Skip to content

Fermentation: Mankind's oldest biotechnology

The fermentation trend has been growing steadily in the last 5 years. This growth is fueled by a variety of...

“Fermentation” and “fermented” easily rank as the most used words at Doctor Kimchi, closely followed by "microbiome" and "problem-solving." However, far beyond the companies like ours, the fermentation trend has been growing steadily in the last 5 years. This growth is fueled by a variety of factors, such as the growing focus on one's health and immunity in the wake of the Corona pandemic, ongoing findings on the human microbiome, and also Gen Z revival of the fermentation practice as both a sustainability-oriented hobby and a personal nutrition choice.

So, it's safe to say that topic of fermentation is as modern as it is ancient, and as established as it is cutting-edge. Fermentation is here to stay. Yet, many customers that we speak to lack the fundamental knowledge about this process. So, before discussing any advanced technological applications such as precision fermentation or the benefits of specific bacterial strains, we will use this article to catch up the general audience and cover the basic facts on fermentation and pasteurization.

What exactly happens during fermentation? Beneficial microorganisms like yeasts, bacteria and fungi are all around us. When placed in an environment where they can proliferate, fermentation happens. From a scientific standpoint, fermentation is a process during which microorganisms (present in the air, on the vegetables, etc.) break down sugars and starches and generate by-products such as organic acids and alcohol. Food fermentation is similar to the processes by which beer and wine are produced, just with different bacteria at work. When put in anaerobic conditions (an environment without oxygen – like a jar), bacteria (e.g. lactobacilli) use starches (e.g. vegetable tissue) to cover their energy needs. They reproduce exponentially and quickly dominate this “ecosystem.” Organic acids that are generated in the process make the environment unhabitable to harmful and pathogenic microorganisms. Simply put – the good guys outgrow and protect the product from the bad guys. The concentration of the probiotic lactobacilli rises, while the pathogens are eliminated, protecting the vegetable from degrading and molding. On top, as a result of this process, food, in our case vegetables in kimchi, acquire a distinct taste and deep umami flavour. This method of enriching and preseving food is possibly humanity’s oldest biotechnological tool. The earliest record of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C., in the Fertile Crescent—and nearly every civilization since has included at least one fermented food in its culinary heritage. So, when the fridge was not yet available, fermentation allowed humans to preserve vegetables, dairy and meats that would otherwise perish.

Not every fermented food contains live bacteria. It is important to understand that from the wide range of fermented foods you can pick-up at your local supermarket, some contain live microbes, while others do not. Foods you find in the refrigerated section such as yogurt, kefir, uncooked sauerkraut, and kimchi have plenty of live bacteria; so, when you consume those, you also consume the beneficial microbes (NB: check the label to make sure these foods are not pasteurized). Fermented foods that have been heat-treated, like sourdough bread, tempeh, alcohol or chocolate are no longer a source of live microbes, because the living cultures typically do not suvive cooking and heating processes. The heat treatment, also known as pasteurization, is a standard industry method to eliminate the pathogens and make foods shelf-stable. However, it also kills the "good" probiotic bacteria that are beneficial for our gut microbiome. 

Store unpasteurized ferments in the fridge. When consuming unpasteurized ferments, you are dealing with live foods. The bacteria in the jar will continue to ferment the vegetable fibers and produce sour byproducts, although this process slows down over time. To make your ferments stable longer-term, keep your ferments in the fridge, which will extend the lifetime of your foods at least up to a year. The flavor and texture of the vegetables will also evolve: it will progress towards a deeper umami after 3-6 months, and will become less sour after 6-12 months. So, to observe the life of your ferments in "slow motion", keep them in your fridge at around 8 °C.

Reap your benefit from ferments. We have shared some basics to help you join into the fermentation conversation. There are of course numerous reason for making and eating fermented foods: probiotic and prebiotic nutrition content, microbiome-friendliness, culinary and sensory exploration, as well as high-tech applications, such as food fermented to fit your specific needs. We will cover these topics in our upcoming posts and hopefully help you define your motivation for eating ferments. In the meantime, we hope that the next time you pick up a jar of kimchi, you take a moment to appreciate the millions of bacteria (and a few spirited fermenters) that have produced this natural, nutritious and tasty food.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published..


Your cart is currently empty.

Start Shopping

Select options