In a pickle: Fermented foods gain momentumFARGO - Steve Dahlberg was not one to jump on the latest health-food bandwagon. A self-described “Doubting Thomas” who prefers the hard facts of science, the Fargo resident admits feeling more than a pang of skepticism when he first heard about the fermented food movement.
If you go
What: “Fermented Foods,” a Moorhead Community Education class taught by Dr. Todd Ferguson.
When: 7-8:30 p.m. May 7
Where: Prairie Naturopathic Doctors, 1904 30th Avenue S., Moorhead
Info: Pre-registration is required. Fee is $15; $10 for Moorhead School District residents. To register, call (218) 284-3400.
FARGO - Steve Dahlberg was not one to jump on the latest health-food bandwagon.
A self-described “Doubting Thomas” who prefers the hard facts of science, the Fargo resident admits feeling more than a pang of skepticism when he first heard about the fermented food movement.
“I grew up hearing all these botulism stories, so I was scared,” says Dahlberg, a science teacher and Extension educator at the White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minn. “But I found it easy and I really enjoyed it.”
His interest in all things fermented was spurred by a 2005 “local foods” challenge, in which Dahlberg and some friends vowed to eat only ingredients raised in a 250-mile radius of White Earth for one year.
The challenge presented several struggles. If he couldn’t eat clementines in the midst of winter, how would he get the health benefits and vitamins of “living foods?”
His research suggested fermentation might be the answer. Fermentation is a biochemical preservation process in which a microorganism breaks down a substance into a simpler one, using enzymes from bacteria, yeast or molds.
Fermented foodies claim these foods offer many health benefits, such as an increase in certain nutrients, a proliferation of “friendly bacteria” in the gut and the ability to absorb certain nutrients better.
Dahlberg grew to like fermented foods so much that he continues to make and eat them, long after his local foods experiment ended.
He now supplements his daily diet with a tangy, fizzy, pungent smorgasbord of home-brewed beer, wine, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, brined pickles, sauerkraut, root beer, ginger ale and sour dough bread.
Still a scientist at heart, Dahlberg hesitates to make anecdotal health claims about his “live-foods” diet.
But with a bit of prompting, Dahlberg admits he does enjoy great health.
“I’ve always had a cast-iron constitution, and it’s very, very unusual for me to get sick,” he says. “I will say that the ferments make me much less prone to food-borne problems because I have a very, very strong intestinal flora and fauna going on there. I never have upset stomachs or indigestion.”
Kombucha and get it
Dahlberg is far from alone.
Inspired by blogs and books like Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation,” more people have become interested in making their own fermented, probiotic-rich foods.
At Sydney’s Health Market in Moorhead, co-owner Darby Smith says the selection of fermented products keeps growing, along with the number of customers who want them.
“It’s quite popular these days,” Smith says. “People keep asking for (fermentation) starters.”
Another hot seller at Sydney’s is G.T.’s Kombucha, a fermented tea.
Although people like Mayo Clinic internist Brent A. Bauer say there’s no scientific evidence to support kombucha’s health claims, the drink’s disciples swear it does everything from suppress appetite and boost energy to enhance digestion and curb hangovers.
“It’s an overall health elixir,” says Ross Cameron, Sydney’s store manager.
Fermented foods may be enjoying a trendy cache these days, but they date back to ancient times. In the beginning, people relied on fermentation as a way to preserve food.
“Every successful civilization had some kind of cultured food in its diet,” Smith says.
America was no exception. European settlers came to this country with almost nothing, yet still brought coveted stashes of generations-old sour dough starter. Founding father John Adams drank fermented hard cider for breakfast.
And our ancestors made sauerkraut and brine pickles using lactic acid fermentation, which relied on beneficial cultures rather than vinegar to produce a sour zing.
‘Swimming in sterility’
That all started to change in the 20th century when technologies like refrigeration and canning replaced fermentation as a way to preserve food.
But today, some health-food advocates believe our “war on bacteria” has gone too far.
Dr. Todd Ferguson, a naturopathic doctor in Moorhead, says modern fixtures like antibiotics, antibacterial soaps and pasteurization have taken their toll on the “good bacteria” in our bodies.
“Our digestive tracts are less healthy,” Ferguson says. “The amount of beneficial bacteria in our systems is drastically different from what it was in the early 1900s until now.”
Says Smith: “We are swimming in sterility.”
Fermented foodies believe a diet rich in live cultures is the answer. And probiotic supplements may not do the trick; Ferguson says studies show some probiotics on store shelves are dead or compromised with contaminants.
Instead, Ferguson recommends fermented foods, which are supposed to work on several levels:
• They introduce beneficial microbes to the digestive tract. A healthier digestive tract translates into better health overall, Ferguson believes. “The core of health is nutrition and digestion,” he says. “Sixty percent of our immune system is in the intestinal tract.”
• These beneficial microbes break down the cellulose and other hard-to-digest components in food, making their nutrients more readily available.
• The fermentation process enriches foods with protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids and vitamins.
• The microbes can consume food allergens, which is why people with lactose intolerance can sometimes tolerate kefir and people with gluten allergies can sometimes eat sour dough bread.
Fermentation also alters the appearance and flavor of foods and beverages, which fermented foodies say is part of the fun.
“It’s such an enjoyable adventure to eat fermented foods,” Ferguson says. “There are wild tastes that are an adventure to the palate.”
But how safe is it?
Still, some people fear that fermentation is more of an adventure than they care to handle.
One green-conscious blogger from northern Minnesota describes how she was scared to pickle using lacto-fermentation for the first time.
“Because I have grown up in a culture that thinks you have to pasteurize everything, I wondered if I would poison my family,” wrote the author of the Nourishing Days blog.
Ferguson assures people that fermentation, done properly, is safe.
“Bacteria is very competitive,” he says. “Fermentation creates an environment for the right kind of bugs to grow.”
In the process, the “beneficial bugs” crowd out the dangerous ones, he adds.
An article by the National Center for Home Food Preservation acknowledges that the fermented dairy product kefir is generally considered to be safe and hasn’t been linked to foodborne illnesses. Even so, the same article says pathogens like E.coli, Listeria monocytogenes or salmonella can survive the kefir fermentation process.
Julie Garden-Robinson, an NDSU Extension food safety specialist, advises consumers to follow food-safety guidelines when making fermented products.
That means using clean and sanitized containers and utensils, using pasteurized milk to make yogurt or kefir, keeping food at a safe temperature while storing and preparing it, and not serving homemade fermented products to those with weakened immune systems.
“Contamination issues can also occur during storage so care must be taken to dispose of (fermented foods) at any sign of microbe growth, foul smell or change in color,” she says.
In his seven years of making hundreds of jars of fermented foods, Dahlberg says he’s only had one jar that turned bad. It was immediately apparent when he opened it, and he quickly threw it out.
He also admits feeling some anxiety when he first pondered making fermented foods. But since then, his success with live-cultured foods has made him a believer.
“The biggest thing was trusting my ancestors,” Dahlberg says. “You realize at some point that this was a folk technology. People were doing this without thermometers or getting really technical about it. If they had killed themselves, they would have stopped doing it.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525