For Jana Sacco, learning about fermentation was part of a larger journey of changing the way she experienced food and nourishment. After spending most of her life dieting and thinking about food from a simplistic calories-in-vs-calories-out perspective, Sacco says she found herself suffering from pain, inflammation, fatigue and depression.
She says she realized that there had to be a better way to take care of her body and over the last nine years she has immersed herself in the world of whole foods, nutrients, fermentation and other traditional practices, as well as permaculture and wildcrafting. “It opened me up to the holistic aspect of food, and questioning what really nourishes me on a body, mind and spirit level,” Sacco says.
She received her certified holistic nutritionist designation from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, studied permaculture and became a community herbalist, and is currently working on becoming a clinical master herbalist.
The more she learned, the more of a difference it made in her quality of life and she started sharing what she learned with others by teaching workshops on fermentation, explaining the health benefits and walking people through the process — something that came naturally with her background in teaching and social work.
At first, however, people were not nearly as excited about fermentation as she was. As she puts it, the response tended to be, “What do you mean you don’t sterilize everything and cook your food to the point that you make sure nothing’s alive in it?” In a culture obsessed with cleanliness and antibiotics, the idea of letting microbes grow on our food was a foreign concept to many people, despite the fact that people have been fermenting foods for thousands of years.
In the last few years, science has started to help us understand why fermentation is so prevalent and so good for us. It has been estimated that nine out of every 10 cells in our bodies belong to micro-organisms. These bacteria and other microbes support our immune system and when the microflora in our gut is out of balance — as is wont to happen, thanks to our inordinate use of antibiotics — our health can suffer, and in ways that we’re only just starting to discover. While probiotics have commonly been believed to help with digestive problems like IBS, a recent study at UBC found that certain kinds of probiotics administered to infants can even help prevent the occurrence of asthma.
In his documentary, Cooked, (based on the book by the same name), food writer Michael Pollan tells us that one-third of the foods we eat are fermented — and most of us have no idea. This includes products like cheese, yogurt, chocolate, beer and wine, and the sauerkraut that your Ukrainian baba used to make.
Fermentation, defined as “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms,” can happen in a number of ways, but Sacco works with methods that preserve beneficial live cultures in the food, which doesn’t happen if the food is highly processed or heated. Encouraging the proliferation of micro-organisms helps to preserve the food and enhances its health benefits and, to many, its taste.
“You’re not only preserving the food, you’re enhancing the flavor. It gives you a unique taste that you can’t get anywhere else, and it totally changes the food. In a way, it’s magical,” says Sacco. “And sometimes you can’t reproduce it. The goal of a good fermenter is to get the same results, but there’s some things I’ve fermented that were just amazing and I couldn’t [reproduce the taste]. It’s the micro-organisms in the air that day they’re exposed to, or [whichever producer] that food came from.”
The growing popularity of fermented foods is evidenced by their appearance in grocery stores. It’s getting easier to find drinks with live cultures, like kefir and kombucha, as well as the powerhouse of unpasteurized sauerkraut.
But Sacco says she believes that it’s even better to learn to make your own and she shares a quote from Michael Pollan to explain her view: “To ferment your own food is to lodge a small but eloquent protest — on behalf of the senses and the microbes — against the homogenization of flavours and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we remain passive consumers of its standardized commodities, rather than creators of idiosyncratic products expressive of ourselves and of the places where we live, because your pale ale or sourdough bread or kimchi is going to taste nothing like mine or anyone else’s.”
To Sacco, knowing how to ferment food is the definition of resilience as it allows us to be directly involved in what we put in our bodies. “And it’s sustainable,” she says. “Someone can be empowered to make their own, and it’s far more potent than what you can buy in the store. A probiotic supplement has billions of active bacteria that may not necessarily be alive, whereas a quart jar of sauerkraut has trillions. And it has all kinds of vitamins and digestive enzymes that are better than when you just take a cabbage.”
The traditions of fermentation that have developed over centuries around the world help to build community resilience. Sacco gives the example of how Ukrainians would make huge quantities of sauerkraut every year, to be eaten every day throughout the winter. According to Sacco, “when you look at the nutrient profile of that, that is vitamin C, highly bioavailable. They were basically inoculating their immune systems to help get them through the winter.”
Sacco’s fermentation repertoire is extensive and is growing all the time as she experiments with new recipes. In addition to the more basic sauerkraut and kimchi, she also makes salsas, chutneys and jams. In her Fabulous Fermentation workshop at the second annual Edmonton Resilience Festival, you can look forward to tasting some of her recipes, in addition to learning a basic recipe yourself. The Festival is taking place April 30-May 1, 2016, at the Boyle Street Plaza and you can find tickets on Eventbrite.