The Phenomenon of Food Fermentation in Human Culture

The Phenomenon of Food Fermentation in Human Culture

Table of Contents

Fermentation is a natural metabolic process using microbes to naturally transform food to a more nutrient rich version through chemical changes. Humans have been using this practice for thousands of years as a way to preserve food, provide gut health benefits and in some cases as a family heirloom. Fermented food has been a staple in civilization and common foods created by fermentation include all of the staples we indulge in today, like bread, cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi to name a few.

When you understand the fermentation process, you can see that there are many symbiotic benefits to adding fermented foods to your diet. Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health and mental health. Other benefits include, enhanced taste, richer nutritional value, easier digestion and longer storage.

Who would have thought to use microscopic organisms like yeast or bacteria to make food better? It turns out that fermentation may have been discovered accidentally long ago. Let’s explore the history of the ancient practice that has found a revival in western culture today.

The Origin of Fermentation

Fermentation is a natural process that began well before human intervention, developing spontaneously when bacteria or other microbes meet in the right oxygen deprived environment with the right raw materials. 

Ancient cultures stumbled upon fermentation by accident, estimates suggest as early as 10,000 BCE, with animal milk from camels, cows, or goats. The fermentation process was sparked by the hot climate inside the milk sack as it was carried through the desert turning into yogurt. Of course, they didn’t understand the changes that milk was going through on a microscopic level. Instead, it would be thousands of years to truly understand the chemical changes, nutrient transformation and the gut health benefits that came from fermented food.

Dairy was just one of many examples that showed our use of fermentation through history. Recent discoveries have proven that traces of fermented liquids existed on Chinese pottery as well as in Ancient Egypt in 6000 BCE.

Fermentation was used in a lot of drinks throughout early civilization, but when did it become popular in foods? During the Zhou Dynasty, China needed a way to feed laborers who were building The Great Wall with food that didn’t spoil. So, over 2000 years ago, cabbage was fermented into sauerkraut.

Fermenting the cabbage with rice wine stored at room temperature allowed the Zhou Dynasty to produce large quantities of food for the laborers without spoilage or refrigeration. The nutritional and gut health benefits were an added benefit that made fermented cabbage the ideal food for these overworked servants. They didn’t understand it then, but today we know that homemade sauerkraut (or raw store bought) contains a large quantity of lactic acid, tyramines, vitamins, minerals and a whole lot of good bacteria. 

We might know about lactic acid as being the cause for pesky muscle cramps and soreness after exercise. But it’s also a common food preservative that is good for you! Naturally occurring lactic acid in fermented foods offers a variety of health benefits. It enhances the antioxidant effects in the food it’s preserving, as well as strengthens the immune system specifically in defending against vaginal and urinary tract infections. 

Tyramines (TIE-ruh-meen) on the other hand is an important amino acid that helps the brain and nervous system function normally.

Ancient China wasn’t the only culture to realize the health and storage advantages of sauerkraut. Ancient philosophers like Hippocrates described sauerkraut as a medicinal remedy and Plinius Secundus wrote that cabbage “provides plenty of milk for breastfeeding mothers" among other findings. Like so many before them, influential theorists recognized sauerkraut for its healing properties and encouraged the consumption of fermented foods as a staple to good health. 

Sauerkraut is one of many ancient fermented foods still popular today. Kombucha is an ancient fermented tea that has been around since at least 400 BC in Japan, China, Russia, Poland, Germany, and other areas. Its health benefits are so obvious that it is known as the “Tea of Immortality.”

Miso is another fermented favorite from around the same time period, as early as 300 BC. Its origins begin in Japan with the fermentation of soybeans with salt and koji, as well as other ingredients.

In the first century AD, Koreans began experimenting with food fermentation which resulted in the iconic Korean staple known as Kimchi. Fermented vegetables like cabbage and onion along with other seasonings make up this delicious and somewhat savory dish which was stored in onggi pots throughout the winter. 

Kefir is another fermented food that our ancestors enjoyed. It is known as the “Grains of the Prophet” and it was popularized in the Caucasus mountains of Russia.

Kefir was made by mixing kefir grains, which are colonies of bacteria, yeast, and fats that look like cauliflower, with animal milk and stored inside a goatskin bag to create a living culture. Kefir benefits a healthy immune, digestive, circulatory, and respiratory system. It was also a more efficient way for keeping milk fresh without a refrigerator handy.

When the Caucasus people used up the fermented milk, they would simply add more fresh milk to the kefir grain to create a continuous cycle of kefir production. These grains would be passed down for generations to become an important family heirloom—the sacred gift of nutrition.

It’s clear that fermentation has been a key method in food preparation for a wide variety of cultures throughout history, but particularly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is this unique history and cultural wisdom that Living Alchemy taps into to create fermented supplements to help maintain a healthy lifestyle.

We use the ancient art of fermentation to activate herbs and foods into their superior form. We produce these formulas using traditional fermentation containing diverse strains of microorganisms from a kefir and kombucha living culture. We call this process Symbio® and it delivers the complete, activated herb within a living food matrix for exceptional bioavailability and effectiveness.

Discovering the Gut Microbiome

The exact science of food fermentation was a little bit of a mystery to the ancient cultures who enjoyed the fruits. Although theories existed about what might be happening, they simply couldn’t see the living cultures in action at a microscopic level until Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the late 1700’s  invented the microscope. He soon realized that there were tiny organisms moving about in a drop of water using his new apparatus. 

A couple of hundred years late these microorganisms were clearly identified as bacteria and yeast. In the 1800’s, Germ theory was popularized by French chemist Louis Pasteur and it’s largely the main focus of Western medicine 200 years on.

Germ theory proposes that disease is caused by bacteria and other germs too small to see with the naked eye. It’s true, but our focus today relies on killing said bacteria and the side effects are often overlooked. The theory at the time led to pasteurization - a procedure used in all shelf-stable food that kills the microbes in food that cause spoiling and sickness.

By contrast, Pasteur’s friend, physiologist Claude Bernard, had another theory altogether. Bernard surmised that the ‘terrain’ of the body was more important than the ‘pathogens’ that infect it. In other words, his theory explained why some people become ill to an exposed pathogen, whereas others who are exposed to the same pathogen do not. It is said that on his deathbed, Pasteur admitted, “Bernard was right: the pathogen is nothing, the terrain is everything.

While Pasteur's groundbreaking work was helping prevent illness, he didn’t fully understand that the implications of his new process also killed the good microbes responsible for fermentation. In 1907, Ellie Metchnikoff, the father of gerontology, finally correlated fermented food to gut health benefits and found that aging is related to bacteria in the gut. He suggested that lactic acid bacteria found in yogurt could contribute to a longer lifespan and that microbes actually help defend against infection and inflammation while enhancing immunity

In 1923 another scientist, Henri Boulard, credited a yeast species for improvement in human health and created one of the first probiotics to treat diarrhoea and improve gut health. As early as 1934 it was understood that beneficial bacteria lived inside the human intestine. Microbes were seen as helpful instead of harmful in 1965, and the term "probiotics" was coined to describe a material created by microbes.

So what’s all this got to do with fermentation? It wasn’t until the 1900s that humans identified the specific microbial cultures necessary for different food fermentation. These discoveries were the catalyst of a major shift in food fermentation, leading to a change in approach to the fermentation process. 

Over the past century, food manufacturers have perfected the proportions of microorganisms in fermented foods so that they are carefully measured to create ideal gut health foods. We have learned that the types and amounts of microbes can dramatically change the flavor and texture.

While scientific breakthroughs helped us understand natural processes like food fermentation, they also opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it came to food production, storage, and shelf life. The most important being the invention of the refrigerator in the 1940s, reducing the need for fermentation altogether from a storage point of view. 

Advancements in science allowed for food and flavors to be created in a lab rather than on a farm so that perishables could be boxed on a shelf without risk of spoilage. Genetic engineering and molecular study also became a norm and completely changed the way our food was grown and consumed.

The industrial revolution impacted our consumption habits in a monumental way. In the second half of the 20th century, society became busier as families started to prioritize convenience over other things. This helped them manage their busy households and new found independence. Processed food became a staple—from TV dinners to hamburger helper—the nutritional value of our food intake was sucked dry for the sake of convenience.

The Revival of Living Food

While processed foods served a purpose for a time, it took less than 50 years to realize that these shelf-stable foods were not compatible with optimal health. Confronted with the consequences of convenience, people were caught in the middle of a global obesity epidemic, with the side effects of increased heart attacks, stroke, dementia, and cancer. Recently, researchers have confirmed a correlation between convenience food and the deteriorating health of our populations. 

A couple of decades into the 21st century, people are starting to reject convenience food as they look for ways to restore health and balance. We are starting to wake up to the idea that we need to revive our diet by increasing living, healthy, natural, nutrient-dense foods in order to keep our bodies well. In addition to eating real foods, replenishing and balancing our body’s natural flora is major component. 

Discoveries about the gut microbiome has advanced over the past decade, with the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) which sequenced the genome of human microbiota of the skin, mouth, nose, digestive system, and vagina. This project also explored microbiomes in relation to some common medical conditions like, preterm birth, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Type 2 Diabetes (T2D).

Today, we have a better understanding of the relationship between microbes and health. Ingesting dead food leads to disease while ingesting live microbes has clear health benefits. Eating living foods is conducive to a healthy gut microbiome and it’s in high demand as people seek ways to correct their health problems caused by poor diet. 

Fermented foods are a prime opportunity to reintroduce healthy probiotic strains into your gut microbiome. It’s a proven method that has been perfected over the course of our existence whether we knew it or not. Fermentation encourages friendly microbes to pre-digest food, making the food more bioavailable and easier to absorb the essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, while also keeping harmful bacteria away. It's a concept that ociety lost while in search of more convenient modes of ingestion, but we're starting to realize that Claude Bernard was right about the terrain- it's everything.
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