The difference between comes down to the preserving agent. "Regular" pickles are vinegar-based and may also contain sugar, while fermented foods are brined in salt-water and contain zero vinegar or sugar.
The problem with mass produced pickles is that the vinegar used is typically of lower quality, is quite acidic, and therefore rough on the body's system. "Isn't vinegar healthy?" Well, healthy vinegar is healthy-- the healthiest vinegar you can consume is apple cider vinegar (which is lower pH, fermented and contains live cultures.) Cheaper, low quality vinegar found in most grocery store pickles contains high pH, it's acid levels kill bacteria (good and bad) which is why you can effectively clean your house with vinegar. Shelf-stable, vinegar pickles are also pasteurized (fermented pickles are not) so if you have pickles containing vinegar in your fridge right now, they are NOT a live culture food. They are in fact dead.
A fermented pickle, by contrast, undergoes the transformative process from cucumber to pickle within a salt-water brine. The combination of salt-water, along with three other conditions: time, temperature and an oxygen-free environment, will set the perfect stage for the dying off of bad bacteria and the flourishing of good, lactic-acid bacteria, commonly known as "probiotics."
Fermentation is the oldest food preservation method on the planet, spanning across continents and cultures and dating back thousands of years. The industrial age, electricity, refrigeration, mass produced food and modern life produced the innovation of the shelf stable, vinegar soaked, dead pickle.
Fermentation relies on four factors: first is salt-water brine which we talked about in Question #1 and which has a low enough pH level to allow good lactic-acid bacteria to thrive.
Second is temperature: an ideal ferment needs to "cook" within a temperature range of ~68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature controls the rate of the process: too cool and the metabolic process is slowed down and cannot progress; too warm and you've got a rotten batch of veggies on your kitchen counter.
The third factor is time: The ~69 F mark is the target; this allows the ferment to undergo it's 10-14 processing time, which is the right amount of time for it to completely transform into a done batch.
The forth vital factor is the creation of an anaerobic, or oxygen-free environment within the ferment. With at-home, counter-top fermentation, this can be accomplished by submerging all veggies under the brine and securing everything with weights. The resurgent trend of fermentation today means you can purchase fermentation kits with airlocks that allow air to escape the ferment. Regardless of the method, the anaerobic environment must be achieved. Veggies must transform in an oxygen-free environment to suffocate and kill the bad bacteria and allow the good lactic-acid/lactobacillus "probiotic" bacteria to flourish.
There are several types of fermented foods and the resurgent trend in live culture foods means more choices than ever.
Fermented vegetables: Olives, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented veggies like green beans, okra and radishes. The benefit to having fermented vegetables be the mainstay of your live culture food intake is their fiber. Prebiotic foods are highly fibrous and will clean and prepare the gut to receive the full benefits of probiotic-rich foods. The other benefit of fermented vegetables is the wide variety to choose from. Since consuming fermented foods daily is a lifestyle habit, it helps continue the habit by having enough variety to keep an interesting variety of foods on your plate.
Kombucha: Wildly popular, kombucha is fermented tea. When choosing your kombucha, pick one with a lower sugar level. Kombucha is naturally quite tart, sour even. The American palette is primed for sweeter foods, and kombucha producers will add sugar, which is not optimal for gut health. Store bought kombucha can be pricey, between $3.50-$4.00 a bottle. Because of it's price tag and sugar levels, we consider kombucha a rare treat and not a daily lifestyle habit.
Yogurt: Grocery store yogurt is cultured, which means it it processed, pasteurized and then supplemented with live cultures after pasteurization. Although raw milk products contain live enzymes and cultures, any shelf stable yogurt product is processed and artificially (versus naturally) enhanced to contain live cultures. Yogurt is also a milk based product, which can cause bloating, cramping and gassiness in varying degrees for those of us that are on the lactose intolerant spectrum (basically all of us.) You'll also need to note the sugar levels in yogurt-- again natural yogurts are quite tart; "plain" yogurt is the REAL taste of yogurt.
Tempeh and sour dough bread: These are popular and delicious foods, but it's important to realize that any cooked or baked foods will kill live culture properties that are within the raw ingredients of a food. Sourdough bread's raw dough contains live cultures, it's baked result does not.
Miscellaneous: Fermented sauces, pastes, dips and marinades are all great choices as condiments to enliven your meals. These products are harder to find in grocery stores, you'll likely need to find a local, small batch producer in order to ensure true live culture status. Anything shelf stable (not in the fridge section), anything pasteurized and anything containing vinegar or sugar is NOT a live culture food.
CONCLUSION: When setting and keeping the intention to consume live culture foods daily, realize that this is a lifestyle. Healthy habits are best kept when it's fun and interesting: choose a variety of fermented food types and experiment. Watch your sugar and dairy. Watch your sodium levels too (although fermented vegetables derive much of their flavor from the fermentation process itself, versus the salt so they are a lower sodium option than vinegar pickles.) Keep it interesting! Your microbiome prefers variety.
Of course, there's no Recommended Daily Allowance provided by the FDA for probiotic consumption. At Olive My Pickle, we recommend consuming fermented foods three times a day, as snacks or with meals. Treat them as a topping or a condiment. Serving sizes are actually quite small: a speak of a pickle (1/4 of a pickle), 5-6 olives, a quarter cup of kraut.
Depending on the state of your gut health and if you are new to fermented foods, you should take it slower in the beginning and level up as your gut adjusts to the prebiotic and probiotic increase. Of course, "don't believe everything you read on the internet." When it comes to your health, talk to a functional medicine specialist or nutritionist to set a diet plan with you, taking into consideration your current health state, your goals and preferences and your health challenges.
In our eight years of being in the pickle business, we've heard so many success stories. Many of our customers shop with us weekly and literally consume pounds of fermented products per week and report back huge digestive benefits from their larger consumption. We've never hear of anyone "overdoing" it. When we ran a pickle eating contest last year, after eating more than a pound of pickles in just a few minutes, all the contestants reported back and told us they felt just fine for the rest of the day. :-)
Fermented foods are not a low sodium food. If you're watching your sodium, you can lower the salt levels in ferments: simply pour our some brine and replace with plain filtered water. Within a day or so osmosis will have lowered the sodium levels.
You're microbiome is the colony of bacteria that lives in your body, mostly in your gut. It's involved in a massive amount of bodily function, including immune system support, digestive support, appetite regulation, metabolism and more. We have more extensive articles about the microbiome's many functions in our Gut Health Blog.
The health state of your microbiome is the result of the quality of life you've lived up until now: your stress levels, your sleeping habits, medications you take and of course your diet. It only makes sense that a healthier microbiome translates to a healthier YOU, and emerging scientific research is now revealing the deep correlation between microbiome health and an individual's total wellness, making microbiome science a breakthrough area of research.
Healing, restoring, reinstating and nurturing a healthy microbiome is an essential part of living a full, healthy life-- mind, body and soul. It is not a "one and done" project, but rather a holistic lifelong, daily practice.
Diet is the factor that impacts the microbiome the most. Fermented foods are a part of any gut healthy diet. But fermented foods alone will not heal a sick microbiome (just like putting new oil in an engine will not make a car run smooth if all other parts have been neglected.) The length of time it takes to heal and restore one's microbiome is an individual journey.
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