Interested in making your own home-fermented foods?

All you need to know about food safety and home fermentation.

Maybe you’ve heard about it on the news, read about it in a magazine or have been to a dinner party recently where it was served…and maybe it made you a little nervous. I’m talking about home-fermented foods. The practice of fermenting food and drinks has been around for thousands of years, but has just recently resurfaced as trendy in the United States. The first well known fermentation by humans was in the form of  beer and wine over 8,000 years ago, but most likely bread was the first fermented food predating the alcoholic beverages.We all have probably consumed some type of fermented food at one time or another and didn’t even realize it.

So what is fermentation? Technically speaking it is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. In simpler terms it means using beneficial bacteria and yeasts to preserve food and beverages. Worldwide there are nine categories of fermented food/beverage: Bean, grain, vegetable, fruit, dairy, honey, fish, meat and tea-based concoctions. Some of the more familiar fermented foods include sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), yogurt (fermented milk) and soy sauce made from fermented soy beans. Some of the new and popular foods include kimchi, made from radishes, cucumbers or other vegetables; kefir which is a drink made from milk; and kombucha which is a fermented tea.

Let’s back track to bacteria. Why would anyone ever want bacteria in their food or drink? If you didn’t know it already, our bodies (especially our guts) are already teeming with hundreds of different kinds of bacteria, some good and some not so good. In a healthy human gut, bacteria is mostly  beneficial and it helps us in digestion, extracting nutrients from food, and defending us from harmful bacteria. Some studies are now showing that our gut flora play a large role in our immune system and also mental health.

The process of fermenting food, also called lacto-fermentation, is carried out by several strains of “good bacteria” and beneficial yeasts. By consuming foods rich in these organisms the benefits are transferred to your gut. This is sometimes referred to as probiotic treatment and improves intestinal microbial balance.  Studies have also shown that eating fermented food increases vitamin intake as some micro-organisms produce vitamins during the process, as well as increase the available nutrients our bodies can use.

By now you’re probably wondering…is it safe? After all, I am talking about leaving food unrefrigerated only to be overrun by bacteria, and then continuing to eat it. A microbiologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that when it comes to vegetables, fermentation is probably safer than eating them raw or canning them. This is because the bacteria in lacto-fermentation are great at killing other unsafe bacteria during the fermentation process. However, for many popular products there are not yet any science-based guidelines for safe production. For this reason Michigan State University Extension recommends trying recipes outlined by reliable sources such as the USDA, the National Center for Home Food Preservation and University of Wisconsin Extension. So don’t be scared, get out there and try some fermented foods!

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