08/26/2013 01:32 EDT | Updated 10/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Fermented Foods Are Fantastic for Health

2012-05-28-GermGuyBanner.jpg Many a farmer and researcher have searched for ways to preserve shelf life. A small group of people have learned that in order to beat the bugs, they need to incorporate not chemicals or cooling but a collection of microbes that can not only keep food safe, but also keep it tasty for ages.

With summer coming to a close, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables will be making their way to farmers and grocery markets much to the delight of shoppers looking for healthier and tastier choices.

However, many of our eyes will be larger than our appetites and after a week or so; desire will turn to disgust as these beautiful bounties turn into victims of spoilage. Whether the culprit is a blackening bacterium or a furry fungus, the sheer discovery of a lost harvest can sadden the heart and quell the desire for healthy eating.

The race between humans and microbes to digest foods has been ongoing for centuries and led many a farmer and researcher to search for ways to preserve shelf life. Yet, a small group of people have learned that in order to beat the bugs, they need to incorporate not chemicals or cooling but a collection of microbes that can not only keep food safe, but also keep it tasty for ages. These special people are the fermenters and they specialize in keeping our taste buds -- and inadvertently our health -- in a happy place.

To learn more about the art and science, I talked with Jenna Empey, one of the co-owners of Pyramid Farm and Ferments, a small company specializing in the traditional ways of fermentation. For Jenna, it's not only a business, but a matter of love.

"I first came to fermentation through farming. When you grow a lot of food you want to be able to preserve the quality of your harvest and hard work the best way you can. So in my experience through growing and preserving food, I came to love fermentation."

The art of fermenting foods relies on a small set of bacteria and yeasts, which offer three benefits. They utilize freely accessible sugars to grow, produce an environment that is toxic to other spoiling organisms and produce a number of chemicals that humans find delectable.

This third aspect has been the focus of one fermentation industry, wine and beer, and has become its own branch of scientific research. However, for Jenna, there is no need for a specialized mixture of microbes or a laboratory. All she needs is some salt, an earthenware vessel and her cave.

"Everything is done in what we call "the cave", which is a subterranean garden where we cultivate the bacterial cultures necessary for fermentation. We store the raw vegetables here, so they will be exposed to the right bacteria. When it's time to ferment, we shred the vegetables, add sea salt to them and then, with pressure, submerge the mixture in its own brine into earthenware vessels that follow centuries-old designs. The salted environment allows the necessary bacteria to thrive and out-compete other types of bacterial strains. Over time the lactic acid produced sours the vegetables and preserves them in a raw, live form."

The preservation of foods may be the traditional goal of fermentation, but over the years, the benefits to health have been studied with nothing but positive outcomes. In mice, the ingestion of fermented products can balance the immune system, reduce dermatitis, help to prevent the colonization of pathogenic bacteria in the gut and even protect against the onset of obesity and diabetes. While in humans, most studies have been performed on fermented dairy products, the same results can be expected with other fermented foods. Not surprisingly, the cause of this health benefit is the type of bacteria found in these products, lactic acid bacteria including familiar names such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

The link has been so robust that there are now calls to develop better probiotics using the same fermentation techniques as Jenna uses at Pyramid. For Jenna, this traditional exploitation of vegetables is one of the reasons behind her passion.

"I love fermentation because it is so intriguing and always changing. There is so much complexity and activity occurring in each vessel and I get to help nurture it along. I get to be creative and experiment with flavours and techniques. I can taste my way through the fermenting process and love that it is an intuitive science for me. And I know that each time I put a product on the shelf, it takes us beyond the bottle of probiotic pills and yogurt cups. There are so many varied and tasty versions of live culture, fermented foods all with the same probiotic properties. I want people to cultivate their taste buds as well as grow a garden in their gut."

While the benefits of fermented foods are apparent, the popularity of these traditional foods has waned over the years; a problem Jenna attributes to modern food processing. "With the industrialization of food the collective North American diet has forgotten about many of the live culture, fermented foods that were formerly plentiful and I think the effects on our diet are measurable."

This trend may be changing. in the last few years, fermented foods have begun to make a slow but steady comeback. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has seen the potential for fermented foods not only as a means to improve global health, but also as a way to improve economic sustainability in countries where fermentation is a normal part of life.

Although no one believes that fermented foods will overtake the economic giants of fast food and soda drinks, there continues to be hope that more people will choose fermented over manufactured. The road may be long and arduous but for people like Jenna, it's worth the struggle.

"Fermented foods are one of the most traditional ways to preserve food. Every culture has some form of fermented food present in their diet. It's simple to make, the products have a great taste for the most part, and the benefits are long lasting. Considering the health problems we are seeing today, I believe any effort to improve health naturally is worthwhile."