If we were to mention foods like ‘kimchi’, ‘kombucha’, ‘tempeh’ or ’miso’ to you 10 years ago would you have had any idea what we were talking about?
These exotic sounding foods are actually in the very same family as our more familiar, amasi (maas), amahewu, live culture yoghurt or even sauerkraut. Essentially, these are all foods which are prepared by fermentation, a practice which began as a humble means of preparing and preserving food in almost every culture around the world prior to the invention of refrigeration. Although fermented foods and drinks have been produced and consumed since the beginning of human civilisation, and were traditionally included in some form or another in the diets of almost every culture worldwide, industrialisation and the need to mass produce food for growing populations and city dwellers, as well as demand for popular and convenient ‘fast foods’ in the past century however, has steered us away from traditional fermented foods, especially in the Western world. Lately, however, we’re becoming more familiar with these exotic foods and seeing more of them in stores and even regaining interest with our own long forgotten traditional fermented foods as more and more research confirms how healthy they are for us and how they might actually protect us from disease. This new ‘appetite’ for fermented foods has been referred to as the ‘fermented food renaissance’.
One of the major pioneering scientists we must thank for sparking interest in fermented foods initially is Russian Zoologist and Nobel Prize winner Dr Élie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) ‘the father of natural immunity’. In addition to his ground-breaking discoveries about the immune system, Metchnikoff established theories around the process of ageing after noticing how Bulgarians seemed to enjoy good health and unusual longevity. He attributed this to fermented milk being a large part the traditional Bulgarian diet, and was probably the first doctor of modern time to suggest that fermented foods were more than ‘just foods’ in that they offered additional health promoting properties and subsequently even published a book called ‘The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies’. Metchnikoff’s work paved the foundation for the thousands of researchers currently investigating how important digestive health is for our overall wellbeing.
Powerful functional foods
Traditionally, and long before the invention of refrigeration, preservatives or even electricity, deliberately fermenting foods was an ideal way of preserving them for later use as well as enhancing their taste, texture, and smell. Researchers have now discovered that when we ferment foods, new, active, health promoting substances, which were not there to begin with, are produced in the process. Its these newly formed substances which have led to fermented foods now being classified as ‘functional foods.’ As the name suggests, functional foods have specific health promoting and disease protecting effects due to their unique bioactive ingredients. More and more research is now confirming the health benefits of fermented foods, including the ability of these functional foods to help regulate blood sugar levels, improve bowel habits, support the immune system and even protect against osteoporosis.
Lactic acid and butyrate, the unsung heroes of fermented foods
Most fermented foods are made using bacteria. We most likely will recognise the bacteria family known as Lactobacillus but there are others too as well as some yeasts and even some moulds, however this article we will focus on Lactobacillus as they are the most commonly used.
When foods are exposed to healthy lactobacillus bacteria under the right conditions, fermentation starts to take place. The bacteria consume the food source and begin to produce new healthy substances, the most important one being lactic acid. In fact, it’s the lactic acid which gives fermented foods their characteristic sourish taste and smell. Previously, lactic acid has received a lot of ‘bad press’ in the sports world, where it was initially thought to be the cause of muscle fatigue. Although since challenged and largely disproven, we must clearly distinguish between lactic acid inside muscle cells from the essential role it plays in the intestine – two very different functions!
Traditionally, scientists believed that all the healthy effects of fermented foods were because they contained living, healthy bacteria which act like probiotics when we eat them. More recently though, researchers comparing the effect of yoghurt with and without live bacteria found that even when the bacteria were removed, the yoghurt had a similar positive impact on the bacterial ecosystem in the intestine known as the gut microbiome, suggesting that in addition to the simple probiotic effect of these foods, there is something else healthy inside yoghurt.
Research like this has sparked interest in lactic acid (lactate), the main product of fermentation, and has led to a wealth of exciting new results. Besides its own direct health benefits, we now also know that lactic acid is also converted to another vital substance called butyrate in the intestine which further adds to the list of health benefits of fermented foods.
Health benefits of lactic acid & butyrate
Extensive research into the health benefits of lactic acid and butyrate confirm that they can:
- Support healthy gut bacteria and microbiome.
- Support gut health and help prevent diseases of the colon.
- Protect against the growth of unhealthy organisms by lowering the intestine pH
- Help to regulates bowel movements.
- Support the healthy growth of intestinal cells.
- Protect against gut inflammation.
- Provide supportive treatment in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) addressing
- symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating, cramping, flatulence and constipation.
- Support the intestinal barrier and defence mechanism.
- Support the body during and after antibiotic treatment.
- Be beneficial for those who are lactose intolerant as L (+) lactic acid helps break down the protein in milk.
- Support the body in regulating healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Getting your dose of lactate
As mentioned, many foods fermented with lactic acid producing bacteria contain various amounts of lactic acid. The table below gives you an idea of the quantities you might find, ideally one wants a product with high levels of L(+) lactic acid as this is a form of lactate that we can utilise most. Very recently, Swiss lacto-fermented whey, rich in L(+) lactic acid, was shown in a human trial to significantly increase butyrate levels.
Whey to go!
You will probably know that whey is the watery substance which is separated from curd when making cheese. It has a yellow-green colour and a sour taste. Interestingly, whey has been used to improve health for more than a thousand years! In ancient Greece it was known as ‘healing water’ and prescribed by both Hippocrates, ‘the father of medicine’, and Galen to their patients.
More recently in the 18th and 19th centuries, interest in whey was rekindled when, in 1749 a terminally ill Swiss man from Zurich, who was given very little time to live by his doctors, decided to travel to the mountainous area of Appenzeller in the Swiss Alps, famous for its premium Swiss cheese. There, he drank locally produced, fresh whey and made a miraculous recovery. Even in those days, news had a way of spreading quickly and soon, hundreds of ill patients began flocking to Appenzell. The first health spa was built in the village of Gais, offering what has since famously become known as ‘the whey cure’. This was followed by more than 160 other spas in Switzerland, Austria and Germany offering healing regimes based on the consumption of whey which attracted patients from all over Europe wanting to improve their health.
It’s no surprise then that A.Vogel Molkosan, produced exclusively in Roggwil at the foot of the Swiss Alps, contains one of the highest known readily available concentrations of L(+) lactic acid. Growing up in Basel, Switzerland in the early 1900s, Dr Alfred Vogel, the world-renowned Swiss Naturopath and author, was well aware of the famous ‘whey cure’ practiced in his area, and even more so after moving to Teufen in Appenzell. As you can imagine with all the dairy farms producing Appenzeller cheese, fresh whey was abundantly available. The problem was it went bad so quickly and couldn’t be easily prescribed for his patients, especially those living far off. Dr Vogel, being the innovator he was, and realising how commercially available whey could improve the health of so many, developed the now patented method of fermenting fresh, organic, Swiss whey and producing a stable, lactose free, concentrated product high in L(+) Lactic acid. After much experimentation and innovation, in 1926, A. Vogel Molkosan as we know it today was born, one of the first products he developed at the young age of 24! He subsequently prescribed Molkosan for hundreds of his patients suffering from digestive disorders, fungal infections and eczema. Through his own clinical experience, he also realised that it was an effective ‘tonic’ for the pancreas, and also gave it to his diabetic and overweight patients. Little did he know that in the years following his passing in 1996 that science would prove him right!
References and interesting further reading
- Bourriaud, C., et al., Lactate is mainly fermented to butyrate by human intestinal microfloras but inter-individual variation is evident. J Appl Microbiol, 2005. 99(1): p. 201-12. https://sfamjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2672.2005.02605.x
- Brandelli, A., D.J. Daroit, and A.P.F. Corrêa, Whey as a source of peptides with remarkable biological activities. Food Research International, 2015. 73: p. 149-161. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0963996915000319
- Canani, R.B., et al., Potential beneficial effects of butyrate in intestinal and extraintestinal diseases. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 2011. 17(12): p. 1519-1528. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21472114/
- Garrote, G.L., A.G. Abraham, and M. Rumbo, Is lactate an undervalued functional component of fermented food products? Frontiers in Microbiology, 2015. 6(629). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2015.00629/full
- McNabney, S.M. and T.M. Henagan, Short Chain Fatty Acids in the Colon and Peripheral Tissues: A Focus on Butyrate, Colon Cancer, Obesity and Insulin Resistance. Nutrients, 2017. 9(12). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29231905/
- Marco, M.L., et al., Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. Curr Opin Biotechnol, 2017. 44: p. 94-102. https://isappscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Marco-health-benefits-fermented-foods-ISAPP-rev-171.pdf
- Smith, N.M., et al., Daily Fermented Whey Consumption Alters the Fecal Short-Chain Fatty Acid Profile in Healthy Adults. Front Nutr, 2020. 7: p. 165. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2020.00165/full
- Vasey, C., The Whey Prescription: The Healing Miracle in Milk. 1998, Vermont: Healing Arts Press. https://www.christophervasey.ch/anglais/livres/wheycure.html