Who invested food processing?
If you thought, humans were the first and only species to domesticate another organism, you are grossly mistaken. Leaf-cutter ants and termites take the credit. Their nests are an elaborate mushroom farm to digest cellulose into pre-digested food. Most cattle have a ruminating stomach chamber so that micro-organisms can break down complex cellulose and proteins into simple nutrients. Similarly, human beings rely on cooked or pre-digested food to meet their nutritional requirements. Fermentation is able to neutralize some of the anti-nutritional factors, which hinder in bio-accessibility of the unprocessed nutrients.
Why is idli so easy to digest but Urad dal isn’t?
Whole legumes or dal is usually considered difficult to digest. However, when the same urad dal is introduced in the idli batter (fermented rice and dal paste), its bio-accessibility increases manifolds. That is the reason idli (fermented and steamed rice and legume cakes) is ideal for patients, the elderly, and those suffering from poor metabolism. While the Urad dal is considered difficult to digest. Fermentation activates and releases enzymes (α-amylase, pullulanase, phytase, and some glucosidases) that breaks up complex long-chain proteins into simpler peptides and amino acids. For the same reason, most legume ferments start giving off ammonia smells. Most long-chain starch and other polysaccharides are hydrolyzed into simpler sugars, which are readily absorbed by our intestines. Traditionally Dhokala was supposed to be a fermented steam cake but today it is made spongy by using baking soda.
What is the link between processed food and food alergies?
There are a few food allergies that are attributed to indigestible proteins. Scientists are researching if fermentation can help control some of the common food allergies (like peanut allergies), which have shot up at an alarming rate in the last 10-15 years. Fermentation also moderates the glycemic index (GI) in some foods (like sourdough), making it suitable to manage diabetes and chronic illness. Unlike frying and other food processing techniques, fermentation actually reduces the calorific value of food making it ideal for weight loss.
Also break down of these complex molecules releases many minerals, which are otherwise not bio-accessible and would be passed down as roughage. A typical example is that bio-availability of calcium is higher in curd than the milk that it is made from.
Fermentation also produces new nutrients and vitamins. A lot of vitamin Bs and Cs are produced during fermentation. Anti-oxidants, GABA (Gamma-AminoButyric Acid, or γ-aminobutyric acid) produced during fermentation is the key to lower stress levels and sound mental health.
Our traditional diet had some form of fermented food in every meal. Food scientists are now beginning to recognize its role in our life and its benefits. There is no doubt that these options are more nutritious and healthier than commercial packaged foods. Their ability to delay the effects of some of the genetic disorders, help tackling obesity, diabetes, auto-immune disorders and other chronic diseases is well documented. Majority of the functional foods rely heavily on fermentation.
Why fermeted food are important for Diets?
Keto diet, which relies on heavy intake of proteins and fats but no carbohydrates, is gaining popularity. Both plants and animal proteins are difficult to digest and can create gastric problems. Probiotics help in strengthening the gut fauna needed to practice this diet for long periods. Also, fermented soybeans are much easily digestible than regular lentils. This is the reason that fermented foods are becoming popular amongst the weight conscious and keto practitioners.
All traditional pickles and yogurt are supposed to be probiotic. However, many-packaged commercial pickle is prepared by steaming vegetables, adding vinegar for sourness, oil, spices, and preservatives. They no longer have any microbes to restore our gut fauna. Some commercial brands of probiotic curd are treated with radiation or heat to kill all microbes (to prolong shelf life). As a result, these packed curds never go sour even after leaving at room temperature for a week and one can never ferment curd from them. Always check the package for disclosures. If they contain any preservatives, colors, or additives, then they are probably not as good as they claim. Pasteurized and UHT (Ultra Heat Treated) ferments have also lost their microbial viability and are just tasty condiments.
Functional food don’t need to be expensive
Rather than converting this book into a sales pitch, I recommend experimenting a bit with some of the inexpensive and easy ferments and observe their benefits. A variety of simple locally produced foods often work better than some exotic elixir peddled by commercial brands. Some of these functional foods are high on sodium and hence please exercise moderation.