Fermentation occurs when carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide – this process is caused by bacteria and/or yeast and is actually one of the oldest methods used to preserve food! Lacto-fermentation is the use of lactobacillus – a naturally occurring bacteria – to convert sugars into lactic acid. It may sound strange and unsanitary to use bacteria to preserve food but lactobacillus is actually a “friendly” bacteria also known as a probiotic, which is found in our digestive system to and helps to ease digestion. For people with diabetes, fermented foods are a great food option as they provide a variety of healthy benefits including blood glucose control.
During the fermentation process, lactobacillus metabolize sugars and starches producing lactic acids – this gives off the sour and acidic taste commonly associated with fermented foods. The lactic acid produced by fermentation actually blocks carbohydrates from entering the blood and turning into blood sugar, thus reducing spikes in blood glucose levels. If you think about it, the fermentation process pre-digests the food making it easier to eat as well as having the nutrients readily available.
The benefits of nutrients being readily available because of fermentation can be seen in cabbage which is very nutrient dense in its raw form but is also difficult to digest when raw. When cabbage is fermented as sauerkraut or kimchi, it becomes much easier to digest and the high amounts of vitamin K and C, as well as the polyphenols and antioxidants are then easily assimilated into the body.
Fermented foods can also dramatically improve digestive health by supplying good bacteria to the digestive system while maintaining and increasing the number of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. Alison Clark of the British Dietetic Association reported that “Between 70 and 80% of our immune cells are in the gut. Fermented foods stimulate bacteria that help with immunity.”
Other benefits include the unique ability to protect the stomach and intestinal linings by balancing the production of stomach acid. When hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) is too low, fermented foods help to increase the acidity of gastric juices; when there is too much acid, fermented foods help to protect the stomach and intestines.
Fermented foods also help to promote regular bowel movements. Fermented foods that are traditionally made help with the production of acetycholine which is a neurotransmitter that helps with the transmission of nerve impulses promoting better bowel movements. Other beneficial side effects include the release of digestive juices and enzymes from the stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder to aid in digestion while creating short chain fatty acids which serve as an energy source for the production of new intestinal tissue.
Unfortunately because of the industrial model for food production, many traditionally fermented foods have changed into something unrecognizable to speed up the process. If interested in making your own fermented foods take a look at the Nourished Kitchen’s section on fermented food recipes as well as the Savory Lotus’ guide to eating more fermented foods!