As old as dirt
Fermented foods have been around for ages. There is evidence that humans have used fermentation to produce alcoholic beverages since neolithic times. The process was, and still is, very low-tech requiring little specialized equipment. It is used to chemically alter foods and to increase their storage life. Fermentation harnesses the activity of bacteria and yeast to create a chemical change and at the same time it adds flavor to the food. Cheeses, sauerkraut and vinegar are all fermented foods and their flavor is quite different from the source ingredients — milk, cabbage and wine — that they were derived from. The process of fermentation can also create alcohol as a by-product, as found in beer and wine. While being useful for preserving foods and getting us drunk, it is also thought that fermented foods help to support gut health.
Almost every food culture has a type of unique fermented food. Commonly fermented foods in the U.S. can be homemade, such as pickles, but grocery aisles are full of fermented foods as well. Throughout history, almost all types of foods have been manipulated by humans with fermentation. Asian cultures ferment fish and meat, and long before chocolate became common in Europe, the Aztecs fermented cocoa beans, a process still used today. Even cod liver oil was a traditional fermented food.
American melting pot
The American table has adopted many fermented foods from around the world, such as kimchi vegetables, Kombucha beverages, Sriracha chili sauce, and creme fraiche cheese. Each year more and more products become available even at non-specialty grocery stores. These culturally migrated foods make it easy to add fermented products to meals along with a lot of variety.
As it turns out, this cultural exchange may be good for our health as it is thought that fermented foods improve our gut health through the action of probiotics. First, the process of fermenting foods starts to break down the food into its chemical components. It can be thought of as a form of pre-digestion and it makes it easier for humans to absorb the nutrients from their food. Also, many of the bacteria used to ferment foods already exist in the human gut. When we eat fermented foods, such as yogurt, the cultures help to repopulate our own gut with these necessary bacteria. There is legitimate science behind this, and one yogurt manufacturer has an entire product and ad campaign based on their proprietary bacteria (Bifidus Actiregularis) that they promise helps improve gut health and limit bloating, gas and other digestive upsets.
Vegetable products, such as kimchi, pickles, and sauerkraut, that are bought packaged at the grocery store, do not transfer their probiotic benefits to the human digestive tract because most of those products are pasteurized to make them safe to eat and shelf stable. If you want to get probiotic benefits from these foods, you will have eat them freshly made. Fortunately, making fermented products at home is a simple process and recipes are easy to find. Whether chosen for flavor or gut health the choices in fermented food are vast.