The coronavirus may be our killer, but bacteria may be our saviour

Our lives have been turned upside down and the nation is at a standstill. We are living through a pandemic, which together with the tragic loss of lives, will be remembered for the ugly scenes of stockpiling and those heart-breaking images of elderly people standing amongst empty supermarket shelves. ‘The supply chain is robust’, the politicians repeatedly assured us, and amongst their many, many promises this seemed to be one of the few that was realised. Thankfully the shelves have restocked and those desperate scenes have now disappeared.


In the aftermath of the stockpiling it was disconcerting to read about food wastage with many people discovered they had no way of preserving their fresh produce. Is wastage an inevitable consequence of panic? Is there another way? Now that food security has come to the forefront of our minds and our reliance on just-in-time food supplies has been called into questioning, how can we learn from this?


Ancient wisdom


The supermarket is a new concept in the history of Humankind. It was born out of a desire for convenience and to support the modern working lifestyle. It features products that would be considered bizarre to our ancestors – canned goods, instant noodles, soups in sachets and fluffy, uniform loaves of white bread that are made in a matter of minutes rather than being allowed to prove naturally overnight.


So just how did our ancestors survive?  


The answer lies in the ancient wisdom of preservation by fermentation. The process of fermentation is as old as Humankind and predates refrigeration and the supermarket by thousands of years. It was one of a few methods by which our ancestors survived their periods of winter food-scarcity. This same method in contemporary times has emerged as being beneficial for the health of our gut and immune system. We now know that immune health is intrinsically linked to gut health, indeed, the suggestion that 70% of our immune system resides in our gut has resulted in a paradigm shift. Research now suggests that by nurturing our gut environment we may be able to reduce the chronic and malignant disease burden that we have become accustomed to in the developed world.


What is fermentation?


In a nutshell it is a process driven by bacteria and/or yeast to convert both simple and complex sugars into acids or alcohols. We are all probably more familiar with the by-products of fermentation in the form of alcoholic beverages but less so with fermented vegetables. When I talk to people about fermenting vegetables and fruits they reply:

“Oh, so you pickle it in vinegar?”

“Not quite,” I reply.

Our obsession with pasteurisation, whilst undeniably important and life-saving, has also cost us in terms of benefits derived from friendly bacteria. Vinegar which has gained popularity amongst food manufacturers, is one way to preserve food and kill off pathogens, but it is nowhere near as beneficial as naturally fermented foods. Lacto-fermentation – the process of bacteria converting sugars into lactic acid – not only preserves food, but also increases the pre/probiotic value of food. Across the world staples such as miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, yoghurt, kimchi, natta, tempeh and cheese represent the art and tradition of fermentation.


How does it work?


Every vegetable or fruit possesses naturally occurring bacteria on its surface. Given the right conditions (usually in the form of a salt bath) these bacteria multiply and produce acids which kill off other potentially harmful pathogens.


Fermentation helps break down nutrients in food, making them easier to digest e.g. lactose is broken down into its constituent glucose and galactose. As a result, those who are lactose intolerant tend to tolerate fermented dairy products such as kefir. The organisms also help break down compounds such as phytates and lectins which may interfere with nutrient absorption. We see this in the case of tempeh – made from soybeans. By fermenting with Rhizopus oryzae there is a reduction in levels of phytic acid making the beans more nutritious than their unfermented counterparts. Furthermore, the bacteria help us to reap the benefits from raw vegetables by breaking down difficult-to-digest fibres into pre-biotics. The rapid creation of an acidic environment makes it uninhabitable for other pathogens to thrive. This results in food, that would normally otherwise rot, lasting for up to 12 months in the right environment.


What is in it for me?


Research, although in its infancy, has suggested that consumption of fermented foods can increase weight loss, reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and improve mental health. This is likely due to the effect that the constituent probiotics have once established as part of the gut microbiome.


If you are keen to add fermented foods to your diet, it is best to start slowly. Begin with small amounts and observe how your body responds. Sometimes the sudden surge of pre/probiotics can upset an already sensitive gut – especially in those who suffer from IBS. However, do not give up; your body will adjust and learn to love these beneficial foods.


Looking forward


We are now at a crossroad in terms of our food security and long-term health. We have an opportunity to rekindle ancient wisdom and once again practise the art of fermentation of foods. Producing the likes of sauerkraut, kimchi, and other lacto-fermented vegetables will not only help alleviate long term food security but also provide a multitude of health benefits. Therefore, we don’t always have to rely on just-in-time food supplies in order to maintain our intake of wholesome vegetables. Nor does this have to be something that is elitist, most people can take a cabbage, add a little salt and watch nature take its course. There are plenty of online resources and tutorials to help guide beginners to the world of fermentation:


This may not be our last pandemic and no doubt we will all learn lessons from this dark period of our history. We may have discovered the unwelcome truth that our modernised lives are not as robust as we thought. However, we share with our ancestors the instinct to survive and to thrive. Now, we must join them and look to the past as a place where some of our solutions lie.

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