Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ruminations on Fermentation

Cows have a pretty good system going. They get maximum nutritive mileage by passing grass through massive fermentation vats as part of their digestive tract. Humans ferment too, but our fermentation vessels aren’t built-in. ‘Round the world for centuries humans have been fermenting food with cultures of the lactobacillus bacteria.

There are different types of Lactobacillus, as a group they produce lactic acid as the major end product of the fermentation of carbohydrates. They require an anaerobic environment with a little water. Most of the family is homofermentive, that is they produce only Lactic Acid; some are heterofermentive producing, in addition, acetic acid (vinegar), ethanol and carbon dioxide (the fizz). Lactic acid inactivates all putrefying bacteria thereby preserving the food in question. Once in the body the other possible products of fermentation, alcohol and acetic acid must be decomposed and eliminated, but lactic acid can for the most part be used. Consumed lactic acid normalizes the acidity of the stomach; if it is too low, lactic acid boosts it, too high it brings it down. Lactic acid helps break down proteins and activates pancreatic enzymatic secretions for optimal digestion. Because we cannot consume lactic acid without its maker, Lactobacillus has a role to play in the health of the host organism (that would be you). Lactobacillus is able to survive all the way to the intestines, Small and Large; it effectively cleans the intestine by improving intestinal cultural ecology. This is a way of saying it inhibits undesirable bacteria by competing for receptor sites in the mucosal cell surfaces. These undesirables include shigella, salmonella and E coli. It has been demonstrated that LactoB does not multiply intestinally; therefore it is necessary to constantly replenish the colonies with live inhabitants. Eat your ferments.

In the transformative process of fermentation, described by some as alchemy. LactoB teases the best out of all its raw materials. Toxins such as nitrites and oxalic acid are neutralized, as are phytates which interfere with mineral absorption. Cellular structure is broken down making nutrients accessible. Vitamin levels are increased and new nutrients are added. These depend on the materials provided and include B vitamins including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, choline and biotin. In sauerkraut C is boosted to the point that it could keep sailors on long sea voyages from getting the scourge of the seas; Scurvy. Captain Cook took 60 barrels of sauerkraut on his second voyage around the world. There was not one case of scurvy, which had previously decimated crews on long voyages. After 27 months at sea and 15 days from home, Cook opened his last barrel to share with some Portuguese noblemen. Perfectly preserved the ferment so impressed that the noblemen took it away with them. In many parts of the world fermentation is used not only as a food preservation method but also as a way of salvaging waste foods. In Nepal 2,000 tons of high mineral Gundrun is produced for the off-season. Gundrun is made from mustard, radish, and cauliflower leaves, fermented in earthenware pots for 5-7 days then dried in the sun. A more extreme example of salvage; fermented bone balls of Sudan which are ground, fermented, shaped and dried in the sun for a shelf life of two months. In both these cases the live bacteria are sacrificed, but it is the ferment that makes possible the storage, digestion, and nutrient availability of what would otherwise be useless. Sounds like turning lead to gold.

Fermentation provides food preservation for the leaner times of the year and gives the digestion a boost; fermentation supports survival and health, both essential to the evolution of a species. And, I wonder, would human civilization have been able to feed the settled social groups required for civilization and human culture without our tiny partners?

2 comments:

ed said...
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PJ said...

Very smart commentary, D.
I'm onboard with this now. My first batch of sauerkraut is fermenting (I hope). We'll see what else I can come up with.