Strangely, there are ten times more bacterial cells than human cells within each of us, and many of these bacteria, busy regulating digestion and our immune systems, play a central role in keeping us alive. Meanwhile, antibacterial chemicals are more prevalent now than ever — they’re in the medicines we take, the soaps we use, the meat we eat, and the water we drink — and they don’t always discriminate between harmful and beneficial bacteria. In the face of this assault, fermented foods are an important means of replenishing the cultures that keep us healthy.
That’s the thinking that drives Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-described fermentation revivalist, author and food activist. He’s the author of Wild Fermentation, a guide to fermenting foods at home – including beer, wine, mead, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, yogurt, cheese, and more exotic ones – and he’s passionate about the health benefits of the live bacteria cultures these fermented foods contain. A resident of the Radical Faeries community in Tennessee and a 20-year AIDS/HIV survivor, Sandorkraut, as he’s affectionately known by his fans, is devoted to promoting easy and delicious ways to improve health through cultures. (Not everyone is affectionate. The punk band Propaghandhi wrote a song in response to “Vegetarian Ethics and Humane Meat,” a chapter of Katz’s book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, an ironic vegan assault that calls for Sandor to be turned into fermented food.) I recently called Katz on the telephone to talk about everything from home fermentation, living with HIV and the overuse of antibiotics in modern medicine.
What were some of your first experiences with fermented or cultured foods?
Well, my earliest experiences with fermented foods was just eating them as a kid. It had nothing to do with making them. Growing up in New York City, one of my favorite foods was sour pickles. And I’ve always just been drawn to that sour, lactic acid flavor before I even knew the word fermentation, before I even knew anything about fermentation or how to do it. I was just really drawn to this particular flavor. That’s really the earliest point of my interest in fermentation.
I was faced with this predicament like, “Oh my God, all of these cabbages, what are we going to do with them?
Then, when I was in my 20’s and doing some dietary explorations, I spent a couple of years following a macrobiotic diet and it’s in the context of macrobiotics that I first started tuning in to the digestive benefits of live cultured foods and the idea that they had some special qualities to them. And that’s also when I did my very first experimentation out of Aveline Kushi’s Complete Macrobiotic Cookbook. And then in 1993 I moved from New York to Tennessee and I got involved in keeping a garden and really it was keeping a garden that gave me a practical reason to get more involved in fermentation.
I was very naive and it never occurred to me that all of the cabbages would be ready at the same time, or all of the radishes even. So when I was faced with this predicament like, “Oh my God, all of these cabbages, what are we going to do with them?” I recalled my love for sauerkraut, figured out how to make it, and it’s been a constant in my life for about 20 years now. Sauerkraut was my gateway to fermentation and then I started playing around with wine making, yogurt and cheese making. One thing lead to another and I just became totally obsessed with different kinds of fermentation processing.
Squeeze that sauerkraut to get the juices flowing.
Yummy. I know there are a lot of nutritional benefits in foods that are cultured and fermented. Can you talk about some of those?
Sure, I mean I generally break it down into four distinct ways that fermentation enhances food: Pre-digestion, nutritional enhancement or augmentation, detoxification and live culture replenishment. Pre-digestion is when all foods in the course of their fermentation get at least partially digested by the fermentation organisms themselves. My vivid illustration of this would be the soy bean. Soy beans have gotten a lot of attention for being such a concentrated source of protein which is why the vegetarian sub-culture kind of adopted soy as a replacement for meat and milk.It’s considered to be a plant source food that has concentrated protein, but you never ever hear of people cooking a big bowl of just soy beans and sitting down to eat that for dinner. If you try to do that, as I have, it will be a memorable event in your life because it will give you awful, uncomfortable gas, indigestion, and you certainly cannot extract the protein from those soy beans.
So the Asian culture pioneered soy agriculture, developed all of these different ways for fermenting the soy beans and the techniques and results are all very different. There’s soy sauce, miso, tempe, and these foods are all very different from each other in taste and texture, but what they all have in common is that dense soy protein gets pre-digested into amino acids that become much more accessible to us.
And lots of the most notoriously difficult to digest nutrients get broken down by fermentation. Lactose for example gets digested by fermentation, sourdough and gluten as well. Then there is traditional augmentation. Pretty much across the board, foods which have been fermented have higher levels of D vitamins than the original agricultural products that you begin with. Essentially this has to do with an accumulation of microbodies living in the plant matter. People buy dead yeast. It’s called nutritional yeast or brewers yeast and many people use that as a form of D supplementation because it’s so rich in D vitamins. All fermented foods have some accumulation of living and or dead microbodies.
You never ever hear of people cooking a big bowl of just soy beans and sitting down to eat that for dinner. If you try to do that, as I have, it will be a memorable event in your life because it will give you awful, uncomfortable gas.
In addition, there are all these unique micro nutrients which are just beginning to be identified, named, and studied that are generated during fermentation processes. Fermented vegetables contain compounds called isocyanate, known to be potent anti-carcinogenic compounds, that are created by the fermentation organisms in the course of their transformation into vegetables.
Nato is this Japanese soy ferment that has not caught on as a food in the west because it has sort of a mucilaginous coating that puts a lot of people off. But every vitamin store in North America is selling a supplement called nattokinase that is extracted from nato. It’s a compound that essentially breaks down plaque in the lining of blood vessels so people who are at risk for aneurysms, clotting disorders, and to a certain extent, people with arteriosclerosis are benefiting from this compound. It’s not found in the soy beans, it’s created by the bacteria that turns the soy beans into nato and, actually, the latest research involving nattokinase is Alzheimer’s disease, because Alzheimer’s is essentially plaque accumulation disease. There’s evidence suggesting that this compound nattokinase may actually dissolve the plaque that leads to Alzheimer’s disease as well. So those are some examples of nutritional enhancement and unique macronutrients that are generated during the fermentation process.
Then there is detoxification. Fermentation has been used in many instances to remove toxins from foods and sometimes food toxins can be very dramatic. Cassava roots growing in many parts of the world have high levels of cyanide and if people just eat unprocessed roots it could literally kill them. Most of the processing involves simply soaking peeled pieces of Cassava roots in water at tropical temperatures for three or four days. That simple soaking initiates fermentation and removes 95 to 100 percent of the cyanide and renders them safe to eat.
Katz giving a class at the Cleveland Fermentation Fair. Photo via.
You mentioned the live cultures themselves, that’s an important benefit as well?
What I would say is the most profound benefits of fermentation particularly for us in the 21st century are the live cultures themselves. Not all fermented foods contain live cultures though. Bread is fermented for a short period of time, but then goes into a hot oven to bake where organisms are then destroyed. Now I’m not bringing that up to say that bread is bad for that reason, but just to illustrate that certain foods do not lend themselves to live culture consumption unless you want to eat raw dough.
But other foods do: It’s lactic acid bacteria that humans have a particularly intimate relationship with. It is generally regarded as the first bacteria that all human beings are exposed to during child birth and they are totally essential to our ability to digest food, assimilate nutrients, and protect us from pathogenic bacteria. Historically I don’t think anybody ever had to think twice about replenishing lactic acid bacteria inside their intestines, but there are all of these factors in our contemporary lives, basically chemical factors that amount to a continuous assault on the bacteria in our bodies. By that I mean chlorine and our water.
Chlorine is put in water to kill the bacteria and it continues to kill some bacteria after we drink the water. Antibiotic drugs – there are a lot of individuals who’s lives have been saved because of them, and I may be one of them — but it seems that it is widely agreed that antibiotics are also wildly over prescribed. And even more so than the human population, livestock is continually being pumped up with antibiotics because it makes animals grow faster. There’s a residue of all antibiotic manufacturing and usage that accumulates in the water, so all of us are ingesting [antibiotics] everyday, no matter how pristine the source of the water we are drinking. If you compound that with all the antibacterial chemicals being used as soaps and cleaning products, we are all constantly being subjected to all of these chemicals that kill bacteria.
It’s lactic acid bacteria that humans have a particularly intimate relationship with. They are totally essential to our ability to digest food, assimilate nutrients, and protect us from pathogenic bacteria.
In our time, more than ever before, I think it behooves people to consciously replenish the bacteria populations in their gut in order for digestion to work effectively and to assimilate nutrients. The bacteria that lives in our intestines also play a huge role in modulating our immune responses and in creating an environment that is inhospitable to the pathogenic bacteria. For all these reasons, I think it is critical to replenish that bacteria population in our guts. One way people do this is by taking little capsules called probiotics that amount to live bacteria, but anything you can get in a capsule, you can get in food and it just so happens that many of the most celebrated foods from different culinary traditions are the products of fermentation that contain live cultures.
You mentioned that fermented foods are a better source than all of these supplements and capsules. Can you talk about the differences in fermenting at home versus items that you can purchase at a grocery store?
Well first of all, many of the fermented foods that you can buy in a grocery store do not have their cultures intact. Yogurt is an exception. All the yogurts being sold in the US today have live cultures intact, but it has two types of bacteria as well: streptococcus, thermophilus, and lactobacillus bulgaricus. And some of them have proprietary probiotic bacteria added to them. If you look at the sauerkraut in most markets, you know, unless you go to natural foods grocery store, most super markets carry sauerkraut that is pasteurized, which is wonderful for businesses because it makes food less perishable and retailers don’t have any loss. Pasteurized foods can sit on shelves indefinitely, but they don’t have intact food cultures.
Even if you do go to a natural foods store and buy fermented vegetables in the refrigerated section, they are still alive and still have their bacteria intact. I mean I think that there is always a benefit to fermenting locally. It’s sort of an extension of the whole idea of local foods, but local foods contain local bacteria and foods you can ferment at home incorporate the bacteria that are right around you. So, it could be a powerful means of becoming your environment to do some fermentation at home. I mean, I am not at all opposed to buying commercially fermented products as there are some amazing enterprises that are doing wonderful fermentation and I like to support them and encourage people to support them. I also like to help people feel empowered. These are ancient rituals that ancestors have been performing for thousands of years.
Katz explains that fermented food won’t give you botulism.
I think a lot of people are making a lot of miraculous claims on behalf of specific fermented foods and, personally, I am very wary that the more specific a claim about a certain food, the more suspicious of it I become.
There is nothing difficult about most fermentation processes. They’re fun, they make you feel connected to these invisible life forces, they connect you in a very tangible way to the bacteria that are all around you and I think it’s lot of fun to try in your kitchen. I would encourage anybody to just give it a try…vegetables are the most straight forward and easiest ferments to try by yourself at home. On my website, wildfermentation.com, I have some detailed recipes posted, but essentially the way to ferment vegetables is to chop them up, salt them to taste, and stuff them into a vessel so that they are submerged in their own juices. With something like cabbages or root vegetables, I’ll spend a few minutes squeezing them with my hands which breaks down cell walls and kind of encourages the vegetables to give up some of their juices.
Once they give up their juices, it’s easy to get the vegetables submerged under their own juices which is what gives you the most concentrated flavor. I mean you can always add water, but if you add water, you are diluting the flavor a little bit. After you put them in a jar, put the top on and leave it in the kitchen for a few days. There will be a lot of bubbling which creates pressure and that’s why you can’t just put it in the closet. You have to open the jar and release the pressure and just start tasting it every couple of days. The thing about doing it yourself is that you familiarize yourself with this whole spectrum of flavors and you can figure out if you like it lightly fermented or if you prefer it after six weeks, where it will of course have a very different flavor and texture.
These are ancient rituals that ancestors have been performing for thousands of years. They’re fun, they make you feel connected to these invisible life forces, they connect you in a very tangible way to the bacteria that are all around you and I think it’s lot of fun to try in your kitchen.
If you’re like me, you will like it at every stage of its development. If you taste the food throughout the development, you are actually ingesting lots of different kinds of bacteria because its a long process where you get flourishing populations of different bacteria as it progresses. If you are looking to maximize biodiversity inside your gut, actually ingesting it throughout the different stages of development is probably the best thing you can do.
I read on your website that you are living with HIV and that your diet has contributed to your healing. Could you talk about your health before experimenting with fermentation and how you’ve seen the change in addition to this?
It’s a little bit of a complicated question because I really had already begun getting interested in fermentation before I even found out that I was HIV positive, which was actually twenty years ago. I wouldn’t say that I had a radical dietary change that changed everything and I also feel that I need to be very careful because although I do feel like fermented foods and nutrition has largely kept me healthy, I mean I still have HIV, and I did have a health crisis while I was eating fermented foods so you know, I just think it’s important to sort of distinguish between things that contribute to your overall health and miracle cures. And I think a lot of people are making a lot of miraculous claims on behalf of specific fermented foods and, personally, I am very wary that the more specific a claim about a certain food, the more suspicious of it I become. If someone says that drinking Kombucha everyday is going to cure your diabetes, I would approach that with skepticism.
It may well be that eating live cultured foods could improve the overall health of somebody with diabetes, but it is not likely to cure it. Fermented vegetables have these compounds called isocyanates which are considered to be anticarcinogenic, but does that mean if you are diagnosed with breast cancer or brain cancer all you have to do is eat sauerkraut and it will solve your problems? I don’t really think so. As part of an overall lifestyle, I would say that these foods would probably lower your risk of getting cancer. I mean definitely eat them. It won’t hurt and it will help, but I wouldn’t rely on it as my only treatment.
I think fermented foods have the potential to improve anybody’s health. If you think of yourself as you know, the finest, healthiest specimen you have ever seen, fermented foods can help you become even healthier by helping digestion and your overall immune functioning.
If I was doing some of the treatments that people do when they have cancer, most of them are very disruptive to your digestion and some other basic physiological prophesies. So, eating fermented foods will mitigate some of those side affects. In terms of the HIV, fermented foods have not cured me or removed it from my body, I do take meds everyday, but what I am completely aware of is that the meds that I take, which most people who do take them find that they disrupt their digestion and many people have chronic diarrhea or other kinds of problems and I have never experienced that. I have a very strong feeling that fermented foods and other aspects of my diet have kept my digestion performing very well in the face of these meds that many people find challenging.
So what you’re saying is, fermentation will make us immortal.
I think fermented foods have the potential to improve anybody’s health. If you think of yourself as you know, the finest, healthiest specimen you have ever seen, fermented foods can help you become even healthier by helping digestion and your overall immune functioning. If you were diagnosed with some terrible disease, I wouldn’t expect fermentation to cure it, but you know, incorporating live cultured foods into your life at a time when you need all the help you can get seems like a great idea. It may make a difference. It will improve your daily lives and you know, if you’re just feeling the affects of aging like everybody else, fermentation could make your nutrients and immune functions better. They are all worthwhile things. Fermentation isn’t going to solve all of our problems, but it may make things better.