The age-old process of food fermentation may hold the key to solving two of the biggest challenges facing us in our modern world, scientists say.
Not only could adopting fermentation help combat the ill-effects of our unhealthy ‘western’ diet, but it could also reduce the damage done to the environment through our food production and processing. The scientists call for a revival and promotion of food fermentation technology to help reduce these two 21st century problems for health and sustainability (1).
The challenges of today’s food systems
Today’s food systems (including diets, agriculture and food processing industries) face two major challenges, say the authors:
- Difficulties to provide good options for health-promoting diets. That’s largely why we’re seeing a leap in the number of people around the world with obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.
- Keeping the practices within environmental limits to mitigate climate change and ensure overall ecological sustainability while ensuring productivity and profits.
They may also generate nutrient-rich waste that is under-used, the authors point out.
What is food fermentation and how can it help?
Food fermentation is the process of creating a food or changing the properties of a food using microbes. It has been used throughout human history – evidence suggests as far back as 10,000 years – to preserve foods or enhance their taste, and the health benefits, for example of certain fermented dairy foods, have long been recognised. Typical fermented foods are cheese, yogurt, wines, soy sauce, and kimchi.
In plants and dairy products, the microbes that dominate during spontaneous fermentation tend to be lactic acid bacteria (LAB). These produce bacteriocins – biological peptides that inhibit the growth of contaminating bacteria, and so preserve the food.
Fermented foods have unique health-giving properties
During fermentation, the microbes produce a wide range of metabolites that can help keep us to stay in good health. These include vitamins not found in the original food. Fermentation makes the nutrients in the food more bioavailable, retaining nutrients that otherwise may be lost during cooking.
Fermentation also enriches our gut microbiota, the trillions of microorganisms that shelter in our gut where they play a key role in maintaining human health and well-being by modulating our immune system, helping to fight infections and to protect against cancer, the authors say.
The microbes in fermented food may compete with harmful bacteria in the gut. Research also shows that fermented food boosts diversity in this microbial community, important for good health (2).
Fermentation of plants enhances the bioavailability of phytochemicals – a group of chemicals that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities and have been linked to various health benefits.
Fermented dairy foods have several health benefits
Research suggests that eating fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese has specific health benefits:
- During fermentation, LAB breaks down the milk proteins, casein and whey, into bioactive peptides. As well as being antioxidants, these peptides help communication between the gut and the brain (3).
- Fermented dairy are rich in a trans fatty acid that is known to help protect against obesity and to keep blood vessels healthy.
- Vitamin B such as niacin and riboflavin, are made by various other bacteria during dairy fermentation. In cheese, vitamin K2 is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Thanks to lactic acid produced by the LAB, many people with lactose intolerance can eat fermented dairy products without ill effect.
How do we get better value from food waste?
Waste from food processing includes rinds, seeds, pulp, wheat bran from making flour, hops, whey, and from meat processing, blood, manure, hair, feathers fat and bones.
Some of this waste ends up in landfill sites or incinerators, say the authors. But much of it could be recycled or re-used through composting of agricultural waste, fermentation for biomass production, making fertilisers, animal feed, making bio-fuels, cosmetics, and even as substrates for antibiotic production (4).
Fermentation of waste from agriculture and food processing could also generate value-added healthy foods and sustainable food sources, say the scientists.
To help grow the market for foods made this way, the scientists appeal to us all to consider the harmful environmental impact of our current food production practices and take responsibility for reducing this impact.
In the meantime, further research is needed to help develop the technology of fermentation to make our food sources more sustainable.
‘… promoting the consumption of fermented plants and dairy products can help attenuate the adverse health effects of consuming refined carbohydrates and prevent age and lifestyle-related disorders.’ – Rastogi YR, et al, 2022.
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