For many people, getting older is a bitter-sweet affair, with every year putting the fleeting beauty of youth further into the past.
But for all those out there forlornly maturing, we say take heart – and take a look at Mother Nature.
Some of the best-tasting foods in the kitchen have only come to be through the magic of time, through a little process called fermentation.
So the next time you enjoy a delicious cheese plate and glass of wine to celebrate yet another year gone by, remember that your meal was just a bucket of sour milk curds and mashed up grapes – until it reached a certain age.
To truly understand the beauty of fermentation, we’ll have to go under the microscope – literally.
The little buggers that put the process to work are the same microbes that live everywhere from our digestive tracts to the hot spring geysers bubbling up under most of Wyoming.
Just like us, these microorganisms need to intake food – and expel waste – in order to survive. But they also need oxygen to power their processes.
Fermentation is what happens when the food is available but the oxygen is not.
Microorganisms are simple and nearly perfect in their design, with the energy they generate serving almost exclusively to rid themselves of any excess energy. Their role in the world seems to be as participants in an endless energy conversion loop.
But without the presence of oxygen, the cells revert to something called anaerobic respiration to get the job done. The process results in more caustic waste products, including the acids and alcohols responsible for changing the composition of food.
And there are several different types of fermentation, depending on what types of microbes are involved and the foody factors they have to work with.
In cases of sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, pickles and sourdough bread, microbes utilize the sugary glucose found in carbohydrates for energy, and turn it into lactic acid, which works to further break down the cellular structures of the food and kick off the chemical chain reaction of change.
When yeast gets involved, the process looks different entirely. The microorganisms target different types of starches and sugars for consumption, leaving behind the remnants of ethyl alcohol, which is responsible for the conversion of bread and grapes into beer and wine.
And fermentation plays a role in the creation of vinegar, as well, when other types of microbes consume still different plant molecules and produce acetic acid.
But fermentation doesn’t just break down food in the kitchen – it helps our bodies do the same.
Fermentation changes the internal environment of food at a cellular level, making the atmosphere ripe for growing probiotics.
The microorganisms actually already live in our bodies – they’re on team good bacteria! – and help with everything from a boosted immune system to better digestion. It’s probiotics that cover such tasks as helping our body create certain vitamins and supporting the cells that line our guts.
In other words, they’re a good thing to have, and fermented food helps deliver them to us, and keep our systems in balance.
But fermented food and drinks are no one-trick pony.
As a result of the cellular breakdown process, these foods are typically rich with helpful compounds like vitamin C, zinc and iron. And fermentation doesn’t just deliver the nutrients, it helps our bodies absorb more of them.
Since these foods and drinks are, technically, pre-digested by microbes, they come to us with some of the more difficult-to-deal-with aspects of food already taken care of.
In the case of yogurt and kefir, for example, the lactose that can be tricky for many humans to digest has already been converted into the simpler sugars of glucose and galactose.
And products like tempeh can offer us even more nutritional benefits post-fermentation, as the process tends to take care of “antinutrients” – a class of compounds found in seeds, nuts, grains and legumes that get in the way of our body’s absorption abilities.
Still, it’s important to remember that these foods and drinks will impact us all differently. If you’re thinking of adding more fermented foods to your diet, you should speak with a doctor or nutrition professional first.
Science aside, the fermentation process has some objectively awesome outcomes on our food – at least when it comes to our taste buds.
After all, variety is the spice of life, and where would we be without the occasional brilliant briney bite or strange sour smack that can only come from fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut?
But the process takes place in even more foods than we could ever imagine.
The full list is truly staggering, but here are just a few of our favorites:
And if this list goes to show anything, it’s that, with fermented foods as with people, aging can be a truly beautiful process.