Aren’t those jars just lovely? They’re delicious, too – I’m in love with the fermented cranberry-orange chutney.
But why five quarts of fermented fruits and vegetables? One word: probiotics.
We’ve all seen the commercials of the lady showing up on airplanes and at town hall meetings, asking people embarrassing questions about the state of their digestive systems before handing out boxes of (expensive) pills. We’ve seen Jamie Lee Curtis shilling for yogurt guaranteed to fix those same embarrassing digestive issues in just two weeks. But just what are probiotics?
Well, we all know what antibiotics are: medicinal products that either kill bacteria in the system or keep them from reproducing, allowing an infected body to heal by producing its own defenses and overcome the infection. When antibiotics were isolated in the mid-twentieth century, they were widely hailed as ‘wonder drugs’ and indeed, formerly life-threatening infections could now be easily cured within a few days.
We’ve become quite dependent on antibiotics, in many cases to the point where some, like penicillin, are no longer very affective; many people have also developed penicillin allergies. Another undesirable affect of antibiotics is that in addition to killing off or halting the spread of “bad” bacteria, it also does the same thing to beneficial bacteria that our bodies actually need (hence the term probiotics – they’re literally the opposite of antibiotics.)
Most of these beneficial bacteria live in our gut – our digestive system. When they are not sufficiently abundant or the balance of the different types of beneficial bacteria are out of whack, we often suffer from a host of irritating, if not downright unhealthy, digestive issues – the famed constipation, gas, bloating and diarrhea the lady with the pills carries on about.
Why not just take the pill or eat the tiny little container of yogurt? Well, for one thing, as I noted before, this can be expensive – those pills the lady hands out so liberally can cost me and you upwards of $20 for 30 tablets (the recommended dosage is often 2 pills – or more – a day, depending on the severity of the symptoms). As for the yogurt, it is made from pasteurized lowfat milk and contains added sugars or artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavors, and thickeners (modified food starch and guar gum) along with the probiotics – which don’t come from natural fermentation but are added afterwards. There are also often only 2 or 3 types of beneficial bacteria in such products; far more live in your body, and an imbalance of probiotics is not a whole lot better than an absence of them.
Fermented foods contain more than just two or three types of beneficial bacteria. As an added benefit, fermentation makes the nutrients in the foods more available to our bodies and easier to digest. Making ferments is easy to do – the cranberry-orange chutney came together in all of 5 minutes – and is far less expensive than pills or tiny containers of yogurt. Those five quarts will literally last us months – vegetable ferments especially improve with age (fruit ferments should be consumed a little more quickly) – and cost less than one bottle of probiotic pills.
Traditionally fermented foods have been around for thousands of years, and the commercial versions (sauerkraut and cucumber pickles immediately come to mind) are sad, pale bastardizations of what can and should be delicious, healthful additions to our diets; most are preserved with vinegar and pasteurized, which sort of defeats the purpose of them in the first place. Not that I don’t enjoy a good canned pickle – I have over 20 jars of them in my basement – but they are not a replacement for the traditionally fermented kind.
If you haven’t eaten a true, traditional ferment, why not give them a try? This kimchi recipe – spicy, tart, salty, crunchy and delicious – is a good place to start.