Fermentation has long been used, to preserve and enhance the shelf-life, and functional properties of food. Fermented foods, which are the time-honoured component of the ancestral human diet, have emerged as an important dietary strategy for improving human health in current times.
The impact of fermented foods on health include the potential probiotic effect of their constituent microorganisms, fermentation-derived production of bioactive peptides, and amines, reduction of anti-nutrients, and removal of toxic, undesirable food constituents like phytic acid, bitter-tasting phenolic compounds.
WHAT IS FERMENTATION?
Fermentation is an anaerobic process (non-oxygen requiring) in which microorganisms like bacteria and yeast break down sugars and starch into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and organic acids. Fermented foods and beverages are produced; through controlled microbial growth and conversion of food components through enzymatic action.
The accumulation of organic acids lead to increase in acidity of the food substrates, inhibits the growth of other microorganisms, thus reducing the rate of spoilage and resulting in foods with extended shelf-life.
Although the primary function of food fermentation revolves around the extended shelf life of food, it turns out that fermented foods become associated with a wide range of bioactive compounds and probiotics that greatly benefit health.
Gut microbiota has a marked influence on the individual’s overall wellness. How we digest the food we eat, or even the food sensitivities we have is linked with our behaviour, energy, weight, hormone balance, and immunity. The present-day lifestyle which includes processed foods with high sugar, and salt do not help to nurture healthy gut microbiota and contribute to the global epidemics of obesity, and mental health concern.
Fermented foods offer the opportunity to positively impact the gut microbiome 1). By increasing gut probiotics (which are beneficial bacteria) 2). By causing improvements in intestinal permeability and barrier function 3). The beneficial microbes may exert antimicrobial effects against pathogenic microbes. 4). Healthy gut flora will promote increased vitamin synthesis, preservation of nutrients, and help reduce sweet cravings.
Example: Yogurt, which is a fermented dairy product contains lactic acid bacteria which helps lower the pH level and kill the pathogenic bacteria in our gut.
FERMENTED FOODS ENCOURAGE HEALTHY DIGESTION
Fermented foods are so full of probiotics which makes them easier to digest than their unfermented counterparts. The process of fermentation creates enzymes that help you to easily break down and absorb the food that you eat. Digestive enzymes break down polymeric macromolecules such as protein, fat, and carbs into simple building blocks. Probiotics found in fermented foods reduce gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and lactose intolerance. It is well known that consumption of milk is avoided by those lacking adequate levels of lactase in the small intestine which may result in diarrhea, bloating, and flatulence.
For example, Yogurt which is a fermented product of milk can be consumed with fewer or no digestive distress, since lactobacillus probiotic strains in yogurt are known to alleviate lactose intolerance through their ability to produce lactase enzyme.
Consumption of sourdough bread has been found to result in less digestive distress and a lower hydrogen level compared to non-fermented bread.
FERMENTATION INCREASES THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF FOOD
Fermentation has profound effects on reducing antinutrients (plant compounds that can diminish or block the body’s absorption of a food’s beneficial nutrients) while boosting the bioavailability of an array of micronutrients (B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, and phytic acid).
Fermentation enables enrichment of vitamin B 12 in plant-based foods and improves protein digestibility of grains other than cereals by reducing levels of non-nutritive compounds.
Probiotics in fermented foods may act on the brain’s neural pathways via the gut-brain axis, promotes the ability to manufacture B vitamins, and synthesize vitamin K.
The proteolysis that occurs during fermentation results in higher content of peptides and free amino acids.
For example, microbial fermentation can be a valuable alternative for natural folate.
Sourdough fermentation promotes the breakdown of gluten and may reduce the content of fermentable carbs, which increases tolerance of these products in those with irritable bowel syndrome.
FERMENTED FOODS OFFER MOOD BENEFITS
Modulation of gut microbiota can be a promising strategy for restoration and maintenance of cognitive function. Gut dysbiosis can trigger a chronic inflammatory response which can contribute to mental health disorders. Mental disorders like anxiety and stress are often comorbid with gut problems, as there exists a bidirectional relationship between mental health and gut function. Fermented foods help in relieving perturbed gut function and boost brain function. The fermentation process converts food into a nutritionally and functionally rich product that modifies the gut microbiota. Fermented foods promote mood benefits by reducing gut inflammation and by lowering anxiety symptoms. Serotonin which is a well-known neurotransmitter and mood stabilizer is made mainly in the gut. Probiotics in fermented foods promote optimal gut health, resulting in healthy levels of serotonin.
FERMENTED FOODS PROMOTE IMMUNE HEALTH
Gut dysbiosis can lead to immune dysregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease. The gut microbial community protects its host not only concerning digestion, production of nutrients, and detoxification, but also in regulation of the immune system. Fermented foods play as vehicles to load your gut with probiotics, by increasing the number of probiotics, you increase your chances of being able to fight infections, block pathogenic bacteria, and modulate pathogen-induced inflammation. Fermentation increases food’s antioxidant capacity, which prevents free radical and toxin build-up in the body which is known to cause illnesses. Probiotics in fermented foods ensure healthy digestive response, when our digestion is functioning smoothly and assimilating all the nutrients we need, our immune system is better equipped against illnesses.
Example: Yogurt has higher antioxidant activity than milk. This is due to the release of bioactive peptides following the proteolysis of milk proteins, α – lactalbumin, β – lactoglobulin, and α – casein.