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Hooray for Bacteria!

Have fun with fermenting food

By David Szanto

With headlines announcing daily damage to the health of our environment, attention is being focused more and more on the ecological impact of our food choices. From the dangers of intensive farming (from beef and bananas to soy beans) to the carbon footprint of imported produce to the “biological pollution” of genetically modified organisms, food-related risk abounds. Simply put, what we put in our bodies also goes into our water, soil, air. But what about our internal environment, the communities of tiny life forms keeping our bodies functioning and in good health? What risks do our eating habits pose to the micro-ecology?

Estimates place the number of microbes in and on our bodies at roughly ten times our total number of human cells. Somewhere around one hundred trillion, that is. Included among these are the myriad species of bacteria that help us digest and process food. But because of our somewhat obsessive anti-germ mentality, this healthgiving ecology is increasingly at risk. The extensive use of antibiotics, proliferation of anti-bacterial soaps, and consumption of shelf-stabilized foods isn’t helping.

So what is an environmentally friendly eater supposed to do? One answer, now that summer is deliciously upon us, is to ferment things, and ferment them in variety. As ecologists tell us, diversity is key to resilience, and a resilient environment is a healthy one.

Fermentation is a practice that has been around for millennia. Bread, cheese, wine, beer, salami, miso, pickles — even Worcestershire sauce — are all fermented foods. Fermentation uses the action of various microbes (both bacteria and yeasts) to convert naturally occurring sugars into acids, alcohol, and carbon dioxide. This process helps preserve food — at least in the short term — by creating an environment in which healthful bacteria thrive and harmful bacteria are suppressed. It also produces unique tastes and textures, adding pleasure and diversity to our diet.

Before freezing, canning and other modern techniques, fermentation was a necessary food-conservation tool, which helped promote a rich community of useful bacteria in our bodies. Unfortunately, most fermented food available today in supermarkets is pasteurized, killing valuable active cultures. Home fermentation, however, can bring back that benefit.

As the markets fill up with fresh Quebec produce, summer is an ideal time to participate in a little environmental protection. Many of our local vegetables (carrots, radishes, cabbage, beans) are simple to ferment and give exceptional results. Milk also makes for fabulous fermented foods (think kefir and yogurt), and if you enjoy experimenting with fruit wines, berries, apples, and even tomatoes can be turned into intriguing and pleasingly intoxicating beverages.

Fermenting, like all preservation techniques, needs some advance knowledge to ensure the results are not only tasty but safe. One excellent resource is Sandor Katz’s book, The Art of Fermenting. Online resources abound, including www.culturesforhealth.com, www. foodrenegade.com, and Katz’s own web portal, www.wildfermentation.com.

Being healthy means thinking ecologically, from the largest scale to the smallest. Sign the petitions and lobby your politicians, but don’t forget to eat some sauerkraut, too.

David Szanto is a PhD student in gastronomy at Concordia University and a professor of food culture and communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

Summer 2014, Vol 6 N°3

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