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Microbial Magic: Fermentation is all the rage and with good reason: The results are healthy, tasty

Santa Cruz Sentinel (CA)


Aug. 20--SANTA CRUZ -- Fermentation happens.

Leave some food on the counter and bacteria will eat it. They've been doing it for millennia.

"Fermentation is something that occurs with or without us," said Todd Champagne, co-owner of Pacific Grove's Happy Girl Kitchen, a company that sells pickled vegetables and preserves. "We simply channel it into something delicious tasting."

People have been using bacteria to create traditional dishes throughout history as a method of food preservation. Germans have kraut, Russians have kvass tonics, Koreans have kimchi and Japanese have miso and tempeh. It's been getting increasing attention, however, from local food enthusiasts.


"Ferments are alive and kicking so it's very much a relationship," said Champagne. "You can smell it and taste it from day one to 365, and when it gets to a place where you enjoy, you simply refrigerate to slow the process." He said that for the vast majority of cases, especially with vegetable ferments like kraut, you can trust your senses to tell when it's ready.

"That really touches people deeply," Champagne said. "When's the last time you checked in on the flour you have in the freezer or checked in with the tomatoes you have on your shelf?"

A world of bacteria are at work in our food, our gut and our soil, and we are just beginning to understand their relationship to our health. These bacteria, which were once seen as carriers of disease, are now being researched for their role in guarding against obesity, asthma, food allergies and diabetes.

"When we have an optimal population of gut bacteria it helps us harvest nutrients from our food," said Dr. Daphne Miller, a San Francisco family physician and author of "Farmacology", a book about the link between health and family farming.

"It supports our immune response to outside pathogens and helps protect the lining of our gut."

The secret is in the microbial waste. When the bacteria in our gut digest plant matter, they produce antioxidants and vitamins, in a form that's ideally suited for us. They make proteins and sugars that protect the body from infection or allergy and enzymes that regulate metabolism, according to Miller.

This beneficial bacterial processing can be found not only in our gut, but in the soil and fermented foods. The bacteria that decomposes plant matter in the soil to lactic acid and alcohol are the same bacteria that you'd find in fermented foods.

"When we eat naturally fermented sauerkraut or kimchi or pickles, we are consuming hundreds if not thousands of bacteria and fungi from the soil that have taken up residence on those plants," said Miller. "Since these micro-organisms are excellent at breaking down plant matter, it stands to reason that they are well suited to help us do the same."


When Kathryn Lukas, owner of Santa Cruz's Farmhouse Culture, started making sauerkraut in 2005, she recognized an opportunity to create a place-based food.

She saw an abundance of local sea salt, a perfect fermentation temperature of 64 to 68 degrees and a climate that grows cabbage year round.

Just as with California wine, cheese and sourdough breads, the local microbial makeup can create a terroir-focused kraut.

"The lactic acid present on the cabbage in the field, when we salt and ferment it, we set the stage for that strain of bacteria to be salt tolerant. Most other fungi, yeasts are not salt tolerant," said Lukas. "We're selecting for a specific strain of bacteria from the fields of Watsonville to be successful."

Her company sells regional krauts and kimchis that come in flavors such as classic caraway, smoked jalapeno, and ginger beet.

"We're halfway between Seoul and Munich, and I thought that was really interesting," said Lukas. "I thought California was a place that was ripe for reviving these fermented foods."


"For me, the bacteria are my sous chefs," said Manfred Warmuth, a fermented food enthusiast who makes kraut at home.

Warmuth doesn't follow recipes for kraut. He shreds whatever he has in abundance in his garden, such as kale, lemon or nopales and throws it into a five-gallon bucket with an airlock, pours over pickling salt and lets the microbes do their work. The kraut is ready to eat when the mixture stops bubbling in three weeks.

Warmuth also covers the mix with a cheesecloth and a weighted plate to ensure that a film of yeast forms over the kraut.

Warmuth, a professor of computer science at UC Santa Cruz, grew up in a family of pig farmers in a German village. He remembers being chased down to the dark and scary cellar as a child by his mother to retrieve the kraut.

"Poor people have always been fermenting," said Warmuth. "It was the way of the peasants."

For Warmuth, kraut isn't a self-contained food in a jar with a story and a terroir, but a utilitarian ingredient that he uses in stews and sandwiches.

Warmuth has continued to make kraut since he moved to the U.S. but is concerned that fermenting traditions are being lost as society becomes more modernized and concerned with cleanliness.

"I'm into getting people re-skilled, simply using modern machinery," Warmuth said.

He helps lead an urban homesteaders group and teaches fermentation workshops, not only on kraut, but also on tempeh, miso and natto.

Fred Molnar, a retired food chemist who has taught kraut workshops with Warmuth, says that the chemistry behind fermentation is easy to do but difficult to explain. "You're not working with one microorganism," said Molnar. "It's an ecosystem with multiple processes."

"I just trust my nose and also the history. You throw in salt and that's the way its been done for thousands of years," said Molnar. "It's so easy to do, I'm amazed that people are amazed that I do it."

"Fermentation is one of our birthrights," said Kelly Dearie, owner of Creative Cultures, a Santa Cruz company that sells fermented and chlorophyll tonics. "This is our heritage, no matter what culture you are."


Dearie turned to fermented foods in a moment of despair.

Her husband Charlie, who suffered from an autoimmune disorder that attacked his platelets, was told by doctors that he needed a spleen removal and a hip replacement. That would mean Charlie, an active 32-year-old man, would never be able to run or mountain bike again.

"We were at a loss for how to proceed," said Dearie. "The energy was so horrible and stuck."

The family decided to seek an alternative, and consulted Santa Cruz clinical health coach Craig Lane from Health Alkemy.

"We needed to do some detective work," said Lane.

He checked Charlie's temperature, blood pressure and lab results, and listened to Charlie talk about his diet, sleep and exercise. Instead of the surgeries, Lane recommended some dietary changes such as taking out coffee, wheat and sugar, and adding beet kvass, a traditional Russian fermented tonic.

Within three weeks, his platelet numbers were almost normal. Within two years he was running again, said Dearie.

Dearie credits part of his improvement to the phytonutrients found in the beet kvass, created by the bacteria during the fermentation process. Inspired by her husband's healing, Dearie opened Creative Cultures and sells the beet kvass. She said her ultimate goal is to teach fermentation workshops and educate the public about their ability to take their health into their own hands.

Dearie has noticed an uptick in the public's interest in fermented foods, and believes that we're on the verge of a new paradigm of health. She believes that the wisdom of probiotics and natural foods will enter the mainstream as people grow disillusioned with the health care system.

"People are looking at the 100 pills they have to take ... and they're looking at alternatives," said Dearie. "People are getting desperate. Eventually we're going to slide away from what's not working."

"Diet's not the whole picture," said Lane. He listed attributes of health that go beyond numbers from a lab test, such as energy, good sleep, an appetite for food and sex, daily bowel movements and a natural appreciation and gratitude.

His picture of health is a flowchart that starts with good soil stewardship. A balanced and diverse community of soil bacteria leads to nutrient dense plants, which benefits the whole system.

"The earth will provide all you need, just like the body will heal," said Lane.


(c)2013 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

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