Many years ago, I read a study from Stanford University about the depletion of nutrients in our soils which results in a depletion of nutrients in our food. At that point in time, I started taking supplements daily. Then, I learned about fermentation and had to ask, “Does fermentation increase the nutritional value of food?” Fortunately, it does, and therefore is a less-expensive way to improve your nutrition.
I started fermenting our food because I hated the idea of buying probiotic supplements. I knew the strains were not as diverse as they are in nature and buying supplements can be incredibly expensive. What I didn’t realize was all of the other benefits of fermentation, like how fermented foods improve the immune system and mood. Also, as we’ll discuss here, fermentation actually improves the nutritional profile of the food. It may seem like a wild idea but fermenting your food really does make it more nutritious.
What is fermentation?
Before we get into how this happens, let’s discuss what fermentation is. Fermentation is a microbial process where sugars are converted to alcohols (as in alcohol fermentation) or acids (as in lactic acid fermentation). Beneficial bacteria and yeasts transform the food, creating interesting tastes and textures. Before refrigeration, fermenting was one of the best ways to preserve food from harvest time through the winter. Many fermented foods can last for months in a cool place.
Because fermentation transforms the food, it makes sense that it could change the nutritional profile as well.
How Does Fermentation Increase the Nutritional Value of Food?
Fermentation increases micro- and macro-nutrients.
Lactic acid fermentation can be used to ferment grains, legumes, vegetables, and other foods. All of these foods, when fermented traditionally, come out more nutritious than their regular state. For example, fermented dairy has been shown to have a higher level of folate, pyridoxine, B vitamins, riboflavin, and biotin than milk alone.
Fermentation also increases the bioavailability of amino acids (think protein) as well as vitamins C and A in legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Additionally, fermentation increases the number of B vitamins present in the food. B vitamins are incredibly important but many vegetarians and vegans struggle to get enough of them in their diets.
That being said, just because there are nutrients available in a food doesn’t mean they will be absorbed, which brings us to the next point.
Fermentation breaks down anti-nutrients.
Legumes and grains contain compounds called anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are compounds that bind to nutrients, making it difficult or impossible for our bodies to absorb them. One anti-nutrient, called phytic acid or phytate, binds to minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron, making them unavailable to the body. Fermentation deactivates the phytic acid in these foods allowing for better nutritional absorption.
Fermentation reduces enzyme inhibitors, thereby increasing enzymes.
Phytate and other anti-nutrients can also become enzyme inhibitors, blocking necessary enzymes from digesting certain nutrients such as starches or proteins. If we don’t have the enzymes to break down these nutrients we can’t absorb them. Fermentation can help eliminate these enzyme inhibitors, unlocking the nutrition and making food easier to digest. Fermentation even creates some enzymes during the process that can help with digestion and nutrient absorption.
Wild, isn’t it? Fermentation can really transform your food into a much healthier food. Sourdough bread, sauerkraut, and fermented legumes and grains are foods that have been traditionally fermented to be easier on the digestive tract and better for our health.
If you are new to fermented foods, try a Fermentools Starter Kit. It includes everything you need to turn your Mason jar into a fermentation vessel for minimal investment.
Mindy Wood is a writer, wife, mother, and homesteader, living in the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire. She writes at Purposefully Simple where she shows people how to live more self-reliant and healthy lives by growing their own food and learning other homesteading skills.