Katz highlights benefits of fermentation at lecture

Caitlin Deaver

Self-described fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz presented his lecture, “The Art of Fermentation,” in the packed Great Hall of the Memorial Union, discussing the concept of fermentation.

Fermentation, as Katz defined it at the Jan. 22 lecture, is the transformative action of microorganisms.

“Fermentation is so thoroughly part of our food traditions that people eat fermented products and have no idea they are doing it,” Katz said. “Not very many people know, but coffee is fermented, and so are bread and cheese, cured meats and condiments.”

Katz said he has been searching for 15 years for a culinary example that does not include fermentation. So far, he has not found an example.

Katz, nicknamed “Sandorkraut,” first got interested in fermentation when he was gardening. He wanted to learn how to make sauerkraut with the cabbages he had grown, and that opened the floodgates to his increased interest in the ancient form of preservation.

Katz is best known for two of the books he authored about fermentation.

“The Art of Fermentation,” Katz’ most recent book, serves the public as a do-it-yourself guide for those dabbling with home fermentation. The book also goes into greater depth on the process and concepts of fermentation.

In his 2003 book, “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods,” Katz discussed how foods like ginger beer and yogurt came about. He also shared the cultural significance and health benefits of fermentation.

Katz said that there were four primary nutritional benefits of fermentation.

The first benefit is pre-digestion. Fermentation breaks the nutrients down into simpler forms in foods such as soybeans, making the plant food considered to have the most concentrated protein easier to digest.

The second benefit is detoxification. Fermented foods predigest toxic compounds to make them benign. An example would be the cassava root, which is notorious for having cyanide compounds present in its raw state. Other less-dramatic acids get broken down, too.

The third nutritional benefit is nutrient enhancement. Beyond breaking down nutrients found in the food, more B-vitamins are being consumed. Certain fermented foods, like sauerkraut, are even considered to have anti-carcinogenic compounds.

The fourth and most important benefit, said Katz, is live bacterial cultures. These live bacteria can only be found in foods that have been fermented with no additional processing or heating. Katz said people have been under the influence of the anti-bacteria ideology, where more-beneficial bacteria are being overlooked.

“There’s this ideology we’ve all been taught for so long that says bacteria are all terrible,” Katz said. “Look at soaps in the supermarket. There is nothing more alluring to write on a package of soap than ‘Kills 99.9 percent of bacteria’.”

Those beneficial bacteria give humans much of their functionality, as they synthesize simple nutrients. Bacteria regulate many human processes, such as the immune and digestive systems.

Katz also pointed out that fermentation is an effective strategy for food safety. He said sauerkraut was among the safest foods to eat, and that there is research proceeding about whether fermented vegetables are safer to eat than raw vegetables. Katz also said the USDA never had a documented case of sickness from fermented vegetables.

With fermentation comes a change in flavor, too. Katz said the hallmark flavor of fermented foods is umami, or the newer savory flavor. Because microorganisms consume sugars and make acids or alcohol, the food is not as sweet as it was before fermentation, giving fermented foods the reputation of being more of an acquired taste.

“In addition to being an important mode of transformation of foods and beverages, fermentation is also a mode of social transformation and social change,” Katz said.

Katz’s presentation was co-sponsored by AgArts, the Culinary Sciences Club, the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, the Food Science Club, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Sustainable Agriculture Student Association and the Committee on Lectures, which is funded by the Government of the Student Body.