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Trish Dent

Fermenting, soaking and sprouting

Researchers have been demonstrating the connection between the gut and many health conditions, both physical and mental, for years.

For example, Rheumatoid Arthritis and other autoimmune disorders have been linked to problems with the microbiome in the gut since the 1990s. More recently, autism, depression and anxiety have all been shown to have a connection with the health of our gut bacteria.

There is mounting recent research showing that obesity is linked to a lack of the good bacteria in our guts, and that bad diets are a major contributor to declines in good bugs.

There are even reports that the different gut flora in the rats and mice that are being experimented on, due to them being reared in different environments/laboratories, are affecting the results of experiments, such that scientists are having to re-think their methods of experimentation and the results they are getting.

In our modern world, however, little regard has been paid to cultivating our good bugs in a natural way; instead we are encouraged to sterilise our environments. This can be good, but it means the good bacteria are eliminated as well. Anti-bacterials, antibiotics, stress, travel, bad eating habits, all play havoc with our natural gut bacteria.

Yet it appears that fostering healthy gut bacteria is key to attaining and maintaining our health.

Fermented foods have been used throughout the world, in every traditional culture, for thousands of years. Our ancestors, and almost every pre-industrialised people, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, casseroles and even cakes.

For example, in India, rice and lentils are fermented for at least 2 days before being made into idli and dosas. In Africa, coarsely ground corn is soaked overnight before being added to stews or made into a porridge called mielie meal, or fermented for several days to make a sour porridge, ogi. In Ethiopia, Teff is fermented for several days to make their injera bread. Andean Indians realised that quinoa -- a seed, not a grain -- prized for its nutritional properties and its ability to stimulate breast milk, needs soaking before cooking.

In Europe, bread-making was traditionally a slow process, using natural yeast (sourdough). The introduction of commercial yeasts have speeded up the process, allowing us to produce bread in a fraction of the time. However, that bread does not nourish us in the same way as that which has been made traditionally.

Even relatively recently oatmeal boxes instructed users to soak the oatmeal overnight before making a breakfast porridge. In Bircher-Benner’s famous original muesli recipe, the grains and nuts were soaked (fermented) overnight in water and lemon juice, before the addition of fruit and yoghurt in the morning.

Why did so many disparate cultures all soak or ferment their grains before consuming them?

They knew just how beneficial doing so was for their well-being.

Health Benefits
  • Pre-digestion – make the food more easily digestible. Soya beans are the classic example.
  • Detoxification – There are many anti-nutrients in foods that prevent us from digesting and absorbing them properly. This is why nuts, beans and grains are not easily digestible.
  • Nutrient enhancement – Different ferments enhance different nutrients. Sauerkraut contains far more vitamin C than raw cabbage, and B vitamins are also enhanced. They and other cruciferae produce iso-thiocyanates which are anti-carcinogenic. Natto (fermented soya beans) contains natto-kinase, an enzyme that regulates blood clots and reduces ulcer formation in the elderly; it is also thought to break down fibrin in blood vessels.
  • Provide our gut with good bacteria – these good bugs, lactobacilli and others, are probiotic, reside in our intestines and enhance our immune function, improve digestion and nutrient assimilation. But regular input of them is required, particularly with the modern onslaught on our bodies of antibacterials in so many forms.

Pre-digestion and detoxification

Grains, nuts, seeds and beans are all powerhouses for new growth, a new organism, they all share this “seed” quality. Plants are clever, though. They know that animals want to consume these nutrient-dense seeds. In order to protect them, they have developed coatings and chemicals that inhibit the digestion of these seeds. Many plants even use animals as a means of dispersal. The seeds often pass through a bird intact, which unwittingly deposits it, complete with a dollop of fertiliser, away from the parent plant.

This is why we need to soak our grains as well as our beans: why kidney beans for example can prove poisonous if they are not first soaked before being well cooked. It is also why we need to soak nuts and other seeds as well.

Untreated phytic acid in the surface layer of all “seeds” can combine with minerals and block absorption in the intestinal tract. Soaking allows enzymes, lactobacilli and other organisms to break down and neutralise phytic acid.

Seven hours in warm acidulated water is sufficient. Add a dessert spoonful of lemon juice with the soaking water. The action of these enzymes also improves the vitamin B content of the food.

Buckwheat (not a grain at all), rice and millet contain less phytic acid than other grains and don’t need soaking to the same extent. In fact, buckwheat only needs to be soaked for 20-30 minutes in order to begin the sprouting process. Buckwheat sprouts are very nutritious, but if you soak too long they will take on too much water and won’t sprout at all.

Nutrient enhancement

While the seafaring British were making the most of sauerkraut, limes and lemons to prevent scurvy, the Chinese were sprouting mung beans on their ocean-going ships for the same reason: their high vitamin C content. But look in many ancient European cooking texts and you will find the use of sprouted grains and beans in many dishes. Beers are made with germinated grains.

Again, sprouting neutralises phytic acid. However, caution against eating raw sprouts, as these still contain substances to stop animals from eating tender new shoots. Lightly steam sprouts or add to soups etc at the end of cooking is sufficient.

Sprouted beans contain less anti-nutrients and less starch, but more available protein, more availability of vitamins (particularly A, B complex, C and E) and minerals and some essential fatty acids. Sprout them yourself and these will not have declined in nutritional value; these little gems are still alive.

Warning: alfalfa sprouts inhibit the immune system, as the seeds contain the amino acid canavanine which can be toxic in quantity.

Soaking of seeds before toasting/roasting or just eating renders them far more digestible in exactly the same way.

Good bacteria

During fermentation acids are produced by good “bacteria” that change the nature of the food as well as inhibiting the “bad” bacteria or other “bugs”. Examples include salamis and hams, yoghurt, kefir, cheese, even wine is fermented, as are all forms of alcohol.

During the fermenting process, starches and sugars in the vegetable, fruit, grain or milk are converted into lactic acid by many species of lactic-acid-producing bacteria (Lactobacilli). Lactobacilli are ubiquitous in our environment, found all around us on every surface, but more especially on the leaves and roots of plants. The presence of these “good” bacteria makes the vegetables more easily digestible to us, increases their vitamin content (notably vitamin C) and they promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora. The good bugs also produce helpful enzymes and have an antibiotic effect, inhibiting the growth of other “bad” bacteria.

Fermenting Vegetables

So, get fermenting. Vegetables are a great place to start, as they are easy, don’t take a long time and do not need specialist equipment.

There are a few important things to remember. If you are a novice, read the recipes/instructions well.

  •  Choose fresh, preferably organic vegetables where possible.
  •   Use filtered water. If you don’t have a water filter, leave a jug of water out for a couple of hours for the chlorine to evaporate. Remember that chlorine is added to water to kill bugs.
  •   When fermenting vegetables, the salt is added for a reason. It provides the right environment for those good bacteria, but the bad bacteria don’t like it. Salt-free fermented vegetables can be produced, but reduce salt content gradually batch by batch. As your technique improves so you may need less salt.
  •  Good fermentation where those lactobacilli develop is anaerobic, ie without air. Make sure you’re your vegetables are below the surface of the water/liquid at all times. Weigh down with a cabbage leaf with a scrubbed stone on top.

Remember that good bacteria are destroyed by heat, so pasteurised fermented vegetables, miso etc will not contain those good bacteria or enzymes, as many will have been destroyed in the heating process. Making your own is the best way.Come to my fermenting workshops to learn how: email me for details of my forthcoming classes.
There are also some internet suppliers online or you may find some London outlets, check your wholefood shop, but don’t accept pasteurised products.

See the Cultured Cellar website for stockists.