The Farm Stand: Wiping out food allergies with fermentation

Authored By Shawn Schuster

Food allergies are becoming an epidemic. If you have young children, you know that the warnings are everywhere. You can’t bring certain “high-risk” foods in school lunches anymore, and many children take a shocking amount of medication every day to help curb their reactions.

A study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that food allergies among children increased almost 50 percent from 1997 to 2011. Researchers also estimate that 15 million Americans and 17 million Europeans currently suffer from food allergies. The concentration of reactions in developed countries is baffling scientists, but a new study may have the answer that our grandmothers knew all along: We need to eat more fermented foods.

When I was growing up, even the word “fermented” was gross to me. It conjured up images of rot and mold, and that’s something I was always told to stay away from. Ironically enough, this fear of the natural fermentation process may be one of our biggest enemies today.

This new study introduced mice with peanut allergies to a natural gut bacteria found in humans called clostridia. While the bacteria blocked the peanut allergies in the mice, it also pointed out another important find. In a 2004 study, immunologist Dr. Cathryn Nagler and her team discovered that certain antibiotics remove clostridia from the system, allowing allergies to develop and thrive. So in combination with this new study, it’s safe to say that the overuse of antibiotics is directly causing the increase in food allergies.

“We have co-evolved with our microbiota, and it has an enormous impact on our health,” Nagler said to the BBC. “It’s having a negative impact now because we’ve disturbed it with antibiotics, a high-fat diet and C-sections.”

Nagler goes on to comment in another interview with KCET about infants and antibiotics: “An infectious disease specialist made the point that most kids in the U.S. receive two or three courses of antibiotics in infancy. Most of the treatments they receive are for viral infections, meaning they’re getting a treatment that serves no purpose.”

Although it may take several years to get clostridia approved for pill form, it’s important to note that gut bacteria is created naturally through the fermentation of certain foods. Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and many other delicious foods can help reintroduce your intestines to the bacteria it needs for proper digestion and health. And yes, beer counts as a healthy fermented food, although pasteurization kills the good bacteria.

Fermentation has been around since the beginning of time as a way to preserve food. Before refrigerators, ice in bags and chemical preservatives, people fermented their food for long-term storage. So why did its use decline in the past 100 years or so? Mainly because fermentation has certain variables that don’t play well with mass production. There’s no easy and cheap way to manufacture, age, transport and store fermented food on a large scale.

Home fermenting can be tricky (and potentially dangerous, if done incorrectly), so your best bet is to do lots of research before just letting some cabbage rot on your counter and eating it. “The Art of Fermentation” is the absolute best book you can get on the topic. Author Sandor Katz takes a look at fermentation from the do-it-yourselfer’s perspective, showing that just about every type of food can be properly fermented with the right knowledge and care.

“Mastering Fermentation: Recipes for Making and Cooking with Fermented Foods” is another good one if you’re looking for recipes to try out once you understand the basics. Author Mary Karlin shows you how to make everything from fermented vinegars and mustard to tips on preserving and curing meats.

If you’re still a bit grossed out by fermentation and the idea of introducing it to your body, you might be surprised to learn that you are probably already eating it. Sourdough bread, beer, yogurt, cheese, pickles, apple cider and even salami are all commonly fermented foods. Some of these are now artificially fermented with chemicals through a cheaper manufacturing process, so be aware of what’s real and what’s been processed in a lab.

And if you’re overwhelmed with the work it takes to ferment on your own, there are a few helpful products out there to make things faster and easier. The Kraut Source is a small-scale fermentation device that was recently Kickstarted to help the average busy consumer make small batches of what the inventors call “gourmet fermentation.”

So don’t be afraid to embrace the preservation methods of our ancestors, and you may discover a whole new taste to enjoy, while giving your body the proper tools it needs to fight digestive or allergy problems.

Shawn Schuster is a small-scale sustainable farmer in Alabama. He can be reached on Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.