In every forkful of nourishment that goes into your mouth, you're likely to find bacteria, yeasts and moulds. Whether this is good news or not depends on which ones are present and on the general state of our health.
At their best, fermented foods replenish the population of health-promoting bacteria that live inside out digestive tracts - think yogurt, vinegar, miso, sauerkraut and pickles. What these foods have in common is that they're created by the growth of various micro-organisms. Yogurt starts out as milk, miso as soybeans, sauerkraut as raw cabbage.
These foods can aid good digestion, strong immunity, hormone balance and the maintenance of healthy levels of some vitamins. Fermented items are usually much easier to digest than they were in the pre-fermented state because bacteria and yeast have already started the job for us. The bacteria in many of these foods also produce substances that kill off other potentially disease-causing organisms. And they keep Candida yeasties at bay.
If your inner ecosystem is weighted toward yeast rather than lactobacilli (a situation that stresses your immunity), holistic practitioners believe that you should consume fermented foods, because they contain yeast and moulds. Too much yeast, they say, stresses immunity. They caution against goodies such as soy sauce, wine, beer, sake, yeasted breads, and Camembert, blue Gouda and cheddar cheese.
When it comes to getting health benefits from fermented foods, you have to know what you're shopping for. Plain, unsweetened yogurt and kefir deliver the most nutritional benefits. You should look for packages indicating the product contains live cultures. Most commercial sauerkraut (including some "health food" brands) contains no live bacteria because it's been pasteurized (which also accounts for its awful taste).
Raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, on the other hand, have a fresh, crunchy taste and are a great source of vitamin C and healthy microbes. Another option in this vein is kimchee, a spicy fermented cabbage available at Korean groceries. If you like miso, again buy the unpasteurized kind. Don't put it into boiling soup or you'll kill those friendly germs. Instead, add it just before serving.
Unpasteurized apple cider vinegar and brown riche vinegar are full of disease-fighting bacteria, antioxidants and minerals, but distilled white vinegar will strip minerals from you body. And watch out for any wine or balsamic vinegar with added sulphite preservatives - huge numbers of us are allergic to them.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Kefir is healthier than yogurt. It has more of the good bacteria. Miso is one of the best products for building the adrenals. For people who are really burnt-out, miso gently regenerates. You cannot use the powder - you need aged miso that comes in jars. Soy sauce contains Aspergillus, a mould put here by Mother Nature to break the human body back down to earth. Aspergillus mould in the lungs kills archaeologists. Tamari, which doesn't have Aspergillus, costs more but is worth it. Grains and beans are very hard to digest, and fermenting them helps the process. Throw some whey or yogurt into water and ideally soak for 12 hours before cooking."
ALEXANDRA GELLMAN, homeopath, facilitator of Candida self-help workshops, author, The Bible of Healthy Living, Toronto
"Fermentation is always present. It creates about a gram of alcohol in juice. Fermented vegetables are very beneficial for your digestion. Using artificially made vinegar is not good for your system. Apple cider vinegar can improve your digestion and help you lose weight."
MANUAL MEDOZE, registered nutritional counseling practitioner, Toronto
"It's amazing how many cultures have fermented foods. Dr. Weston Price found that of the 14 groups (he identified worldwide) that had good dentition (healthy teeth, jaws, few cavities), all ate fermented foods of one type or another. The same bacteria that live in fermented vegetables live in the human body. They contribute to the intestinal flora, which we often lack because so much of our food has been pasteurized. People used to eat sauerkraut to avoid using scurvy. Fermented food is partially digested, making it easier to digest and helping it retain its nutritional value."
GARY CALDWELL, president of Caldwell Bio Fermentation, St. Edwidge, Quebec
"Various health benefits have been purported to come from foods containing live micro-organisms. Evidence for health claims like lowering serum cholesterol, suppressing cancer and stimulating the immune system remain to be clearly established."
ERIKA BOYLE, registered dietitian, Barrie
"Fermentation helps maintain vitamin levels and increases the nutritional value of vegetables through the presence of lactic acid bacteria. No clinical studies have been done on fermented vegetables. Both yeasts and bacteria are commonly used to ferment food, and are sometimes used together. It is not possible to say that one is healthier than the other."
TONY SAVARD, research scientist, Agriculture Canada, St Hyacinthe, Quebec