I preordered Michal Pollan’s new book, Food Rules, so it arrived on the day it was published. At 112 sparse pages, it’s really more of a pamphlet but I’ve been enjoying reading it off and on for the last few days. When I reached Rule #33 (of 64) it stopped me in my tracks, and it started me thinking. Here’s the rule:
Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.
Many traditional cultures swear by the health benefits of fermented foods — foods that have been transformed by live microorganisms, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread.
Pollan goes on to list essential nutrients, vitamins, etc. found in these foods. He ends by mentioning that probiotics are contained in many fermented foods, which studies “suggest improve the function of the digestive and immune systems,” and may combat allergies, too.
So here’s my question. If, as Pollan seems to suggest, that it’s fairly settled that fermented foods have health benefits, doesn’t it then follow that fermented beverages would, too?
In Rule 43 he suggests drinking wine with dinner, while not mentioning beer at all. And the man’s from Berkeley, for chrissakes. He appears to be following the old reservatrol canard in choosing wine over other alcohol, though he admits alcohol of any kind can be beneficial in moderation, something that’s becoming increasingly apparent in study after study.
That slight aside, isn’t fermentation fermentation? It’s an anaerobic process (meaning it takes place without oxygen) in which chemical reactions split complex organic compounds into more simple substances. And if it’s good in food, it should be similarly beneficial in beer, wine and spirits, too.
Beer has been called liquid bread since ancient times. It’s nourished men and women since civilization began, and increasingly is believed to have been the very reason for civilization’s beginnings. Some scientists now believe that our ancestor’s tolerance for alcohol in quantity was an important factor in their survival. So much so, that quite literally you and I owe our very existence to the fact that we have an unbroken chain of ancestors stretching back to the dawn of civilization whose ability to process alcohol insured they lived long enough to reproduce. If that had not been the case, I wouldn’t be here to write these words and you wouldn’t be here, reading them now.
Anyway, just some … ahem … food for thought. Any brewers, chemists or scientists out there know if there would be any substantial difference between fermented food and a fermented beverage? I certainly can’t think of any. If not, I would suggest that Food Rule #33 be amended to “Eat some foods or drink some beverages that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.”
Andy Sparhawk says
The book ‘Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers’ by Buhner continually hammers the point home that the components that go in to a fermented beverage are increased, nutritionally, when fermented. Check it out.
Good thought. I’ve got the book. I’ll take a look.
No, all fermentation is not the same.
Fermentation using yeast (and a few other bacteria) consumes carbs to produce ethanol and CO2, making those wonderfully fun alcoholic beverages we love.
Fermentation using lactic acid bacteria consumes lactose to produce lactic acid and sometimes CO2, and has evolved as a food preservative. In my opinion, what makes fermented foods important for nutrition is that the foods that are usually fermented are also rich in beneficial vitamins and minerals. Kimchi…Yumm!!
Matt Hendry says
Charlie Bamforth at UC Davis might have a few stern words for Micheal Pollan because Charlie’s current research focus is the “The Wholesomeness of Beer”
A couple rambling thoughts from your unemployed winemaker friend: First, in fermented foods the fermenting organisms are still present; proteins, sterols, lipids and all. Alive, as in perhaps Kimchee or fresh sauerkraut, dead as in bread, but present nevertheless. In most fermented beverages, the little critters are generally absent; lost in the bottoms, lees or filters. (Bee brew, pruno and Hefeweizen notwithstanding.) Second, and kinda related to the first, is that there are few, if any, amino acids (utilized by the fermenting organisms) and there is virtually no protein (denatured by alcohol or removed with heat, clay or the like.)
None of this answers the question of whether fermented beverages are nutritionally as good for us as fermented foods, though. As if we cared. Great post!
As a chemist, not only is beer full of the fruit of the labor or the noble microbe Saccharomyces, but if you choose your ale judiciously you can find one still swimming with living cultures. Any “pre-biotic” benefits ought to be intensified, like yogurt on steroids. Not to mention that the live soup presents a mixture of B vitamins in their freshest and most active state. The IPA went to India not so much to feed the troops in the field but to keep the sailors en route from getting beriberi. So don’t decant that brew, slurry it up and take it in.
While I agree Pollan’s omission is unfortunate, I call B.S. to your claim that civilization came about because of beer and I suspect there are no primary sources that you can cite as reference. In summary, Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world.
Andy, you may want to take another look at what I wrote. I didn’t claim beer was the oldest drink in the world, but that it helped spark civilization. Big difference. Fruit and honey based alcoholic drinks do not require the cultivation of grains, therefore can be made while mankind is still in hunting/gathering mode. Even in your link, Martyn at Zythophile (who’s a friend of mine, BTW) talks about the fruit and honey beers being made “in the wild,” that is before civilization. Naturally, mankind, would have to learn what alcohol was and how to best make it BEFORE they could make the decision to stay put and engage in its manufacture. But what scientists are beginning to believe more and more, is that the decision to stop roaming — and therefore create civilization as a by-product — was to make beer. Previously, it had been thought that bread was the reason.
And in any event, it’s not MY claim. You didn’t really think I just made it up, did you? It’s a theory that’s been around at least since the 1950s, proffered by archeologists based on mounting evidence at digs where early man lived. As for primary sources, I’d suggest you start with “Uncorking the Past” by Patrick McGovern, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, though there are others.
P.S. – I tried to reply to you directly, but apparently you didn’t have the courage to use a valid e-mail address.