Fermentation: Preserving Food the Sustainable & Healthy Way

Canned Veggies, by Erika Siegal.

Canned Veggies, by Erika Siegal.

Preservation of food is an integral part of human history. It has allowed for humans to place roots and form communities, which facilitated the transition of hunter-gather societies to agriculture-based societies. There are many different methods of preserving food, the oldest being drying followed by canning, pickling, and fermenting. When agriculture became industrialized, societies embraced commercialized food which generated new inventions to preserve food. Modern methods of preserving food include refrigerating, freezing, pasteurizing, packaging, and adding artificial preservatives. Unfortunately, modern methods use energy, produce greenhouse gases, create waste, and reduce the nutritional content of food. In contrast, traditional methods of preserving food are sustainable, healthy, and can still be practiced in the modern kitchen.

Untitled, by William Eggleston

Untitled, by William Eggleston.

Most traditional and modern food preservation methods work by killing the bacteria or slowing the growth of bacteria in food. While bad bacteria are notorious for inducing illness, consuming good bacteria, also known as probiotics, are essential for human health. Humans contain an internal ecosystem, and it is what keeps our bodies healthy. Not unlike the ecosystems between plants and animals, microbial ecosystems need to be in balance to work. The human gut is filled with thousands of microorganisms called flora, which are microorganism that affect the immune system, digestion, metabolism, and brain. Flora is balanced when there are enough good bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria. Our gut flora is determined by the food we eat- the more good bacteria that is in the food we eat, then the more good bacteria that is in our bodies.

Food preservation has always faced the challenge of reducing food’s nutritional content since the methods kill or slow the growth of all of the food’s bacteria, including the good bacteria. Fermentation is unique in that the method increases the growth of bacteria in the food. Specifically, it increases the growth of the good bacteria which concurrently increases the nutritional content of the food. This means the product is a living food full of probiotics that will become a part of our internal ecosystem.

Untitled, by Andrew Holder for the Washington Post

Untitled, by Andrew Holder for the Washington Post.

Fermented foods are so healthy because the process utilizes nature’s preservative, lactic acid. Fermentation is the process of converting sugars into lactic acid, which Lactobacillus microorganisms have the ability to do. Lactobacillus microorganisms are present in foods with natural sugars, like fruits and vegetables. When sugary foods are enclosed in an anaerobic environment with salt, the salt kills the food’s bad bacteria, leaving only the remaining good bacteria- Lactobacillus microorganisms. The microorganisms are then free to roam, eat sugar to their hearts’ content, and dispose of the contents. This process converts the sugar into lactic acid, which is the preservative of the food. It also breaks down the nutrients in the food which makes more nutrients available for digestion in the human body. The fat and happy Lactobacillus microorganisms are the reason the nutritional value of the food is exceptionally enhanced.

Bacterium Pattern, by 4Vector

Bacterium Pattern, by 4Vector.

Fermentation has been highly regarded within many cultures around the world. Long before microbiology was understood, humans observed the living qualities of fermentation and as a result, believed the food to be “prepared” by higher powers. If you try fermenting yourself you can also witness the extraordinary transformation by seeing the food bubble in the jar and smell the tangy aroma, knowing that the Lactobacillus microorganisms are hard at work. Our ancestors also valued the health benefits of fermentation. They experienced its boosts to the body’s immune system, and so fermented foods were considered to be medicinal. In a way, fermented foods are medicinal. Antibiotics help fix bacterial problems in the human body, but probiotics help prevent bacterial problems from happening in the first place. This is why probiotic-rich foods like fermented foods are important to include in our diets. The medicinal value of fermented foods is just as important in modern society as it was in ancient times.

My Gut, My Choice, by Alia Aka Tides for Threadless.

My Gut, My Choice, by Alia Aka Tides for Threadless.

Living in a society where it is hard to avoid processed food, fermentation gives us the ability to take back power over our own health. Fermented foods can provide our bodies with the nutrients and probiotics that most other foods cannot. Fermentation is also a step towards sustainable living. Fermenting foods at home strikes against the modern food industry by using low-energy food preservation methods as well as supporting local agriculture. New Mexico doesn’t have a history of fermenting, but New Mexico’s local agriculture would greatly benefit from implementing home-fermenting to its kitchen culture. Many favorite New Mexican foods, such as chile, jalepenos, and tomatoes, contain Lactobacillus microbes, so they are perfect for fermenting. This is why health-conscious and environmentally-conscious New Mexicans should consider reviving the lost art of fermentation with their very own southwestern twist!

Heirloom Tomatoes, by Nicole Franzen.

Heirloom Tomatoes, by Nicole Franzen.

-Posted by Rachel

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