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Meet the Microbes!

Bacteria in fermenting: great for our health.

Fermentation is an ancient method of preserving food and drink that has been sustaining and keeping us healthy for centuries. Now enjoying a renaissance in popularity, it’s far more than being the latest superfood trend. Studies show the right balance of bacteria in our digestive tract may help govern our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Research links this balance to the probability of many diseases. These include some cancers, diabetes, obesity and inflammatory disorders. Through the vagus nerve, the gut’s ability to “talk” to our brain can influence our mental health.

Much of the latest nutrition advice now revolves around the need for the addition of these microbes into our diet. Harnessing bacteria in fermenting is a good way to ingest more of these friendly microbes.

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is a process where energy is extracted from sugar molecules without oxygen being present. Ancient societies used this to preserve foods such as vegetables during the cold months. Without refrigeration, this method of preservation was vital to ensuring there was food available during the time crops could not be grown.

Though fermented foods such as sauerkraut are associated with Europe, dynasties in China dating back as far as 4000 B.C. used these friendly microbes to ferment grain-based drinks. Fermentation was also recorded in the Fertile Crescent around 6000 B.C.

But where do these "good bugs" come from? The truth is they have been with us for thousands of years. Estimates of the ratio of bacteria to human cells have varied greatly. A pioneering 1977 study undertaken by microbiologist Dwayne Savage estimated a 90:10 ratio in favour of bacteria. More recent research by the Weizmann Institute in Israel has estimated a closer to 50:50 bacteria ratio to human cells.

The good bacteria in fermented foods

Fermentation is due to the action of certain microbes on existing foods. The microbial bacteria colonise the food when the conditions are right. At different temperatures, various strains thrive.

Bacteria are everywhere. In the air we breathe, the earth, and our bodies. We have a symbiotic relationship with these microbes, they need us to feed them and we need them to sustain life. They live mostly in our digestive tract and play a key role in our physical and mental health.

We are born with our own gut microbiome, inherited from our mother. But there is a way to source more beneficial microbes into our diet. Through eating and drinking fermented food and drink.

But how do they form in fermented products?

Probiotic-rich cultured foods are all about getting the right conditions so the good bacteria can flourish. Let's take sauerkraut and the Korean speciality kimchi as an example. Both are made from cabbage and both use an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment to kick start the fermenting process. This is formed by the submerging of the chopped cabbage in a briny solution in an airtight container.

These conditions are ideal for the proliferation of the microbes that get the fermentation process started. These microbes (mostly from the Leuconostoc species) take over. Carbon dioxide is formed as part of the process, which replaces the remnants of oxygen in the ferment.

As the conditions get more acidic, they become less conducive for these bacteria and they are replaced by those microbes more suited to the acidic environment. These are mostly from the important Lactobacillus family.

Meet the microbes!

There are many species of bacteria that inhabit our digestive tract. However one of the most helpful to our health and wellbeing is the Lactobacillus group. L. Acidophilus, L.Plantarum, L. Casei, L. Bifidus and L. Rhamnosus are all members of this family.

They convert sugars to lactic acid and the fermentation they kick start is known as Lacto-fermentation. They are classed as friendly bacteria and live in our gut (and other parts of our body) with different effects on our bodies.

Studies show they work to protect us from pathogens and L. Acidophilus, for example, can help in lowering cholesterol, promote weight loss and ward off infections.

L. Plantarum has been shown to be a significant antioxidant, with anti-depressant and pain suppressant properties.

L. Casei, also an important resident of our gut, is associated with helping in the treatment of digestive complaints such as constipation. It is now recommended as an associated treatment for gut-related disorders. More information is available here.

L. Bifidus, also a resident of the digestive tract, and the vagina in adult women, works to keep the gut at a higher acidic level. Many pathogens can survive in an environment that is reduced in acidity so Bifidus works hard to keep out pathogens. They also help digest fibre and complex carbohydrates. These are foods the body can’t digest on its own.

L. Rhamnosus has only recently been isolated as a separate species and has been found to be helpful in treating diarrhoea and acute gastroenteritis in children.

But what of friendly bacteria found in fermented drinks? How do they work to help us?

Kombucha is a wonderful example. Another favourite of the Ancients in Asia, now being given new fame, it is a fermented drink made from sweetened tea. The drink uses a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to start the fermentation.

One of my Kombucha SCOBY's under a microscope. Microbiology Students, Charles Sturt University.

The bacteria and yeast in the SCOBY break down the sugar in the tea and convert them. The end result is a probiotic, delicious and healthy drink containing a range of helpful bacteria. This includes Gluconacetobacter kombuchae which is unique to kombucha.

If you are interested to learn more about how to do your own fermenting safely and easily cultivating live bacteria at home, try the Fermenting Australia online course. Check with your nutrition specialist before changing to add more probiotic bacteria in fermenting to your diet to get the best health results.

Learn to embrace these friendly (and so cute!) microbes for vibrant health!

Sammi xxx

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