Fermentation: An Ageless Process That Supercharges
Fermentation: An Ageless Process That Supercharges Cod Liver Oil (and mamy other foods)
A method of food preparation and preservation, fermentation is a universal practice and reaches back in time to the mist-filled dawn of human history and even before, the earliest archaeological evidence of it being traceable to neolithic China around 7000 B.C.
In essence, fermentation refers to the conversion of carbohydrates into another form by the action of bacteria or yeast in anaerobic conditions, i..e. an environment without oxygen. Louis Pasteur, an early researcher into the science of fermentation, referred to it quite simply as “respiration without air,” even while humbly acknowledging the process as a mystery beyond his comprehension. We know more about it now, but the science behind it remains awesomely complex, confirming the wisdom of our ancestors in their use of fermentation as a mainstay of their approach to food and nutrition.
Typically, we associate fermentation with beverages like wine, beer, and cider, where naturally occurring sugars are transformed into alcohol. It can also, however, refer to the conversion of carbohydrates into carbon dioxide in the case of leavened bread or into the lactic acid characteristic of foods like sauerkraut or yogurt.
In a sense, fermentation is a process of decomposition, but one guided and shaped by beneficial microorganisms and carrying with it a host of rather astonishing benefits. For one thing, it renders food stable and allows for long-term storage—not insignificant in pre-modern times when there was no refrigeration. For another, it entails an aspect of pre-digestion that results in higher bioavailability. Not only that, but fermentation enhances vitamin, protein, and amino acid content, as well as adding a compelling, piquant flavour. In a study that compared fermented and unfermented garlic, fermented garlic was found to have more vitamins E and B2, not to mention amino acids.[i] Also, fermentation of the garlic raised the levels of SOD (superoxide dismutase), a critical antioxidant enzyme, by more than 13-fold. [ii]
Remarkably enough, fermentation also detoxifies food by eliminating what are called antinutrients. For example, in a recent study, it was found that fermentation was able to degrade tetrodotoxin, the deadly nerve toxin extracted from the pufferfish, to the point where it was rendered safe and harmless and in fact edible. [iii]
As well, fermentation has a dramatic effect on allergenicity. Researchers at the University of Illinois have found that fermentation renders soy non-allergenic and also increases the number of its amino acids. “When we fermented soy seeds, flour, or meal by introducing certain microorganisms,” Professor Elvira de Mejia explains, “immunoreactivity was significantly reduced—by as much as 99 percent… Why do we see this reduced immunoreactivity? During the fermentation process, proteins are broken down into very small pieces, pieces that can’t be identified by antibodies that produce the allergic reaction.” [iv]
In the case of cod liver oil as a fermented foodstuff, liver glycogen (i.e. a form of sugar) is converted by microorganisms into lactic acid, which also acts as a preservative. Meanwhile, proteins are broken down into amino acids, as well as other compounds, mostly having to do with flavour and aroma. The process also increases the content of vitamins A, D and K, all of which are fat soluble. This naturally occurring enhancement of vitamin and amino acid content means that there is no need to augment the oil with synthetic vitamins and antioxidants. As well, not unexpectedly, the fermentation process serves to detoxify the cod liver oil, purging it of antinutrients.
When all is said and done, cod liver oil is a foodstuff that lends itself superbly well to fermentation and its very evident advantages.
[i] A Montano et al, “Vitamin content and amino acid composition of pickled garlic processed with and without fermentation,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2004 December; 52(24): 7324-30.
[ii] E Sato, “Increased anti-oxidative potency of garlic by spontaneous short-term fermentation,” Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 2006 December; 61(4):157-160.
[iii] Kensaku Anraku et al, “Removal of toxin (tetrodotoxin) from puffer ovary by traditional fermentation,” Toxins (Basel) 2013 January; 5(1): 193-202.
[iv] Press Release, Thursday, March 6, 2008, “U of I scientists aim to overcome allergic reactions to soy,” accessed online at: http://sciencefail.net/3647/U_of_I_scientists_aim_to_overcome_allergic_reactions_to_soy