Lacto-Fermentation: What are its health benefits?

Welcome to today’s nutrition post. Today, we will be looking at Lacto-fermentation.

Fermentation is a very ancient method of food processing.

Lacto-fermentation refers to a form of fermentation that involves the use of bacteria that produces lactic acid to process foods.

While fermentation was mainly used for the preservation of food, studies have shown that it also has some added health benefits. In this article, we shall examine the concept of lacto-fermentation and its health benefits.

Lacto-fermentation health benefits
Photo Credit: Insider

WHAT IS LACTO-FERMENTATION?

Food fermentation is a process by which carbs are broken down into gas, acids, and alcohol. The fermentation process is done by bacteria, mold, fungi, or yeast. The fermentation process yields a fermented food product with a fine texture, aroma, or flavor (1).

Fermentation is of different types: yeast is used for alcoholic fermentation of wines, acetic-acid-producing bacteria helps with the fermentation of vinegar, while mold ferments soybean into tempeh (2).

“Lacto” is a term that refers to lactic acid. Lactic acid is produced from the breakdown of sugar in an environment free of oxygen. Lactic acid was first found in milk. Milk contains lactose, thus giving rise to the name lactic acid.

In lacto-fermentation, a bacteria from the Lactobacillus genus is used. Some yeasts are also involved in the lacto-fermentation process. The lactobacillus bacteria breaks down complex sugars in food into lactic acid, and in some cases, carbon dioxide and alcohol (1, 3, 4).

Some foods that have undergone lacto-fermentation include yogurts, fermented milk, olives, sourdough bread, cucumber, kimchi, and sauerkraut (1, 5).

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Also, many well-known, lacto-fermented foods are produced traditionally all over the world. Some of these foods include Ethiopian injera, turnip juice, and Turkish shalgam (3, 5, 6).

HOW DOES LACTO-FERMENTATION WORK?

Lactic acid bacteria is found in large amounts everywhere. They are also present in humans and animals. Lactic acid bacteria that is found on meat, fruits, grains, and vegetables can be used for the fermentation process.

On the other hand, special cultures of this bacteria can be bred and then applied to foods to kick-start the fermentation process. Lacto-fermentation is good for foods that do not have their own natural populations. This process enables a particular aroma or flavor to ensure the safety and quality of the food (3, 7).

Lacto-fermentation may simply be done by submerging a food substance (one that contains lactic acid bacteria), into a brine of salt and water. Examples of foods with naturally occurring bacteria include cucumber and cabbage.

Other foods such as sourdough, yogurt, and fermented milk can ferment alone but usually requires a starter culture to ensure consistency of flavor and safety.

Oxygen exposure is limited by placing the food substance in a sealed container such as a ceramic crock, glass jar, or food-grade plastic vessel. Other foods, such as sauerkraut may be stored in large barrels and then weighted down to prevent the submersion of the vegetable in the salty brine.

The breakdown of sugar by the bacteria results in the formation of carbon dioxide and lactic acid, expelling oxygen, and increasing the acid content of the food. This promotes the growth of lactic acid bacteria and at the same time, prevents the growth of other microbes (3).

The fermentation process ranges from days to months. After the process is completed, the fermented product is stored in a cool place to inhibit any further fermentation. Storing the product in a cool place also saves it from spoilage.

WHY IS LACTO-FERMENTATION USED?

Fermentation has been used for food preservation, for decades. This is because it is a very simple, cheap, and effective procedure (8).

By loading your food with a particular species of good bacteria, pathogens are unable to grow, and this saves the food from spoilage (2, 9).

Other factors such as the addition of salt and the low-oxygen environment create a habitat that promotes the growth of good bacteria while also making it hostile to some harmful organism like molds and fungi (3).

The duration of time which fermented foods can be preserved depends on many factors, including the type of food, temperature, the container in which it is stored, and maybe, further processing. Milk can last for a few days to weeks, yogurt may be refrigerated for up to a month, while fermented vegetables can last for up to 6 months or even more.

Some foods may be pasteurized after fermentation. This kills the bacteria in it and lengthens its shelf life. However, pasteurized foods lack the health benefits of live bacteria cultures.

Apart from prolonging the shelf-life, fermentation eases the digestion of food, eliminates or reduces the need for cooking, drastically reduces wastage of food, and then laces the food with distinctive textures, aromas, and flavors (2, 3, 5).

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LACTO-FERMENTATION AND CANNING?

Canned and fermented products may appear similar, but the truth is, they’re very different.

In the canning process, heat is used to sterilize the food and reduce or totally eliminate the growth and development of pathogens. Sealing the food in a can or a jar prevents its invasion by a microorganism, and as such, it can be preserved for a very long time (10).

Conversely, lacto-fermentation involves the use of live bacteria to inhibit the growth and development of pathogens. Some fermented foods, such as pasteurized milk, may involve some heat processing, but the heating is not as intense as that in canning (11).

Canned foods last longer than fermented foods, but it’s harder to make, especially from home. To can a food substance, you’ll need some specialized and somewhat heavy machinery, whereas fermentation will only require some basic equipment like a container, some salt (in some cases), and water.

Also, canned foods and fermented foods have very different textures, aromas, and flavors. Canned food is precooked, is soft, and may have some salt and sugar content. On the other hand. Lacto-fermented foods are usually not cooked, have a unique acidic taste, and a unique aroma.

Also, canned foods contain most of the nutrients originally found in the food, but loses some B and C vitamins. On the other hand, no nutrient is lost from lacto-fermentation (6, 12).

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF LACTO-FERMENTED FOODS?

Studies have shown that fermented foods have a lot of health benefits. This may be due to the extra compounds produced by the lactic acid bacteria (1, 6, 13).

For instance, during the fermentation of milk, the bacteria involved produces angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor. This compound helps to lower blood pressure. This implies that fermented milk may be helpful in the treatment of high blood pressure (6, 14).

Kimchi is another example. Kimchi contains many amino acids and other compounds that reduce the risk of heart disease, fights cancers, infection, inflammation, and obesity (15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

Also, olives, sauerkraut, and dairy are loaded with healthy bacteria. These bacteria boost your gut health, just like probiotics, and also support immune function (20, 21, 22, 23).

LEARN MORE: PERFECT GUT HEALTH

Lacto-fermentation also has the following health benefits:

  • The nutrient content is increased: Lacto-fermentation increases the availability of nutrients in foods. For instance, the body readily absorbs iron from fermented vegetables compared to the non-fermented ones (6, 24).
  • Anti-inflammatory activities: Fermented foods reduce the number of inflammatory molecules, increase the activity of antioxidants, and improves your gut’s protective barrier (25, 26).
  • Improves your cardiovascular health. Fermented milk and yogurt cause a modest decrease in cholesterol levels and blood pressure (27, 28).
  • Boosts immunity. Studies have shown that certain strains of lactic acid bacteria exhibit anti-viral, immune-boosting, and antiallergenic effects (29, 30, 31).
  • Anti-cancer properties. Fermented milk reduces the risk of certain types of cancers (32, 33, 34).
  • Regulation of blood sugar. Some fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and fermented milk improve insulin sensitivity & blood sugar control (35, 36, 37).
  • Weight control. Studies have shown that consumption of kimchi, yogurt, and fermented milk improves on weight loss and weight control (38, 39, 40).
  • Improved cognitive function. Lacto-fermentation improves cognitive function in Alzheimer patients and in adults. However, there is a need for more research to back up these claims (41).
  • It guards against lactose-intolerance. During lacto-fermentation, lactose is degraded. Thus, people who are lactose-intolerant will have very reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance. To some extent, they can tolerate fermented dairy products such as cheese and yogurt (1, 42).

THE SUMMARY

Lacto-fermentation involves the use of lactic acid bacteria to preserve food.

Foods that have undergone lacto-fermentation may boost brain and heart health, and also offer cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, anti-obesity, and antidiabetic effects.

Fermented foods have a great taste and you can easily add them to your daily diet. These include snacks, buttermilk, and side dishes such as kimchi and sauerkraut.

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