From Garden to Gut: Fermenting Fresh Produce

By Suzanne Labry, Contributing Writer

Most gardeners live for the moment when they are able to pick that first ripe tomato or peach (or whatever their favorite might be) and eat it right out of hand or soon thereafter.

Fresh produce may be the gold standard when it comes to consumption, but Mother Nature has other ways of converting the fruits, vegetables and grains we grow (as well as fish and animal products) into delicious things for us to eat and drink.

One such method is fermentation.

From sauerkraut to soy sauce to sourdough bread; kimchi to kefir to kombucha; pickles to pepperoni; cheese to chocolate; olives to yogurt to vinegar; even some coffees and teas; and, of course, beer, wine, hard cider, mead (honey wine) and distilled spirits — fermented foods and beverages are having a moment.

Fermentation facts

Fermented Produce | Vego Garden
Fermented Produce

Michael Pollan, the internationally recognized American author and food activist, said on his television series Cooked, “Of all the different transformations we call cooking, I think fermentation is the most miraculous, and the most mysterious. That is because it doesn’t involve any applied heat at all. This is food and drink made strictly through the action of bacteria and fungi. They perform all the transformations that normally we need heat to make happen. People don’t realize, as they walk through the supermarket, how many fermented foods are there.”

It was Louis Pasteur, he of pasteurization fame, who coined the term fermentation when, in 1856, he began investigating the mechanics of how the process worked.

Pasteur learned that it involves yeast, molds or bacteria working singly or in combination and breaking down molecules of complex carbohydrates into sugars, alcohols, lactic acid or carbon dioxide (CO2).

Although definitions vary, in terms of food production, fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a food product by microorganisms. This natural process of transformation by fermentation turns raw materials into products that we love.

The fancy word for the study of fermentation is zymology, but there’s nothing fancy about the fact that fermented foods and drinks have been keeping humans fed and hydrated for many centuries.

Digging deeper

According to the Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 66, February 2016), at a settlement on the east coast of Sweden dating back 9,200 years, a large-scale food-storage construction suggests that a substantial amount of fish was fermented at the site and was conserved for later use, “thousands of years prior to farming and urbanized communities and without the use of salt.”

Evidence of early humans creating fermented breads, beers and wines as long ago as 7,000 BC can be found across Asia and the Middle East. How our long-ago forebears figured all this out is unknown, but it likely was a process of cumulative discoveries and improvements that took place across cultures and centuries.

Some societies claimed divine intervention, as the Egyptians credited Osiris for beer and the Greeks worshipped Bacchus as the god of wine.

Fermentation queen

Although fermented foods have become trendy, including some hailing from other parts of the world such as Korean kimchi, others (like sauerkraut and pickles) have been eaten for so long in Texas that they might even pass as comfort foods in many Lone Star households.

Whether foreign or familiar, however, many fermented foods have numerous advantages over the raw materials from which they are made and, as a result, they offer some solid health benefits.

Dr. Darla O’Dwyer, a registered dietitian, founder of the Gut Professor website, and the Food, Nutrition and Dietetics Coordinator in the School of Human Sciences at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, whose associates admiringly call her “the fermentation queen,” is a big believer in fermented foods. She cites benefits such as these:

  • Bioactive compounds (compounds that promote health) are created during fermentation that help fight against certain chronic diseases.
  •  Microorganisms break down non-digestible material, making it easier for us to digest (for example, breaking down cellulose and lactose).
  •  Fermentation reduces anti-nutrients that can form complexes with much-needed nutrients. Fermentation liberates these nutrients (such as minerals), thus increasing intestinal absorption and utilization.
  •  Antioxidants are substances that prevent damage to cells caused by oxygen. Antioxidant activity is increased in certain ferments, and those that are normally tied up in plant-cell walls are liberated by the action of the microorganisms.
  •  By-products produced by bacterial fermentation inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria within the ferment, such as food-borne pathogens.
  •  Many types of fermented foods contain lactic-acid bacteria. These bacteria are considered probiotics, meaning they provide health benefits to the host. Many of these benefits are due to the positive interaction of the microorganisms with our immune system and to the byproducts they produce that our intestines like.

Fermentation festival

Since 2014, Texas Farmers Market, a non-profit corporation “centered around hosting and educating Central Texas producers and consumers to grow a sustainable food system” has been holding the Austin Fermentation Festival in the fall.

With workshops and demonstrations on such things as making cider, fermented sodas, sourdough, kimchi, kombucha, chocolate and many others, the Festival has become a popular draw for those wanting to learn more about the ins and outs of fermentation.

A wide range of vendors are on hand to sell and promote their fermented wares. Attendees can get tastes of unusual offerings such as vegan cashew yogurt or avocado ice cream (made with a fermented brine) to more standard offerings such as sourdough bread and sauerkraut. Plenty of wines, ciders, meads, beers and spirits are also available for tasting.

Tummy troubles? 

Ahren Boulanger and his wife, Jocelyn, were at the 2018 Fermentation Festival.

Ahren has suffered from stomach issues since he was a small child, and that’s what led him to begin researching fermentation. “When I learned how important the gut microbiome is to physical and mental health, I started eating fermented foods and they really helped me,” he explained. 

Dr. O’Dwyer has a similar story. “I got interested in fermentation because I was having gastro-intestinal problems,” she said. “I did some research and began eating sauerkraut but quickly realized that the sauerkraut you buy in stores is really expensive. I started making my own and through trial and error I learned what to do and what not to do. I’m what they call a ‘fermentation purist,’ and my method is pretty technical, but I’ve had good results with it. I eat sauerkraut every day and I teach my students and others in the community how to make it.”

Fermentation final thoughts

  • One of the most common fermented vegetables is cabbage. Green-headed cabbage is used to make sauerkraut and Napa cabbage is used to make kimchi.
  • Sourdough bread is produced using dough fermented through naturally occurring lactic-acid bacteria and yeast. Fermentation has been used as a leavening agent to make bread for most of human history.
  • Fermented vegetables often can be found for sale at farmers' markets, but it is also possible to make them yourself.
  • Since 2014, the nonprofit Texas Farmers Market has been holding the Austin Fermentation Festival in the fall.
  • People with stomach problems say that eating fermented foods helps them.




Leave a comment