With very little extra time on my hands this summer I can always count on my guest blogger Sarah Berneche to come through in the clutch. She also keeps me in the loop with what’s trendy in the health industry these days. Lately it’s all about fermented foods! In this post she goes into detail about why fermented foods are so good for us, and how to incorporate it into your diet; including the trendy fermented beverage kombucha. Enjoy!
As I was searching for an apartment last summer, one of the guys I met asked me what I felt was the single most important thing someone could do to improve their health. I still stand by my answer (drink more water!) but adding fermented foods would clock in as a close second. When it comes to fermentation, I especially like this excerpt, written by Sally Fallon, that appears in the introduction to Wild Fermentation: “The science and art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture. Nations that still consume cultured foods, such as France with its wine and cheese, and Japan with its pickles and miso, are recognized as nations that have culture. Culture begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans.”
“Fermenting” is essentially an archaic practice using extremely primitive methods to render a food more digestible and nutritious, and was used to preserve food long before the advent of the refrigerator. Unfortunately, as our species evolved we easily dismissed these practices in favour of quicker methods (like pickling) without understanding and appreciating the repercussions. Some fermented foods you might recognize are pickles, sauerkraut, tempeh (fermented tofu), kimchi (a Korean version of sauerkraut), kefir, wine, sourdough bread, mead, ginger beer, raw vinegar, miso, yogurt, buttermilk and kombucha (okay, you might not recognize the last one, but you will by the end of this post.)
Apart from getting cultured, why else might you want to add fermented foods to your diet?
-They help to reculture your colon (ie. add “good guys” to your gut to help combat the bad bacteria)
-Improve immunity and resistance to disease
-Are more nutritious and more easily digested than their alternative counterparts
-Help heal the gastrointestinal tract of those with irritable bowel disease, colitis, Celiac’s Disease, Crohn’s, etc.
-Contain enzymes, which aid in food breakdown
-Give you energy, contribute to “the glow” and improve the appearance of your skin, hair and nails
-Can assist with weight loss by a) helping your body to rid itself of excess waste and b) ensuring you’re absorbing nutrients from the foods you eat, improving the metabolizing of carbohydrates, protein and fats.
-Some fermented foods operate like antioxidants, ridding the body of free radicals (precursors to cancer)
-Are consumed in large quantities by some of the longest living people on the planet
-They are delicious!
Today I’m going to go into my personal favourite, kombucha, but before we go any further, please do not go on a sauerkraut-mead-miso-kimchi bandwagon after reading this post. For one thing, do not assume that a food has been naturally fermented and contains beneficial bacteria. Yogurt, for instance, a traditionally cultured food, only contains live active bacteria if the container explicitly states so. Many do not. And while we’re on the subject: for those who are lactose intolerant, real yogurt is just about lactose-free because the sugar (lactose) is eaten up by the bacteria during fermentation. Some foods will say naturally fermented, barrel aged, or raw, which will help you to identify them; many are found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, though some, like raw apple cider vinegar, can be found down the aisles. Sourdough is a little different because it is baked and therefore does not contain all of the benefits of live foods, but is still easier for your body to digest. It’s my recommendation if you’re looking to make a reasonably good bread choice.
I digress. Kombucha is a naturally carbonated fermented tea currently popular among health fanatics and American hipsters seeking a healthy soda pop replacement. Lukewarm or cooled black, green or oolong tea and sugar are added to a large vessel with a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The SCOBY somewhat resembles a large mushroom, which is why kombucha is sometimes referred to as mushroom tea. Over a few weeks the SCOBY mows down on the sugar and the caffeine (from the tea) and transforms the concoction into kombucha. Afterwards, you can drink it plain (nude brew) or add whatever flavourings you like.
There’s plenty of information out there if you’re interested in brewing your own kombucha, though if you decide to go this route — and I can’t stress this enough — make sure your container and any instruments used are completely sanitized.
It’s also available for purchase at many health food stores and grocery stores (I’ve seen it at Fiesta Farms and Whole Foods in Toronto, to name two.) Unfortunately it’s more expensive than it has any right to be; I’m able to get a small bottle for between $2.50 – $3.50, depending on the brand, though some stores sell it for $5. A 1L bottle usually costs around $7, which is more expensive than the majority of juices but less expensive than wine. As most of the sugar is eaten up by the SCOBY during fermentation, kombucha is extremely low in sugar and calories (with the exception of some commercial brands; be sure to scan the label, as I’ve seen some clock in at 22g of sugar per bottle — as much as a can of pop and totally not R.H.N. approved!) Due to fermentation, kombucha also has up to 0.5% alcohol content and can go up a little more if left in the heat.
I’ve been drinking it for about two months now, and I can definitely say my skin is clearer, my hair is thicker and my nails seem to grow faster. Mostly I just feel significantly better when I drink it. I like taking it to parties because I find it tastes like a cocktail and looks fancy. It’s also a great conversation starter! My favourite brands are G&T, Rise and Tonica, in that order. G&T’s Synergy – tea with raspberry, lemon and ginger juice — tastes remarkably like sour candy. Rise and Tonica are both Canadian; I like every flavour of Rise. Tonica is less sweet and often less effervescent if you’re not so much into the sparkling thing. Although kombucha is alkaline in the body, it is acidic in the mouth. Drink it with a straw to protect your enamel, or chase it with water to prevent erosion.
Last but not least: when to drink it? Any time! I like to have it mid-day instead of an afternoon coffee or tea, but it’s appropriate at any time. Although it is a health product, I’d limit consumption to 1-2 glasses a day.
Sarah Berneche is a Toronto-based writer, voracious eater and home cook, and the voice behind The Documentarian (http://www.sarahberneche.com), a collection of food stories. She holds a B.A.H. and M.A. in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Windsor and a post-graduate certificate in Creative Book Publishing from Humber College; currently, she is a holistic nutrition student at CSNN. In her free time, she volunteers as a fruit gleaner and event organizer for Not Far From the Tree (http://www.notfarfromthetree.org) and as a contributing blogger & editor for LEAF (http://www.yourleaf.org).