For centuries, in most cultures throughout the world, fermented foods have held an important place at the table. Without any refrigeration it would be one of the only methods for preserving fresh ingredients. Many of the fermented recipes we see today have stood the test of time. The Romans ate sauerkraut; ancient India civilizations ingested Kefir, a yogurt drink, prior to consuming their dinner; Asian countries created kimchi, and still consume it with most of their meals to this day; Middle Eastern cultures enjoyed cheeses, buttermilk, brined olives, and yogurt; and even the Nordic countries buried fish to ferment it.
Fermentation is a process that basically uses bacteria to break down plant or animal sources and transform it into another edible food, like transforming goat’s milk into yogurt or cabbage into kimchi. A prevalent bacteria called lactobacillus, which was first discovered in cheese and yogurt, and subsequently now known to be included in items like sugars, has lead us to the process of lactofermentation.
Lacto, refers to the bacteria within the dairy, not the dairy it was contained within. The same bacteria is also a component in fruits and vegetables allowing a natural fermentation process that doesn’t include any dairy. All fermentation that occurs is classified as naturally or commercially derived.
There is, however, a difference between natural fermentation or wild ferment and one that is made with a premade or commercial starter culture such as the case in many cheeses, yogurts, and sourdough breads.
An example of wild ferment is one that occurs in produce as it ripens. This gives you all the microorganisms you need, making a natural fermenting recipe as simple as a salt water brine including just the fresh fruit or vegetables and herbs and spices. This process takes longer but yields some of the best healthy and flavorful results. This simple recipe would also be the best for someone who needs to limit their fermented foods due to yeast or histamine issues.
Fermented foods can benefit the body in two ways. First, fermentation breaks down foods to make them more easily digestible and increases their nutrient absorption, as well as, creating a better taste for otherwise distasteful food. Second, the millions of microorganisms that are used for fermentation can be quite beneficial to the body, most importantly to the intestinal tract.
“Fermented foods are a good carrier and source for symbiotics (pre- and probiotics), considered the healthy microorganisms for good gut flora,” according to Saeed A. Hayek, PhD, Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America food scientist.
There are a few different ways fermentation occurs, and each method leaves behind different levels of nutritional value. Pickled vegetables cured in a vinegar, or brine as it is called when all the ingredients are added, can be very healthy but do not contain as many symbiotics as do other products that go through a fermentation which uses bacterial cultures.
The other, very popular method of preservation by fermentation, is using the sugar and yeast to alcohol method. This process is used to create wine, beer, soy sauce, kombucha, and vinegars to name the most common.
This made me wonder, while fermentation is a big part of creating alcohol, is alcohol a byproduct from the fermentation process? If so, how are these foods classified for halal?
According to Hayek, “Most fermentation processes will not produce ethanol to the level that can make it prohibited in Islam or not halal. Examples, yogurt and pickles are fermented foods that contain residues of ethanol which is acceptable for halal. The main haram fermentation are the alcoholic beverages. Most fermented food products will not have high ethanol [content] but fermented drinks or liquids should be watched for ethanol levels even if they are not classified as an alcoholic beverage. Example: soy sauce may contain high ethanol.”
Kefir and yogurts also offer a processing method that is centuries old. This is a process that mostly uses animal intestinal flora as cultures that break down the animal’s milk, giving it a thicker texture and a sour taste. Of the two, Kefir is more of a drink because it comes out of the fermentation process thinner, like buttermilk, and yogurt ends up a much thicker texture requiring a spoon to consume.
Hayek clarifies how fermented foods are impacted by the halal certification process. “In general, plant based products are halal,” Hayek says. “However, the process may change the products from halal to non-halal. Notice that many ingredients currently used by the food industry may be derived from animal sources, which are of concern to halal.”
“Additionally, processing aids such as enzymes and filter aids may also come from animals. For fermentation, most fermented foods have the same concerns of plant based products with the addition of fermentation cultures and ethanol. It is very common in the food industry to use enzymes to accelerate and control the fermentation process. As such, enzymes are not listed in the ingredients since enzymes are considered to be processing aids, not ingredients.”
“Regarding the fermentation cultures, these are the microorganisms that are used in the fermentation process. These cultures need to be activated in a special culture media prior to their use in the fermentation process. This culture media may contain non-halal materials that are derived from animals.”
Certifications like halal help to navigate products on the shelves. As we know, for every rule there are exceptions. The digestive tract carries trillions of live bacteria and they create a culture called a biome. Some of the microbes used in the fermentation process and the foods themselves after having been fermented, may produce histamines levels which could interrupt and upset that biome.
Although histamines should not be problem for most people, some are allergic to them because of genetics or because they suffer with low levels of the enzyme DAO needed to break down the histamines in the intestines. “Histamines are neurotransmitters that influence your brain’s function and immune health. So, if fermented foods leave you nauseous, inflamed, bloated, or just feeling gross, you may be more sensitive to histamine- producing bacteria or foods,” says Hayek.
Whatever your particular chemical make-up, fermented foods will play a big role, one way or another. Reading labels, and tracking your reactions after you eat, will give you the tools necessary to live a healthy and well-balanced life with or without fermented foods.
Ms. Deena was coined The Deceptive Chef by her clients for making their favorite childhood dishes healthy, decadent and without gluten, dairy, sugar, or soy. She has studied the impact of ingredients in processed foods on health for two decades. She teaches deceptively delicious, healthy recipes because ingredients matter!
Reprinted from the Spring 2019 issue of Halal Consumer© magazine with permission from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA®) and Halal Consumer© magazine.
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