When I told one of my close friends that I was going to live off of nothing but fermented food for an entire year, she wondered how it could be possible to consume so many living microbes and not die. Surely, if there are bacteria swarming over all your food, every meal, every day, chances are that some of those bacteria would eventually turn out to be bad, right? Chances are, eventually some microbe or other would make you sick—or so she reasoned. It seems like some law of probability, common sense.
But of course, that didn't happen. Here I am, having successfully lived off of food crawling with bacteria for 12 months, with enough energy left to write a book about the experience: The Fermented Man. The power of fermentation is not just that it renders food safe and preserved for long-term storage, but that it usually makes foods healthier than they were in the first place.
The wine, cheese, and chocolate diet
Fermentation is an alliance with microbes that benefit our digestion and health, and in creating this alliance, we suppress the forces of rot and sickness. We pick the winning side in a microbial battlefield that, by some lucky quirk of evolution, also happens to result in foods as amazing as cheese and beer. Or prosciutto and yogurt. Or vanilla and chocolate. Or bread and wine. Whatever you're into, chances are a good portion of your diet already consists of fermented foods and drinks.
And that was the other main reason I decided to submit a year of my life to such an intense experiment. There was no question that what I was doing was somewhat insane and definitely unnecessarily extreme. But by taking my "fermented man" project to such an extreme, I could demonstrate just how many foods that we already eat and enjoy on a regular basis are a product of fermentation.
Fermentation can run a spectrum from the normal and the everyday to the undeniably weird. Some of the strangest fermented things out there certainly rank among the strangest foods (of any sort) in the world, and it's often microbes that send them over the top. Mucusy Japanese natto, geode-like Century Eggs, or fermented fish dishes from cultures around the world—fermentation can get weird, and that's a good thing. A few of the foods I ate were a little hard to swallow, I'll admit, but other times led me to discover incredible oddities that I would have never experienced otherwise.
That funky fermented flavor
Because fermentation almost always creates new layers of flavor, whatever it is you're starting out with. Changes can be simple: an increase in acidity, resulting in a succulent tart quality. Funkier, fermentation-driven flavors can emerge: Think aged cheese. In cases like cabbage, fermentation can transform a hard-to-eat veggie into a snackable treat without any cooking at all. Given that so many ferments happen naturally, relying on microbes found native in the environment, one could see fermentation as a sort of magic trick: a method we've unlocked that causes food to cook itself using no outside energy source. Just a Mason jar and time.
The health impact of consuming so many microbes
Chances are, most people are driven to learn about fermentation because they've heard of its health benefits. Fermented foods hit the health angle in two main ways: their probiotic and prebiotic qualities. Probiotic means that the food contains still-living microbes—which, to drastically oversimplify a very complicated subject, aid in our gut health, helping to keep our microbiome in balance. The prebiotic quality of fermented foods means that microbes have already done a significant amount of the work in processing these foods for us, making them easier to digest and often unlocking nutrients that our own body could not otherwise have accessed. My diet proved to be an exercise in eating simply, and eating simply often means eating better, more nutrient-dense foods.
Despite the limiting nature of the experiment, which often made it difficult to put together a meal on the go, I had ample energy. I consumed significantly less sugar, and felt more satiated by the foods I was eating. Though many fermented foods do contain salt, I found I wasn't consuming nearly as much sodium as one might from typical processed foods. Plus, microbes help to regulate blood pressure, and so over the course of the year, my blood pressure went down. My cholesterol remained at healthy levels. (My doctor, at one point, simply told me to stop coming in unless something actually went wrong.) My digestion felt more consistent and less confused by unorthodox meal choices. My gut felt like it could handle anything, though of course, it didn't really have to, because fermented foods are by nature much easier for us to process. And while it's perhaps a coincidence—I certainly don't want to claim that my personal, singular experience counts as a scientific study—I did not fall sick at all during my year of eating bacteria and mold.
So while "fermented foods" cover a vast spectrum of widely varying substances, it is fairly safe to say that, yes, fermented foods are good for you. Probably even necessary for our health. You don't have to base a diet around them to discover that; just snack on some regularly. You'll likely be surprised at how you feel.