The Down Low of Fermented Foods & Gut Health

Fermented foods have become somewhat of a hot topic in recent years, with many people touting the health benefits and deliciousness of such foods. I have been interested in the idea of fermented foods for a little while now, but I have held back since it is not something I could really do whilst at boarding school (the smell alone would probably get me kicked out!). I was drawn to fermented foods as I continually read about the link between gut (stomach) health and glowing skin. Given that acne and skin problems have been a major health concern of mine for several years, it seemed only natural that I should investigate these magical fermented foods. But first a little bit about what 'gut' health is and why it is so important... My definition of gut health basically refers to the overall health and balance of the microflora community that live inside your stomach. In your stomach there exists many billions and trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that play a vital role in breaking down food and carrying out other important biological processes. Generally speaking, there is "good" or "friendly" bacteria, which aid digestion, boost your immune system and ensure you are well. Then there is the "bad" bacteria or infections that can cause and contribute to everything from acne, digestive troubles, food intolerances, colds and flus and much more. A balance exists between these good and bad bacteria, as there will always be some of each variety, but when the bad bacteria outweigh the good bacteria you cannot achieve the best possible state of health.

Gut health is quite a complex thing, but it is vital to get your gut healthy as a starting point other health improvements. After all, if your gut isn't working properly you may not even be absorbing all the nutrients and goodness from your healthy, clean and green diet! Gut health is affected by many things, but most prominently chemicals that we encounter in our everyday lives, such as pesticides on food, chlorine, smoke and fumes and especially antibiotics. Overuse or misuse of antibiotics can lead to the creation of very strong, resistant "bad" bacteria in your gut, which then take control of your gut to the detriment of the friendly bacteria. Whilst antibiotics are often useful in short-term situations, in the long-term they can negatively affect your gut, and hence overall, health. I have experienced this first hand, as I have taken antibiotics for acne for most of this year (2014). I only stopped taking them a little over a month ago and now I have turned to fermented foods in order to restore my gut health and recolonise plenty of friendly bacteria!

In order to understand more about gut health I read (and studied) The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates. Donna is regarded as one of the world's leading experts on probiotic (good bacteria) nutrition and she wrote The Body Ecology Diet as a guide for people wanting to reclaim their health the natural way through food and medicinal foods. Donna's wealth of knowledge in the book is incredible and way too vast for me to even attempt to cover in one post. If you are interested in learning more I would highly recommend reading Donna's book! Basically, the Body Ecology Diet (BED for short) is designed to eradicate bad bacteria and a bad fungus known as candida, which can cause a  myraid of health problems from depression to hormonal imbalances. It focuses on eliminating sugar (as sugar feeds the yeast and bad bacteria) and creating balance in each meal between acid and alkaline foods, expansive and contractive foods, cooked and raw foods, and unfermented and fermented foods. The principles at first seem quite complex, but as you read the book you begin to understand them quite innately.

Since I stopped the antibiotics I have been attempting the BED. I say attempting because I have not managed to stick to it perfectly as of yet, especially as I am a lover of fruit, which is eliminated on the BED (even fruit sugar can feed the bad bugs). I have, however, managed to make room for more vegetables in my diet, especially greens and raw veggies, I have added two kinds of fermented foods into my diet (fermented veggies and young coconut kefir) and I have almost completely avoided the starchy grains and processed, refined foods that release sugars that feed bad bacteria. Like almost everything in life, it is a journey that I am venturing on and experimenting with along the way.

To recap: gut health = super important for absolutely everything and everyone! Now back to fermented foods. Fermented foods are essentially those in which good bacteria have been given the right conditions to multiply and colonise, meaning that when you eat those foods you take in a huge quantity of good bacteria that enter your gut and help to restore the inner balance. Different foods are fermented in different ways, but fermented veggies are one of the current trends sweeping the health food stratosphere. Fermented veggies are made by shredding veggies (especially cabbage) and then using salt to create a brine. These veggies are then packed down into jars and sealed to prevent any oxygen entering (which results in fermentation, hence fermented veggies). After three days to a week of allowing them to rest in a warm area (about 25C) the veggies become fermented and then they can be stored in the fridge for up to several months. But the process of creating fermented veggies is a kind of art, that I did not come close to mastering upon my first attempt... Let me explain!

My first attempt at fermented veggies involved a whole head of purple cabbage and kale. I followed the instructions and left them for three days. After that time I opened the jar to a revolting smell (which I presumed was all part of it). Ignoring my instincts I went ahead and attempted to eat some of this brew. There are no words to describe how utterly disgusting it was. Due to the fact that I had never previously eaten fermented veggies I assumed that is what they were meant to taste like and so proceeded to force a few mouthfuls down each day (silly, I know). After a few days I decided enough was enough and sought help from some local fermented veggie experts, who assured me that they should not taste bad, but simply a little sour or tangy. Apparently my jar did not seal properly and so oxygen had gotten in and the veggies had rotted. I threw out my first batch and tried again, this time with purple cabbage, beetroot and carrot. Thankfully, with the assistance of a starter culture and a week of fermenting I was successful in creating a nutritious and perfectly palatable batch of fermented veggies!

So a few hints, if you do decide to try fermented veggies:

1. Make sure the jar you use seals perfectly. No gaps, no cracks, no oxygen should be able to get in. (You can buy fermenting jars from some health food stores). 2. Pack the veggies down very well and cover with enough brine. The brine should rise above the veggies about 3cm so that no veggies are exposed to the air in the top of the jar. 3. Taste: they should taste sour and tangy, but not bad. 4. Find an expert, a guide, a book or some other tool that shows you exactly how to prepare and store fermented veggies so that you can enjoy them on a daily basis.

On a much more pleasant note, the young coconut kefir, which is  a drink made from fermenting the milk from young (green) coconuts is delicious and super easy to make. All you need to do is buy some kefir starter sachets from a health food store and two or three young coconuts. Using a hammer and screwdriver, create two or three holes in the top of the coconuts. Drain the milk into a saucepan. Use a large knife or cleaver to cut the coconuts open and scoop the white meat out into a blender. Add a little coconut milk and blend to a paste. Add that to the milk in the saucepan. Turn the stove on and add one sachet of the starter culture. Stir into coconut milk and keep stirring until it reaches body temperature (it feels warm when you put your fingers in it). Then transfer the milk and meat pulp from the saucepan into a large (1-2L) glass jar and seal tightly. Place in a warm spot (20-25C) for 2-3 days to allow it to ferment. To check if it is done, open the jar and smell it. It should have a distinctly sour smell and taste. Place in the fridge to store and enjoy 60-80mL kefir morning and night. The batch of kefir can be used to start two subsequent batches after the first one.

*Note: if you open a coconut to find the meat is purple/pink, it is rotten. Discard it and do not use either the milk or meat in your kefir.

Do you eat fermented foods?

Keep healthy,

Erica xx