History and Benefits of Fermented Foods

Homemade kombucha with SCOBY

Kombucha is my personal favorite fermented food but there are many other cherished favorites from all around the world. Every culture and tradition has a unique one of its own.

While fermented foods are pretty foreign to us these days, a few fermented foods have had a history in our country. Examples are pickles and relish. Unfortunately though, with modern food practices, most of these are no longer fermented; they are fake imitations, made with distilled vinegar and not with living cultures.

A little History of Fermented Foods

Fermentation is so common, so natural and inevitable that every traditional culture around the world has its own signature fermented food. For Russians, it’s kefir, a yeast fermented, thick milk. For the Chinese it’s the thousand-year egg, a nearly black, preserved egg. For Koreans it’s kimchi, a pungent side dish of fermented cabbage, garlic, and peppers. Colombians drink a fermented corn beverage called chicha. Germans like to add sauerkraut – sour cabbage – to sausage. A staple food for Hawaiians is poi, a fermented taro porridge. The Japanese add the sticky and stinky fermented soybeans called natto on top of rice. And kombucha, a fermented sweet black tea, has been adopted by cultures all over the world for centuries.

The list of interesting fermented foods could go on and on. Every culture has, throughout history, made them both intentionally and inadvertently. If you leave raw milk out on the counter, for example, the lactobacillus naturally present in the raw milk transforms the milk into yogurt after some hours. When you soak nuts in warm water, yeasts are mobilized to start the process of break down. Making mead, a honey wine, is as simple as adding water to honey and letting the natural yeasts present in the honey do their magic. The same is true of grape wine. The yeasts present on the skin of the grape transforms the sweet fruit into wine.

Benefits of Fermentation

Fermented foods should always be a part of our diet. Bacteria and yeasts confer so many benefits and we simply cannot be healthy without them. We are designed to work in synergy with microbes.

  • Fermentation neutralizes plant toxins, making vegetables more digestible.
  • Fermentation of foods releases trapped vitamins and minerals from plant fibers.
  • Bacteria and yeasts themselves are replete with B vitamins.
  • Bacteria in the gut helps to stimulate peristalsis (fecal elimination), staving off constipation.
  • Friendly bacteria keeps pathogens from gaining territory in our gut, i.e. they help keep us from getting sick.
  • A mother’s healthy microbial colony can prevent neonatal infections.

Bacteria and yeast assist many of our natural processes, which alone, in a sterile environment, we simply could not mamage. One of modern people’s biggest health problems is the avoidance of fermented foods and the consumption of nothing but dead, packaged foods. Bags of chips, canned food, sodas, and boxed dinners are designed to be sterile. Not only is this an ideal home for pathogens (think food poisoning) but, without our microbial friends, it is also food which is very difficult to digest and assimilate.

There are by far more fermented foods than I listed on this page. What are some of your favorites that you’ve made at home or tried on your travels? How did you like them and how did they make you feel?

How to Make Kombucha


  • 3 quarts of pure water
  • 4 black tea bags
  • 1 cup organic, unrefined sugar
  • 1/2 cup plain kombucha for acidity
  • The SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts)

Boil some of the water and steep the tea. Add sugar and dissolve. Add the rest of the water. Once the mixture is room temperature add the kombucha and SCOBY. Cover with a paper towel and store at room temperature or in a warm environment. With a fully formed mother the process should only take a week. The kombucha is ready when it no longer tastes sweet. The kombucha is over done (but still good) when it tastes like vinegar. Transfer to bottles or a pitcher and store in the fridge.

If you don’t have a friend that can pass on a mother, just make your own!

Use the same recipe as above and wait. It may take a month to get a mother as large as the one shown in the picture above, but once you’ve got it you can then begin transferring it to the next batch each time.

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