The Hunter-Gatherer Diet Debate
Advocates of Paleo (or even ‘healthy living’) may have a bizarre collection of old glass jars lurking on kitchen countertops with a random assortment of vaguely frothy solutions of vegetables slowly going off in them. But you can bet money that ancestral man was not wasting time on such bacterial Fermentation methods.
The blatantly obvious conflict between the Paleo recommendation of Fermented vegetables and the obvious lack of Fermentation practices in the hunter-gatherer diet has previously led to erroneous claims from Paleo purists (by which we mean anthropology devotees) that Ferments should be off the Paleo table.
What this neglects to consider is that despite the lack of glass jars with sliced cabbage slowly going off inside, ancestral diets were FILLED with bacteria and slightly ‘off’ food. In a time without refrigeration and hygiene, consuming bugs, bacteria, yeasts and vaguely expiring foodstuffs was commonplace.
So no, Fermentation – as in the art of actively slicing vegetables and placing them in a weighted jar in order to let them develop their own juices and bacteria – was not part of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But the end result – consuming foods rich in a diversity of bacteria which work synergistically with our internal digestive system to enhance the environment of our guts – was absolutely part of ancestral wellbeing.
But Why Eat Rotten Veg?
Fermentation began as a way to preserve food, which seems odd as it is technically food which is going ‘off’. But this all depends on your perception of the way food is supposed to be eaten. Realistically, what is happening when we Ferment foods is that we are changing the cellular structure, allowing degradation by bacteria. The resulting solution is rich in bacteria – and this, to our modern thinking, seems ‘off’ or ‘rancid’ or ‘past its sell-by date’. Instead, this is actually entirely fine to eat (providing it’s been done properly – more on this below). It’s just different.
In the times before refrigeration, Fermentation was a way to take oversupply of vegetables during harvest months and create an array of different options to consume them over the more barren months. Originally, no-one will have given a thought to what they were actually consuming and/or whether it was ‘good for them’. It was simply a way to use up food that would otherwise be discarded.
Fast forward to today, where modern cooling methods mean that vegetables simply don’t go off that quickly, we have lost touch with ancient preservation methods. It is the resurgence of the wellness community that has brought Fermentation back into fashion – so what is it that makes Ferments a health food?
The vegetables typically Fermented are those filled with prebiotic fibres. Prebiotic fibres do exactly what the name would suggest – they feed the microbiota. Many of the vegetables Fermented are actually recommended for consumption as part of health diet. One of the reasons for this is precisely to do with their fibre content. Our gut is filled with trillions of bacteria – and these bacteria perform an assortment of symbiotic roles within our bodies: they help us digest food, assimilate nutrients, they signal relative health and wellbeing, they alter behaviour and determine gut integrity. In fact – we don’t really yet know all that our gut bugs really can do, or all of the ‘how’. We do know that they’re important and that we need to take care of them.
In days long before the microbiome was known about, let alone considered important, Fermenting was still practiced. What it does is take the vegetables with a lot of prebiotic fibre and break them down slightly whilst still outside the body. What does this is the bacteria on the vegetables themselves. So where bacteria inside us humans helps us break down the cell walls of tough fibrous vegetables – the exact same thing occurs to vegetables whilst they are kept externally. Bacteria begins to break the fibres down – and that is the essence of Fermentation.
The benefit of consuming something Fermented to us, as humans, is that some of the breaking down of the hard cell walls is already done for us. It means that there is less ‘work’ for our internal bacteria to do – and means that the goodness from the vegetables is already more bioavailable, with the fibres partially broken down. Nutrient density is an important concept within the Paleo-sphere – but so is nutrient bioavailability. Nutrients are only good for us if we can get at them. Various studies suggest that the Fermentation of certain foods (tomatoes, cocoa etc.) can increase the level of available beneficial compounds such as polyphenols and beta-carotene etc.
And if you’ve read our page on Phytates you may be interested to note that Fermentation of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds (the ‘soaking and sprouting’ process mentioned on that page) removes approximately 90% of the Phytate content of some of the worst offenders: corn, cassava, soybeans and sorghum.
But beyond this ‘pre-digestion’ – boosting nutrient availability and decreasing the content of anti-nutrients – Fermenting is done by the growth of bacteria in the jar itself. Consuming Fermented foods means you are eating the partially broken down fibrous vegetables – but along with that, the bacteria that did the work to break them down.
Adding Fermented foods into your diet is like consuming the world’s greatest and best, natural probiotics: you are eating bacteria which break down food – and these are precisely the bacteria that your gut needs to take up residence inside your body (to help with digesting all foods).
Is Fermentation Better Than A Probiotic Pill?
Sometimes people freak out at Fermentation and would prefer, instead, to merely get their bacteria from the rather more sanitary probiotic pills.
And yet, with probiotic pills the quantity of strains is drastically different. A probiotic pill may contain up to 12 strains, sometimes 20 – if you’re lucky. Some sauerkraut (perhaps the most popular and well-known Fermented vegetable) will contain up to 680 different strain. Kombucha, the hippy drink that the wellness community are loving at the moment, can contain up to 40 different strains. This is FAR more than your average probiotic. It’s also far, far cheaper. For the cost of a cabbage, you have an infinitely better end result in terms of quantity.
Additionally, Fermenting foods at home is a far less controllable – and therefore a far more natural – way of creating bacteria. With over 35000 different strains of bacteria identified, getting the broad spectrum often results in weird probiotic rotation regimens, with some people reacting negatively to different versions – and a huge amount of scepticism about whether what’s shown on the bottle of the supplement is actually in the pill – and then actually reaches the intestines where the bacteria are designed to be.
Consuming Fermented foods however, may seem a lot less precise – but it actually guarantees that your probiotic bacteria are really present – and, within the food, they stand a far higher chance of landing in the intestines where they’re supposed to.
How-To: Further Reading and Resources
If you would like to read whole books on Fermentation, the classics are:
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz (forward by Michael Pollen)
Fermented by Jill Ciciarelli (get it on Kindle, far cheaper)
Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey
And if you just want to see how to do it (and how not to get it wrong and just end up with ruined veg and toxic Ferments?!): the best resource available is the Fearless Fermentation Online Video Classes and Community by Sarah Ramsden.
Also – there is a great Kombucha Series by Eileen Laird of Phoenix Helix