Have a rotten life. I mean that in a good way. Let me explain.

Before we had the ability to refrigerate food, our ancestors would kill an animal, harvest berries or other fruit, dig in the dirt for roots and tubers, gather shellfish or capture fish, etc. and consume what we could that was, for the moment, fresh.

But what became of the remains of, say, a 300-pound animal we killed and exceeded our momentary capacity to consume its heart, intestines, liver, heart, brain, muscle, etc. just after the kill? Did we leave it for the wolves to consume? Or did we protect the spoils with spears and clubs, then resume our feast the next day?

What about a bounty of seasonal fruit that you harvested from a tree or bush, competing with other hungry creatures? Fearing their brief availability on the branch or vine, you take more than you need for the moment—so what do you do with the rest?

The natural process of fermentation comes to the rescue, the colonization of food with microbes such as Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Pediococcus pentosaceus, and Lactobacillus plantarum. Leave the food out and the microbes that are either resident on the surface or you add from a previously fermented food digest components of the food, producing more microbes as well as metabolites.

Consume the fermented food some days or weeks later and wonderful things happen:

  • You’ve managed to preserve food that remains nutritious
  • You’ve increased the availability of some nutrients
  • You inoculate your oral and intestinal microbiome with microbes that help “mold” species composition of your GI tract
  • You discourage pathogens from taking up residence in the food and in your GI tract

People often regard commercial probiotics as a complete solution to a disrupted microbiome, but that is simply not true. It is especially not true given the haphazard way current commercial probiotics are concocted without rhyme or reason. (This will improve in coming years as manufacturers incorporate emerging science and are better able to select species/strains that have proven health benefits, recognize that there are communities of bacteria that “collaborate” via metabolites for greater health benefits, and incorporate other factors that improve efficacy). More important than a commercial probiotic are fermented foods, just as humans have done for eons before refrigeration make us squeamish.

Fermented foods can come as veggies you ferment on your kitchen counter (I have several batches on my counter at various stages of fermentation), kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurts, fermented meats, etc. If you make it yourself, then you are in control over how long you ferment (that largely determines the number of microbes that are produced). If you buy fermented foods such as kimchi or kefir, consider leaving it on the kitchen counter for 48 or more hours to allow additional fermentation to yield greater microbial counts, since commercial fermentation in a factory is nearly always kept as short as possible to hasten production. People in Europe and Asia have, to a much greater degree, maintained an intake of fermented foods but, in the U.S., it has been almost completely abandoned. It’s time to resurrect this important practice.

Besides showing you how to get started with basic fermentation in my Super Gut book, including recipes that include fermented food ingredients, also take a look at my friend Donna Schwenk’s books and starter cultures in her CulturedFoodLife.com website, packed with wisdom on incorporating fermented foods into your life.

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