Fermented and/or Sprouted Foods
Truly living foods are more dynamic and contain more nutrients than salad leaves. They are also more potent than a serving of seeds, which are asleep and haven’t been woken up. How are these foods awakened? By either the process of fermentation (a kind of controlled rotting) or sprouting (germination of a seed) or possibly both. Many of the foods we love today were originally fermented or sprouted. If it weren’t for fermentation there would be no such thing as wine, beer, bread, yogurt, and cheese. Even chocolate would be out, since cacao nibs must sit in the sun for a week or more to let the fruit ferment around the nibs and develop a deeper flavor. This is the same for coffee berries. Sprouting plays an essential role in the traditional method of making bread. If our ancestors wouldn’t have allowed grains to sprout, we wouldn’t have invented bread. This is because, for the first ten thousand years of wheat and grain cultivation, the technology to crush open the kernels did not exist.1
Plants Don’t Like to be Eaten
Fermentation and Sprouting are critical for one very simple reason: plants haven’t evolved with the idea that they should be eaten. Plant protect their foliage, stems, seeds, roots, and their fruits with natural insecticides and bitter toxins. These are known as Lectins, large proteins found in plants and animals that are sometimes referred to as “sticky proteins.” This is because of their binding abilities, which means they can interrupt messaging between cells or otherwise cause toxic or inflammatory reactions.2 Don’t fret, we shall discuss everything lectins in a later article. Sprouting and Fermentation effectively deactivate most of these irritants, which easily explains why sprouted grains and lacto-fermented vegetables are known to be easier to digest.3,4
Microbes Feast on Carbohydrates
The processes of fermentation and sprouting also reduce the carbohydrate content of carbohydrate rich foods. How? During the fermentation process, multiplying microbes seek out simple sugars and convert them into a wide variety of nutrients they use for their own growth. During the sprouting process, enzymes convert energy-rich storage starch into the many nutrients a seedling requires.
Now that I have introduced you to both of these incredible natural processes, let’s dive into each
A Deep Dive Into Fermentation
Merriam-Webster describes fermentation as “an enzymatically controlled transformation of an organic compound.” The key term we should focus on being transformation. Microbes (bacteria) are capable of transforming indigestible, bland, and even toxic compounds (lectins) into nourishing and in my opinion delicious foods. Take wheat for example, like all seeds, it contains mineral binding compounds called phytates (a type of lectin), which hold minerals in stasis until conditions are right for germination. Yeast and other microbes (as those found in sourdough) contain enzymes, called phytases, that breakdown phytates in the seeds freeing the zinc, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. Bound to phytates, these minerals in bread pass through out digestive tract undigested, leading to mineral deficiencies.5
Soybeans and Soybean Products Should Always be Fermented
Soybeans contain chemicals called goitrogens and phytoestrogens, which disrupt thyroid and sex hormone function. Overconsumption of untraditionally fermented soybean products such as commercially made soymilk, tofu, and soy-based infant formulas are known to cause hypo- and hyperthyroidism, thyroid cancer, and male and female reproductive disorders.6 Though they didn’t know it at the time, the Chinese and Japanese who traditionally ate soy neutralized the harmful compounds. They did this by soaking, rinsing, and then fermenting soybeans. These traditionally fermented tofu, natto, miso, and other cultured soy products are incredibly nutritious.
The Bacteria Myth
So, while many of people think bacteria are nothing but something we want to avoid. I want to inform you, just like fat in foods, there are good bacteria (microbes) that are essential to our health and bad bacteria (known as pathogens) that are detrimental to our health. In fact, our cells are outnumbered ten to one by the trillions of microbes that populate our digestive tract.7 Furthermore, the average human colon contains over 800 species of microbiota and at least 7,000 different strains.8
A Deep Dive Into Sprouting
Next, I’m going to talk about sprouting, but first a question.
Why are more kids than ever before developing celiac disease and other allergies to wheat and products made from wheat? After more than 10,000 years of cultivation why the sudden change?
There are plenty of potential causes; GMOs, pesticides, the fact that flour is often contaminated with mold toxins and allergenic proteins.9 Though there is one cause that I think is the true culprit, which is we no longer sprout (germinate) wheat berries (seeds) like our ancestors used to.
The sprouting process not only breaks down proteins such as gluten, making them more digestible, it also makes foods more nutritious. Seeds are designed to greedily hang on to their protein, fats, and minerals. Plants sheath these in a very hard hull that our digestive enzymes can’t adequately breakdown. Moistening seeds for extended periods of time (a few days) activates the plant’s own enzymes. This includes phytase, which you already learned helps break down phytates. The plant’s enzymes work to soften the seed, free up bound nutrients, and even create new nutrients by converting stored starch and fatty acids into proteins and vitamins.10 You can sprout any kind of seed you want, from wheat berries to kidney beans and more. I will tell you how it is done in this week’s “Food/Ingredient of the Week” article, which will be on Kidney beans.
- Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, Adam Lucas, Brill Academic Publishers, 2005.
Fact of the Week
Studies have shown that live-cultured foods that contain probiotics help to prevent a number of allergic, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases.11,12,13
As far as our bodies are concerned there is just two different types of bacteria: good and bad. The good bacteria are often referred to with the umbrella term probiotics. These are comprised of the same beneficial bacteria that preserve, detoxify, and enrich our food. These friendly microbes secrete hormones that help coordinate the muscular contractions of intestinal peristalsis while working with our immune systems by keeping a sharp lookout for pathogens (the bad guys).