Check out my latest collaboration with Doc Smo, the pediatric blogger! Explore the world of fermented foods and what they can do for you and your kids.
Pick up any medical journal or health magazine and it won’t be long before you hear some discussion about the health benefits of probiotics and fermented foods. Interest in how the microbial world enhances your child’s health is more than a fad or craze; it is becoming fundamental to understanding how your child stays healthy. This knowledge is literally transforming medicine. That is why today’s pedcast is so important and why we are so lucky to have one of my favorite guests returning to Portable Practical Pediatrics, Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze, a food expert and host of the popular blog, The Children’s Table. Welcome Dr. Rouchouze- thank you so much for taking time to join me and my audience today.
Q1. First of all, what the heck is fermentation?
CR: First and foremost, fermentation is a transformation. It is a way of transforming food using invisible yeasts and microbes that are naturally occurring in the environment. In a way we might think of it as harnessing decay for our own uses. The vehicles for this transformation can include a variety of “bugs” such as yeast or lactobacilli- they’re the little guys that do the work, basically digesting certain parts of the food and altering it in various ways. Specifically, the process usually involves converting sugars to alcohols, gases, or acids. If starch or sugar-rich foods are left to ferment with active yeast, the fermentation will produce carbon dioxide, invite probiotic bacteria, and slowly convert carbohydrates to alcohol.
Fermentation has been used for thousands of years as a way of preserving food, but with the advent of modern processed food, fermentation was largely replaced with other methods that are less time consuming to produce, more consistent, and allow food to be kept at any temperature and humidity. These include high heat canning, freezing, the development and use of shelf-stable fats and preservatives, and perhaps most importantly, refining, which reduces the perishability of food by removing the perishable parts. But we’re realizing there was more to fermented foods than longer life. And the new methods strip some crucial things from traditional preserved food.
Q2. How is a fermented food different than non-fermented foods and why should parents care if a food is fermented or not?
CR: The resulting food is different in a variety of ways. 1) Generally it is more digestible and has more easily available nutrients; 2) it is protected from spoilage thanks to the fermenting bacteria and resulting acids pushing away the dangerous bacteria; 3) it may have a lower glycemic load thanks to the microorganisms consuming the sugars. For example, sourdough bread has been shown to have a lower glycemic load than plain white bread. 4) it has a unique and enhanced flavor; and finally 5) it is enriched with all the microorganisms that do all this work, which have been shown to improve gut health.
Now, I did learn that just because a food is fermented, doesn’t mean it necessarily still has live cultures. So there is a distinction to be made there. Once bread is baked, the cultures are killed. If a product is boiled or pasteurized following fermentation, it will no longer contain live bacteria. Similarly, alcohol no longer contains probiotics as far as I know. You can still derive certain benefits from fermented foods such as digestibility, increased availability of vitamins, etc. without there being live cultures, but the benefits that you hear about regarding probiotics would require a product that is live, and would most likely be found in the fresh or refrigerated sections of the grocery store.
Q3. What about kids? How can kids get health and nutrition benefits from fermented foods?
CR: Kids with digestive problems might be the most likely to benefit from fermented foods. The benefit can be either from the live probiotics or from the enhanced digestibility from fermented foods. For example, you might give your child plenty of live cultures in the form of yogurt. In addition, if you suspect your child (or you for that matter), has a problem digesting certain foods, you could explore fermented versions. So if you have a hard time digesting milk, yogurt and cheese are likely to be easier on you. Trouble with soy? Try miso or tempeh, which are fermented. Likewise for gluten, whole grains, etc. Sometimes even a simple soak with yogurt, buttermilk, or other lactic acid starter will considerably improve the digestibility. Fermenting can also lower the glycemic load of a food, if you’re interested in controlling sugars. Sourdough white bread has a lower glycemic index than regular white bread, for example.
PS –Probiotics also shorten diarrheal illness, reduce the frequency of illness, and lower the chance a child will acquire an antibiotic-associated diarrhea. We’ve also found a benefit for babies and children if their mothers consumed probiotics late in pregnancy. Those children have lower incidence of allergies and eczema.
Q4. Where can we find them?
CR: There are plenty of fermented foods at the supermarket, but if you’re looking for living cultures, i.e. probiotics, it’s a bit tougher because of the fact that these delicate bacteria don’t mix so easily with our mass-market food industry. So you may need to either go to specialty stores or make your own if you want them live. But high quality yogurt, kefir, fresh sauerkraut or pickles, kombucha (a fermented tea) are all good options. Look for the ‘Live and active’ seal on yogurt, or a package that states that it contains live cultures. Asian stores have lots of fermented products, such as miso (soy), kimchee and lots of other pickles, fish sauce, and more. Miso, which does contain live cultures, is a really wonderful product to use at home, and it lasts a long time in the refrigerator. I’ll give you a recipe that I love that you can use as a quick sauce for noodles or a dip for pretty much anything.
Another area of exploration if you’re up for some experimenting is to use cultures on your own to make things. You can use a high quality packaged food such as yogurt or kombucha that you can then propagate on your own. Or, some yeasts and lactobacilli can be cultivated from just raw ingredients. I have a sourdough starter that I started about a year ago, and with it, I can ferment and rise any dough. So one batch of sourdough that you cultivate using only water and flour can be used indefinitely to quickly ferment all kinds of flour. You can read about this kind of experimenting in Sandor Katz’s books and on his website. Basically, if you leave live cultures in a warm place with more carbohydrates, they will act on those and continue to multiply. Live cultures from yogurt can be used to make lots of other soured dairy products, crème fraiche, etc. or to make fermented cereals. It turns out that most traditional societies eat both their dairy and their grains in fermented form, and many of these can be simply made at home. Try soaking oatmeal with twice the volume of water and a couple tablespoons of yogurt, leaving it at room temperature the night before you plan to eat it. The next day, you can either eat it as is or heat as usual. This results in a wonderful, creamy and slightly tangy oatmeal cereal. See recipe below.
It’s possible that a lot of people have lost their taste for fermented food, since they often have a tangy, or even “funky” flavor. But once you have recultivated a taste for traditional fermentation, nothing will replace that complexity and yes, funk.
Soon you might find yourself fermenting everything! You may end up with loads of bubbling jars on your counter and a spouse whining about funky smells coming out of the fridge. No personal experience here of course…
PS: Sounds like fun, and maybe a good way to get your child interested in science and cooking at the same time. Dr. Rouchouze, I can’t thank you enough for sharing some of your knowledge with my audience and me today. I love learning many of the new things bring us. For more great content about yogurts, cooking, kids, and life in general, make sure you start following Dr. Rouchouze’s blog, http://www.thechildrenstable.com I know you will enjoy the experience. This is Doc Smo, thanking you for helping make Portable Practical Pediatrics one of the most successful child health blogs out there. Until next time.
Recipes to try:
Irish Oatmeal (adapted from Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions)
- 1 cup quick cooking steel cut (Note: Fallon recommends toasting and grinding whole oats, but I have simply used quick cooking steel cut oats. Toasting is an additional optional step. You could also use rolled oats if desired)
- 2 cups warm filtered water
- 4 tablespoons yogurt, kefir, whey, or buttermilk with live cultures
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 ½ cups filtered water.
Combine oats, warm water, and yogurt in a large jar or container, and cover. Leave in a warm spot for 7-24 hours. When ready to eat, bring an additional 1 ½ cups of water to the boil, add soaked oatmeal, and cook over very low heat, stirring frequently, for several minutes until desired consistency is achieved. Depending on what kind of oatmeal you have used, this may take more or less time.
Alternate method: Miso porridge- substitute 2 tsp miso for yogurt and eliminate the salt. Continue as outlined above.
Miso Tahini Dressing (recipe from Isa Does It, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz)
- ½ cup to ¾ cup water
- ¼ cup mellow white miso
- ¼ cup tahini (sesame paste)
- 1 clove garlic
Blend all ingredients in the blender and blend to desired thickness. Serve over roasted vegetables, whole wheat or buckwheat noodles, or lentils.
Recommended books and articles:
- Sandor Katz The Art of Fermentation, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2012.
- Sally Fallon Nourishing traditions, New Trends Publishing, Washington, DC, 2001.
- Author Michael Pollan on the topic of sourdough bread:
- Consumer Reports Ratings of Yogurts: