Fermentation is a very old process of food preservation that has been used by almost all ancient civilizations. The oldest known fermented food is honey wine or mead. The process of fermentation is caused by organisms digesting sugars to produce alcohol, lactic acid or acetic acid.
During Fermentation, nutrients of the food are preserved, rather than broken down as they are in freezing or canning. The process also makes the food more digestible. For instance, people who are lactose intolerant may not be able to drink milk, but usually can eat yogurt or other fermented dairy products. This is because the organism, Lactobacillius, consumes the lactose and turns it into lactic acid. This process is called lacto-fermentation. The Lactobacili also create omega 3 fatty acids, which improve cell health and immune function.
The process of fermentation also results in new nutrients being formed by the fermenting organism. Numerous B vitamins such as folate, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin are produced or activated. Antioxidants have also been found in fermented foods (antioxidants that were not present before the food was fermented).
Besides improving the nutrient aspect of food, fermentation also removes toxins. Cassava has cyanide that is removed during the fermentation process, changing it from a poisonous food to an edible food. Many grains contain phytic acid which blocks the absorption of various minerals such as zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium. When the grains are soaked or fermented, the phytic acid is removed improving the nutritional content.
Another benefit of fermentation is the microorganisms themselves. They can help ups further digest our food. These microorganisms also help protect us from getting other infections by competing with potential dangerous disease causing organisms. The beneficial microorganisms aid in teaching our immune system how to function. An increased diversity of microorganisms has been shown to decrease the prevalence of asthma and allergies. This is known as the hygiene hypothesis.
The larger the variety of fermented foods, the larger the variety of microbial cultures in your body. The best way to get this large variety is by using wild fermentation. This is the process of allowing the microbes that live in the air in your house to ferment your foods. By fermenting at home your body will be better to adapt to shifting conditions during different seasons and better fight off colds and the flu. If time doesn't allow you to ferment at home, seek out commercial sources--especially those that are locally, lovingly crafted. You will be helping your health!