Whether it’s reaching for a spoonful of Korean kimchi to spice up a bowl of soup or topping meat with sauerkraut for that extra bit of tang, the history of fermented foods is ever present in the human diet.
The first fermented foods might just have been happy accidents but today fermentation is the go-to way to improve taste and texture of food, and increase nutritional density with prebiotic and probiotic benefits.
Come along as we dig into the captivating history of fermented foods across time, unraveling the growth and uses of different types of fermentations and discovering the health benefits that naturally fermented whole foods come packed with.
History of fermented foods - what is fermentation?
Fermentation occurs when microorganisms break down a food medium (nutrients such as carbohydrates) in order to generate energy for survival.
In addition to energy, beneficial microbes might also generate different fermentation by-products such as CO2, alcohol, aldehydes, ketones, short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), and extracellular polysaccharides (EPS), etc that are associated with beneficial health effects.
The term ‘fermentation’ comes from the Latin word ‘fervere’, which means ‘to boil’ because fermented drinks appear to be boiling due to the rising carbon dioxide bubbles.
The first fermented foods
The history of fermentation dates back thousands of years. Scholars believe that somewhere in a human civilization that predates the Indus Valley civilization, the first foods spontaneously fermented and humans liked the way it tasted.
Over time, they learned to control and shape the process of fermentation for food preservation and since then different types of fermentation processes have found a place in human history including dairy fermentation and vegetable fermentation.
The art of cheesemaking is estimated to have started at the same time as when humans first started domesticating animals around 8000 BCE. There’s evidence of lactic fermentation - milk deposits similar to those that might come from cheese and butter - in pottery sieves found around ‘the cradle of agriculture’, the fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.
Recently, researchers have also confirmed the oldest evidence of alcoholic fermentation, found in pottery from around the period of 7000 - 6600 BCE. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are known to have baked the first leavened bread around 4000-3500 BCE.
Over millennia, humans have continued to develop traditional methods for food fermentations, having gone from spontaneous fermentation (from natural microbes) and back-slopping (using a bit of an old ferment to start the next batch) to using specific bacterial strains to maintain consistency across batches for mass production.
Modern recognition of fermentation found its first leg with the recognition of microorganisms in 1665 by Leeuwenhoek and Hooks.
In 1857, Louis Pasteur proved that all fermentation is a result of microbe activity and went on to develop the process of pasteurization which helped kill microbes that would otherwise lead to food spoilage, increasing the shelf life of beer, fermented vegetables, and the like.
Louis Pasteur defined the process of fermentation as “la vie sans l'air” (life without air) since yeast ferments food in the absence of oxygen.
Fermentation involves the breakdown of carbohydrates and protein to generate a range of products which include organic acids such as short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), alcohol, flavor compounds (aldehydes), and CO2. Several studies support the protective role of SCFAs in gut and mental health.
These by-products of fermentation not only limit the growth of spoilage bacteria and foodborne pathogens, they also aid in the development of flavor and texture due to compounds such as diacetyl and acetaldehyde.
Three types of fermentation
Different desirable microbes break down food differently. While some produce lactic acid as a by-product, others might produce acetic acid and ethanol.
Lactic acid fermentation
Lactic acid bacteria (LABs) use an anaerobic process to break down food using little to no heat and prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria by lowering the pH to about 4 to 4.5.
Adding salt aids these desired microbes in replicating at a faster pace while limiting the growth of other microbial strains. In addition to lactic acid, LABs also produce hydrogen peroxide which produces an antibiotic effect on other organisms that might cause food spoilage.
Lactic acid fermentation is used in fermented fresh vegetables (sauerkraut), fermented cereal yogurt (ogi), yogurt, and cheese as well as balao balao (fermented rice and shrimp) and salami.
When yeasts, fungi, and some types of bacteria consume the sugar present in foods, they produce alcohol and carbon dioxide instead of lactic acid. The most common microorganism used in alcoholic fermentation is the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Alcoholic fermentation is used in leavened bread such as sourdough bread and alcoholic beverages such as wine.
Acetic acid fermentation
Acetic acid bacteria (AABs) are commonly found in spontaneous or back-slopped fermented foods and fermented beverages. AAB plays a major role in the production of vinegar (apple cider and wine vinegar), vitamin C, and cellulose.
Which microbes make the best fermented foods?
The most common groups of microbes which play a part in fermenting foods are bacteria, yeasts, and molds and each of these have a place of prominence in different cultures around the world.
Lactic Acid Bacteria and other cultures
Bacteria from the Lactobacillaceae family such as Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are friendly bacteria commonly found in most fermented foods and are considered safe for consumption.
During carbohydrate fermentation, bacteris such as Leuconostoc mesenteroides produce exopolysaccharides (EPS) as a by-product which acts as a prebiotic (food for gut bacteria).
Upon consumption, gut microbes further breakdown EPS into short-chain fatty acids which act as an energy source for intestinal cells and signal the release of gut hormones such as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1) and GIP (gastric inhibitory polypeptide).
Both GLP-1 and GIP act as triggers for insulin release, initiating satiety signals from the brain, and inhibiting fat accumulation.
Similarly, Bacillus subtilis and others from the Bacillaceae family initiate alkaline fermentation in legumes such as soybeans. Bacillus bacteria break down proteins into amino acids and produce ammonia as a byproduct which raises the pH of the fermented product and inhibits the growth of pathogens.
Examples of alkaline fermented foods are Japanese natto (fermented soybeans), Chinese douchi (fermented black beans), and Nigerian ogiri (fermented sesame seeds), etc.
Yeasts from the saccharomyces family such as variants of S. cerevisiae are used in the production of wine, beer, ethanol as well as the leavening of bread. S. boulderi and Schizosaccharomyces pombe are used in the making of traditional fermented drinks made from maize and millet.
Certain strains of molds play different roles in Asian fermented food products. Aspergillus niger is used in the production of citric acid and digestive enzymes such as protease, amylase, and lipase. Aspergillus sojae is used to make soy sauce and Aspergillus oryzae is used in the production of soy sauce, sake, vinegar, and mirin (rice wine), etc.
But why ferment food?
In modern-day food processing, in addition to preventing the growth of pathogenic and spoilage microbes in many foods, food fermentation helps extend the shelf life of food products at a very low cost as well as enhance food safety without the addition of heavy-duty preservatives.
Different types of fermented products available commercially
Historically, fermentation became a quick way to preserve food for harsh weather. Fermentation of many substrates (food base used for fermentation) such as milk and cereal is indigenous to many parts of the world. There's evidence of beer brewing some 13000 years ago.
Fermentations aren’t limited to just dairy or bread. Different regions across the world ferment meat and dairy as well. A few examples are:
- Creme fraiche
- Soy sauce
- Kimchi (fermented cabbage),
- Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
- Surstromming (fermented herring)
- Balao balao
- Kefir (fermented milk)
- Kombucha (fermented tea)
Check out our YouTube channel here to watch me make some of my favorite fermented recipes!
Health benefits of fermented foods
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) defines functional foods as “foods that possess constructive effects on target functions into the human organism, beyond nutritional effects, aiming for health promotion and wellbeing and the reduction of chronic disease.”
Fermented foods act as functional foods because fermentation:
- Acts to predigest foods and make complex molecules into smaller compounds that are easier for the body to digest
- Improves flavor and aroma (umami - making it taste more like meat products)
- Reduces undesirable flavors
- Decreases cooking time
- Helps in the synthesis of vitamins such as B12
- Destroys antinutrients such as phytic acid
- Produces SCFAs which have a protective effect on the gut
- Supports the replenishment of intestinal microflora
Studies support associations between fermented products such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, etc, and weight management, reduced risk of heart diseases, improved glucose, and lipid levels, improved immune system, anticarcinogenic effects as well as benefits in constipation and diabetes prevention.
Fermented products and probiotics
The WHO defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Some of the potential benefits of probiotics in the gut are:
- Improving and maintaining gut health
- Inhibiting pathogenic activity
- Increasing antioxidant activity
Probiotics create a competitive environment in the gut and displace pathogenic microbes in competition for resources.
Fermented foods are also a good source of prebiotics. Prebiotics have been defined as “non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health.”
Prebiotics such as inulin can help reduce constipation, improve glucose and lipids control, stimulate the immune system, and increase the absorbability of calcium.
Fermenting food at home is an excellent way to get your gut healthy. Rich in beneficial bacteria such as Bacillus subtilis, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus plantarum, Pediococcus acidilactici, and Leuconostoc mesenteroides, our Sugar Shift® Starter Culture is the perfect way to get your home ferments going! Check out this video to learn how I make yogurt at home.
Want to learn more about how probiotics can help you achieve your health goals? Read this next!
Frequently asked questions:
1. When was the first fermented food discovered?
Researchers examined samples from bedrock mortars found at the Racquet Cave, Israel, and found evidence of Natufians - a semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer people - brewing beer some 13000 years ago.
2. Who is the father of fermentation?
Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist, is known as the father of fermentation for his research in germ theory, fermentation, and pasteurization.
3. What are the health benefits of fermentation?
Fermented foods have anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory compounds as well as probiotics which protect and enhance human gut health.
4. What are the best-fermented foods to eat?
5. When did fermented foods start?
Spontaneously fermented foods must have started when humans started storing bulk foods such as cereal and milk at the start of agriculture and dairying. However, commercial fermentation with the use of starter cultures started in the 1880s following the recognition of the role microbes play in fermentation and the identification of lactic acid bacteria (LABs).
Martha Carlin, is a “Citizen Scientist”, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective , a microbiome company expanding the reach of science and BiotiQuest, the first of it’s kind probiotic line. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human disease. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.
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