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Why You Should Make Friends With Bacteria...Especially In Your Food

Scientists have made several amazing discoveries about friendly bacteria and fermented foods that could be a boon for your health.
 
 
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Florence Ogendi and her family have no refrigerator. They live in a tiny village in Kenya near Lake Victoria (and near Barack Obama’s step-grandmother, his Granny Sarah), but over 40 miles from the nearest city. They’ve got six dairy cows to provide them with milk and no refrigerator to keep milk fresh.

That’s not a problem. They place any excess milk in a hollowed-out gourd and let it sit for a few days at room temperature. Once it ferments, they drink it. “Gourd milk” is a delicacy and a treat. They also ferment millet to make a porridge called uji and a dish made with traditional Kenyan vegetables and milk. In the latter case, adding milk and fermenting the dish turns unpalatably bitter veggies into a delicious meal.

Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, is hardly surprised by Ogendi’s use of fermentation—the chemical breakdown of food by microorganisms like yeast or bacteria—in storing and preparing food.

“The context for fermentation in any kind of a society is that it's a strategy for making the best use for the food resources they have available to them,” he says. “So they are using fermentation to create the magical sacred substance of alcohol, they are using fermentation to make a highly perishable food more stable. They are making something that is not so digestible more digestible. They are making something with a really plain flavor more flavorful. But in any kind of a geographic context, people—before they could name fermentation as fermentation—were just figuring out how to best work with the food resources they have available to them.”

Whereas, in many countries, fermenting foods at home is a normal part of cooking, that’s not so in the U.S. Katz disagrees that fermentation is newly sexy in America (“fermentation is always sexy,” he says), pointing out that Americans have always loved fermented foods like bread, wine, beer, coffee, cheese, and chocolate whether or not they realize the foods are fermented. But, he says, “there’s a new consciousness or awareness” of fermentation. Maybe you’re no more likely to drink beer or eat yogurt than you were a decade ago, but you might be more inclined to try making it yourself at home.

Even if you aren’t busy chopping cabbage to make your own sauerkraut, perhaps you consciously add fermented foods to your diet to obtain health benefits from them. After years of bombardment with antibacterial soaps, cleaners and hand sanitizers, bacteria have arrived in a new era where they are now celebrated by big names like author Michael Pollan, who declared, “ Some of my best friends are germs.”

Pollan calls the 100 trillion or so bacteria in his own body “a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to map.” The data is not all in yet. That said, there are plenty basic facts we already know, and scientists have made several amazing discoveries about friendly bacteria and fermented foods in recent years.

First of all, fermentation can make a food more digestible or nutritious. For example, grains naturally contain phytic acid, an “antinutrient” that blocks the absorption of nutrients. When Kenyans ferment millet or sorghum to make uji, they reduce the amount of phytic acid in the grains, and thus increase the availability of iron, manganese, and calcium. Closer to home, we find traditions of making sourdough bread and soaking oats overnight before making oatmeal, also methods of fermenting grains and breaking down phytic acid. Fermenting grains also increases protein quality and B vitamins.

 
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