Fermented Foods: yes they talk to your genes!

Fermented food preserves the harvest and your health

Nothing makes me happier than to see a resurgence of fermented foods take their rightful place on our plates. Fermented foods have been part of the human plate around the world for centuries. Kimchi from Korea, miso, Japan, sauerkraut from Germany, kefir from Northern Europe, fish sauce from Thailand and Vietman, Dosa from India are just a few. If you are interested in fermented foods around the world, here is an excellent pictorial review. Not only are fermented foods a traditional and sustainable way of preserving food and extending the harvest, it turns out they are some of the best foods for our health. More importantly, they are a source of nutritional compounds that also communicate with our genes. Let’s find out how. 

What They Are

The process of fermenting food essentially takes raw ingredients and breaks them down into simpler, edible parts, yielding the characteristic acidic, earthy-pungent or even effervescent taste. Fermentation yields not only unique flavors, but also highly beneficial micro-organisms whose work and nutritional bi-products are essential for our health. Dig a little deeper and we find a link between them and our genes. 

How they talk

A fascinating paper published in 2016 discover a unique food-gene connection between micro-organisms found in fermented foods and Master Gene Nrf2 which I have talked about a lot. By activating Nrf2 we can produce proteins that are integral to how the body manages oxidative stress, inflammation and detoxification. 
Fermented foods are a rich source of the Lactobacillus species of bacteria which are produced during the fermentation process. While there are a number of different lactobacillus species, researchers discovered that the plantarum,  brevis, and collinoides species have a unique ability to produce a microbial enzyme called phenolic acid decarboxylase or PAD. PAD can convert specific bioactives found in fruits and vegetables into a class of compounds called alkyl catechols. And alkyl catechols are where the food-gene magic lies. Not only can alkyl catechols activate Nrf2, but it appears that they are as  potent, or effective as the much studied sulforaphane in their activation capability. By eating fermented foods, you are essentially providing another route through which you can activate Nrf2 and empower your health.

Regaining what we lost

 Artisan cheese, a traditional way of preserving food

Artisan cheese, a traditional way of preserving food

One of the things researchers pointed out in this important paper is that traditional diets were rich in fermented foods, and therefore alkyl catechols. Wood-smoked foods, which include fish and meat, are also a vibrant source of these important Nrf2-talking compounds and of course a traditional way of preserving food. Both smoked and fermented foods lost their prominence, replaced by a commercialized food production system that is largely void of these natural foods. This is why I am so glad to see a resurgence and interest in the production of these vital foods. Our ancestors unknowingly gave us some of the best food-based medicine available in their routine business of preserving the harvest

Getting Fermented Food on Your Plate

The best way to get fermented food on your plate is to make your own. There are many articles and online tutorials available online. For the serious, check out BodyEcologyU and their chef-led self-paced fermentation course. Or check into The Nourished Kitchen’s robust online courses, articles and book. But if you are a newbie to fermented foods, you probably want to try them out first. If you like dairy, then yogurt is a readily accessible fermented food. Buy plain whole milk yogurt, with no added ingredients. Make a simple raita which you can use as a simple condiment, toss with delicious roasted or grilled vegetables, serve with fish, or marinade chicken for example before grilling.  See my recipe here.

Branching out, head to your local farmer’s market or to the refrigerated section of your store and look for lacto-fermented foods. Look for local brands.  A brand local to me here in Wisconsin is Fizzeology, producing sauerkraut, cortido and kimchi! Buy local when you can. Oh, and one more important thing: read the label. Naturally fermented foods contain raw ingredients, spices, salt and water. If you can’t find local brands, Bubbies is a national brand that combines naturally fermented raw ingredients into simple pickles and relishes. 

And one last thing, if fermented foods are new for you, start small and slowly. I like to recommend 1-2 tablespoons of a fermented food everyday. Many of you may already be eating yogurt, but as you branch out, go slowly. It may take time for your digestive system to adapt to this new wealth of micro-organisms and goodness. If you have any continued reaction at all, back off, introduce again slowly, or speak with a nutrition expert about how to get the best of what these foods have to offer for you.  You NEED them and so do your genes!