it brings us daily, we’re going to spare you from a potentially lengthy saga and keep it to three key takeaways to remember.
Firstly, fermentation breaks down hard-to-digest nutrients so the body is better able to absorb them and convert them to energy.
Secondly, fermentation has the superpower of preserving food. Today we have the luxury of refrigeration, but long before this invention was even a mere thought, fermentation was crucial to survival during long winters or food scarcity. And even though it’s not a survival necessity today, we still love fermenting foods at home to eat, because they’re just scrumptious.
And last but not least, fermentation boosts the natural, beneficial probiotics in foods and beverages which are known to help with digestive and mental health. In fact, a growing body of research shows that your gut and brain are linked through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. And here’s another fun fact: Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for making us feel happy, is actually produced in the gut. Amazing, right?
Why is fermentation important today?
To put it plainly: Fermentation keeps us healthy.
One of the best ways to get more healthy bacteria in our lives is by eating fermented foods. Because most of us live in urban areas, we have minimal exposure to bacteria — a lot less than we did during the agricultural era when humans were constantly interacting with soil and animals. This reduced exposure is a result of our use of chemicals and antibacterial products, less interaction with nature, and our modern food system. These shifts in lifestyle have removed the healthy and mighty microorganisms from our diets and lives and left us in a breeding ground. The bottom line is: our bodies need fermented foods. Our bodies need beneficial, diverse bacteria in order to thrive, and kombucha is a delicious, nutrient-dense beverage that gets us there.