Fermentation: Preserving Tradition & Nutrition

Marie Hegler,
Food Safety & Nutrition Agent,
Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, Clemson University.

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As one of the oldest forms of food preservation and preparation, fermentation has been around throughout recorded human history. Still, many consider the process somewhat of a mystery. While most associate alcohol with fermentation, many are unaware of the everyday foods produced through fermentation and how the process occurs. Not to mention, its slew of potential health benefits. Fermentation can offer a neatly packaged trifecta of benefits, from a cost-effective standpoint to a natural way to manipulate ingredients and, finally, to a nutritional upgrade. Its ability to alter the appearance, texture, and flavor of foods and beverages can offer a newfound approach to everyday ingredients.

A Means of Survival: The Brief History of Man and Fermentation

To put it bluntly, we may not be the human species that we are today had it not been for fermentation. Allegedly, the natural fermentation processes for grains and dairy led to the development of beer, wine, cheese, and yogurt about the time early man went from being a hunter-gatherer into a more agriculture-based society. Since food begins to spoil the moment it is harvested, man had to find a means of preserving food in order to survive. Thus, food preservation in the form of fermentation allowed man to ditch a nomadic existence and put down roots in one place and form communities. However, fermentation’s growing popularity since the dawn of civilization is not purely based on its ability to preserve food but also for its variety of unique tastes, appearances, and health benefits.

Around the World

Playing a vital role in the diet and culinary heritage of most civilizations, fermented foods are consumed in every country throughout the world. In Korea and other Asian countries, kimchi, a condiment composed largely of cabbage, is eaten alongside of many meals. Cabbage is also the main ingredient of sauerkraut, the most recognizable fermented food. Throughout history explorers relied on sauerkraut as a staple food on long voyages because of its taste, shelf life, and medicinal purposes.

Korean Kimchi as served in Korea.
Korean Kimchi as served on Korea.
Marie Hegler, ©2017, Clemson Extension

Japan is known for miso, a fermented combination of soybeans, rice and barley. In West Africa, garri is an important food source made from the root vegetable cassava, which can be poisonous if not properly fermented. Tanzanians use fermented gruel called togwa to protect against food-borne illnesses in areas of unsanitary conditions. In Russia and the Balkans, fermented vegetables are extremely common. In India, varieties of chutneys, all of which were originally fermented products, are traditional foods, and soured milk is consumed at practically every meal. In Indonesia, tempeh is eaten regularly. Early American tradition includes many types of relishes, developed in part to mask the taste and odor of less than fresh food.


Commonly eaten foods and beverages such as sourdough breads, sour cream, buttermilk, soy sauce, miso, pickles, yogurt, cheese, alcohol, vinegar, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, cider, coffee, chocolate, Worcestershire sauce, as well as tea are all traditionally fermented. The processes that produced some of these foods were found to occur quite naturally while others have been refined over time.

As a food preparation, fermentation involves the breakdown and digestion of carbohydrates in foods or beverages by microorganisms under anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions. More specifically, fermentation can refer to the use of yeast to convert sugar into alcohol, as in the case of wine or beer, or the use of “good” bacteria to create lactic acid from milk sugar in cheese-making. The latter scenario, known as lactic acid fermentation or lacto-fermentation, is among the most common method and one of the easiest to experiment with.

Common Food Products Produce By Fermintation

In a nutshell, the process of fermentation:

  • Renders food resistant to microbial spoilage and the development of toxins
  • Improves digestion and nutrient absorption of food
  • Preserves food between the time of harvest to consumption
  • Enhances flavor and nutritional value

Fermented Vegetables

As one of the more common types of fermentation, lacto-fermentation is most recognizable in dairy products such as buttermilk, cheese, and yogurt. However, lacto-fermentation can also be used to make fermented vegetables. Lacto-fermenting vegetables involves a combination of salt and beneficial bacteria. Traditional lacto-fermentation utilizes the microflora already present on the vegetables as well as a lactic acid bacteria starter culture, such as whey (the liquid portion separated from sour milk, buttermilk, kefir or yogurt). Salt is used to draw water out of the vegetable tissue, creating a brine that covers the vegetables as the anaerobic bacteria goes to work converting sugars and starches into lactic acid and acetic acid. These acids act as an all-natural preservative while also encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria (including strains of the same probiotics found yogurt), which improves gut health, enhances the digestion of nutrients, and boosts immunity. Additionally, fermented vegetables keep longer and take on interesting characteristics and flavors while being rich in nutrients and fiber. When prepared properly, fermented vegetables can be stored unrefrigerated and uncooked for months. Fermented vegetables are great way to store a surplus of produce as well as increase their value.

Cabbage, cucumbers, and olives are, perhaps, the most popular fermented vegetables; however, there are a variety of others, including some fruits that offer a variety of palate-pleasing flavors and textures.

  • Carrots
  • Garlic
  • Soybeans
  • Olives
  • Cucumbers
  • Onions
  • Turnips
  • Radishes
  • Beets
  • Cauliflower
  • Peppers
  • Lemons
  • Berries

For more information see HGIC 3380, Dill Pickles & Sauerkraut.

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