Sandor Katz is the celebrated author of “Wild Fermentation”, which is the first cookbook to explore the culinary potential of fermented foods. The book also covers the many health benefits of this superfood and it has been hugely influential in fueling the rapidly growing global interest in this traditional food stabilising strategy. In this interview, conducted at Graeme Sait’s home, during Sandor’s first visit to Australia, they discuss a wide range of food related issues as this generous trailblazer shares some of his passion and purpose.
Graeme: Congratulations on the success of your book and thank you for agreeing to this interview. In the book, you mention the multiple benefits of fermentation, ranging from health to gourmet cooking and multi-culturalism. However, it was the reference to a spiritual link that fascinated me. Could you please elaborate upon how fermenting your own food can increase spiritual awareness?
Sandor: Yes, this relates to the disconnect we have created in our culture between people and the sources of food. Historically, all other animals and all human beings, up until the last couple of centuries, have been intimately involved in the gathering and/or cultivation of their food. On a spiritual level this has been an integral part of people’s understanding of themselves as part of the natural world. Our primary activity had formerly been based on sustenance but through the division of labour we had supposedly been freed from that tedious requirement. In fact, in the industrialised world the number of people involved in food production is now just 1% to 2% of the population. Part of the current spiritual crisis in our world relates to this disconnect from the natural world. One of the simple steps to reclaim that connection with nature is to establish your own vegetable garden but many people from the cities (most of the world’s inhabitants) do not have that opportunity. Getting involved with fermentation is an alternate, tangible manifestation of that connection with the natural world. The spiritual connection is enhanced because in fermentation we are dealing with things (microbes) we cannot see. We can only witness the outcome of their activity. Like spirituality, we are dealing with invisible forces that influence our lives.
Graeme: I guess in the face of increasing uncertain world, fermenting your own food can provide some form of food security and it also reduces our reliance upon multi-national food corporations.
Sandor: Yes, exactly! Another aspect of this disconnect is the control of the food supply. From an activist perspective it is a serious issue that a smaller and smaller group of larger and larger corporate entities control our food. This creates a huge and undesirable dependency, which has resulted in the supply of lower quality food for which we are paying more. It is a powerful form of activism for people to take back some form of control. Transforming and stabilizing raw food through fermentation offers an independent alternative to processed food. We can reduce our dependence and reclaim some of our power in this manner.
Graeme: There is a direct parallel here with the changes we are encouraging in agriculture. The on-farm brewing of microbe inoculums involves a similar scenario. We are encouraging reduced reliance upon multi-national chemical companies and it is a similar act of faith in that farmers are dealing with invisible forces. There is also a feel-good factor, after embracing the biological approach that has an undeniable spiritual link. The disconnect from our food is not just limited to food production. The consumption of food has always sacred and the saying of grace before meals is an example of this. Whacking down your Big Mac while slurping your shake and fielding calls on your iPhone is a long way from sacred appreciation of food. The availability of different foods has also changed so dramatically in recent decades. Do you feel that this has had any impact?
Sandor: Yes, it is a part of understanding that there are these natural cycles and that there are times of the year where certain foods become available. In some ways we are very lucky that we can get asparagus and strawberries all year round and foods that have traditionally only been available for a couple of weeks each year. This is certainly a luxury but it may not be as lucky as we might assume, there is a compelling school of thought that suggests that there is great gain in us being in touch with the natural rhythms and cycles of what grows when. We are so profoundly alienating from this and it creates problems. It has demonstrably affected both our physical and spiritual health. There is a lot of searching for answers out there and this is a part of the root cause of this growing sense of alienation.
Graeme: We seem to be waging war on nature in our homes these days in terms of antibacterial sprays, wipes, shampoos and soaps that we are directed to apply to every surface. Do you feel that we have lost the plot in terms of our relationship with the microbial world?
Sandor: Oh yes, most definitely. I often suggest that our culture has declared war on bacteria. There are antibiotic drugs that have been massively over prescribed and the inclusion of antibacterial agents in so many household products spells huge problems in terms of inevitable bacterial resistance. Thousands of people die in hospital each year from resistant diseases and these people would have survived their illness a few decades back. This war on bacteria is an unwinnable war and our victory is inherently undesirable. Bacteria are required for the most basic bodily functions. The digestion of food, the efficiency of our immune system and many other things are based upon these creatures. We live in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and we cannot survive without them.
Graeme: The overgrowth of candida, which is said to affect more than 50% of us to some degree, is all about not understanding the nature of our symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Dysbiosis, the precursor to candida overgrowth, is about compromising the trillions of beneficial gut organisms that would normally keep candida in check. Our fermented, probiotic drink, Bio-Bubble, is often used to address this imbalance. In some countries the level of dysbiosis is so profound that people can only take 10% of the required daily dose of Bio-Bubble because the die-off response is so severe. As they repopulate they are able to increase their daily dose. Anyway, back to my interview questions. You live in a rural community in Tennessee far from the madding crowds. Do you think that your rural lifestyle inspired your enhanced relationship with the microbial world?
Sandor: Yes most definitely! I lived the first thirty tears of my life in New York City and when I moved down to Tennessee I got involved in gardening. This was the trigger for my involvement in fermentation. It was a practical thing. Suddenly there is all this cabbage and you have to figure out what to do with it. I had always appreciated the taste and benefits of this food but when I gardened I began to see the link between the processes that turn kitchen scraps into compost and those that fostered the improvement of soils. Then I realised that similar biological processes could sponsor the improvement of food and the improvement of my health. I had been seeking wellness solutions since my diagnosis with HIV a year earlier.
Graeme: Did your HIV diagnosis have anything to do with your move to rural Tennessee?
Sandor: Yes it did. I was an aspiring politician in New York at the time of my diagnosis and I immediately lost my political aspirations as I began to focus upon how I could stay healthy for longer. The move to the country was part of this wellness/survival strategy.
Graeme: You have remained remarkably healthy for an extended period following your involvement with fermented foods and it would seem obvious that these probiotic organisms could provide a substantial immune boost. Have you observed any similar benefits amongst others with HIV?
Sandor: In all honesty, I have yet to see anybody in any state of health who did not improve from the incorporation of live culture foods. It is not limited to those suffering from HIV. The effect is profound and undeniable. I am not suggesting that these foods are a cure-all but they will improve everyone’s overall health profile. Improved digestion, better blood sugar management and increased energy levels are some of the obvious changes.
Graeme: The fermentation of food can offer more than increased digestibility of that food. Sometimes it can determine the level of negative impact from certain foods. There are many who suggest that soy products should only be consumed if they have been fermented, due to their high levels of phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors (both of which are neutralised with fermentation). What is your opinion on this issue?
Sandor: I am familiar with the work of the Weston Price Foundation and they have some impressive research, which certainly throws some aspersions on unfermented soy products like soy milk. However, I believe there are comparable issues with cereal grains. We are eating way too much cereal in our diet and we were not designed to digest this food. Cereals also contain phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. If you pre-soak these grains or eat sourdough bread you can reduce the problem but we should all aim at reducing our cereal consumption.
Graeme: What are your feelings on the issue of raw milk vs. the processed version. I guess pasteurisation and, more recently, irradiation of our foods, can be seen as another example of a war on microbes that can sometimes be misguided.
Sandor: Yes, that is true. A single case of e-coli recently led to the pasteurisation or irradiation of all fruit juices in the U.S. There is always a minute risk of contamination of any food but the magic of raw food is that, even though it stands in an ocean of microbes, both good and bad, there is very little contamination. The native microbes that naturally inhabit all food actually protect from contamination, they outcompete the pathogens. Raw milk is a great example. If you leave pasteurised milk out of the refrigerator, it rapidly develops a rotten smell and should be discarded. By contrast, raw milk actually improves with age. It becomes sour milk and then forms edible curds or yogurt. This transformation is driven by the microbes that are killed off during pasteurisation. There is so much fear mongering linked to raw milk. Historically, the need for pasteurisation came from the industrialisation of the dairy industry. Cows in inappropriate, confined conditions inevitably had more disease. There is no doubt that pasteurisation of diseased milk is a good idea but raw milk from healthy cows is a vastly superior food item. It still contains the enzymes that help digest this complex food and it contains the microbes that sponsor the transformation that nature intended.
Graeme: Mastititis is the biggest issue in relation to pasteurisation. There is much greater leeway and profitability when you can just pasteurize the pus! It becomes a technology that actually supports poor hygiene to some extent. It is such an absurd situation that it is now illegal to buy fresh, healthy milk direct from the farm. That milk can be batch tested to ensure it is free from any contamination and yet we are denied a basic freedom in accessing the more nutritious option.
Sandor: It is ludicrous that the catch call of globalised food supply is free trade but a farmer is not free to sell his milk in its natural state to his neighbour. This milk is much more digestible because it contains 32 enzymes that help in the break down of milk. In fact, milk becomes increasingly digestible as it follows its natural progression. Huge numbers of people who are lactose intolerant can drink sour milk or eat yogurt because it has been predigested by the microbes and the lactase has been converted to lactic acid.
Graeme: Many dairy farmers are misusing nitrogen to the extent that the milk is nitrate contaminated. I understand that the lactobacillus that are present in raw milk and on the surfaces of all fruit and vegetables, can actually neutralise the nitrates to some extent. The problem of excess nitrates (a known carcinogen) extends beyond milk of course. Cabbages are one of the most nitrate-contaminated of all foods. The farmer is paid peanuts for this crop so he pumps it up quickly to make a profit. Making sauerkraut is one way to counteract the nitrate issues in this crop. However, there are a number of microbicides used during production and as post-harvest treatments in conventionally produced fresh food. Does this compromise the fermentation process? Do you tend to favour the use of organic produce?
Sandor: Yes, I certainly do. There is also the consideration of nutrient density and the freedom from chemicals that comes with organic produce. Although chemical residues could theoretically impact upon the fermentation process I must admit I have never found any food that wouldn’t start bubbling. If I am using conventional produce I tend to remove the outer layer, as this is where the chemicals have accumulated.
Graeme: Lacto-fermented food contains levels of B group vitamins over and above that which was found in the food prior to microbial pre-digestion. Lactobacillus actually produce these nutrients as exudates. Perhaps the most important of these are vitamins B6 and B5, which are often called the stress vitamins. In this crazy, stress-filled world we have created, most of us are actually deficient in these two vitamins. When we consume fermented food and repopulate with beneficial gut organisms we further boost our B vitamins, as these creatures continue to produce these nutrients as part of the synergistic give and take deal. However, when we are stressed we draw from our reserves of vitamins B5 and B6 and in their absence our beneficial gut organisms can die. It turns out that they also need these two vitamins. Ironically, our allies have boosted our supplies of these critical nutrients but we kill off these benefactors through overdrawing on our B vitamin bank account. Stress kills in many mysterious ways! I have been reading that lacto-fermentation can actually increase the nutritional value of food by up to 500%. Is this correct?
Sandor: When you ferment some of the staple food groups like grains it makes the minerals in that food much more available, so this pre-digestion of food has a huge role to play in terms of gaining maximum food value from diminishing food supplies. A tremendous report from the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome looked at food-scarce regions and how communities sourced essential minerals in these conditions. It was found that the traditional fermentation of root crops and grains offered the greatest source of minerals in their diets. There is a massive increase in the bioavailability of minerals following fermentation.
Graeme: I guess there is also the fact that you need less mineral-fuelled energy to digest these predigested foods, so there is also a net gain there in terms of mineral conservation. In your book you mentioned something called eco-immuno-nutrition which really appealed to me. Could you please elaborate on that concept?
Sandor: The concept of eco-immuno-nutrition recognises your digestive system as an ecosystem. You can then develop a strategy to improve that ecosystem through nutrition. I often talk about micro-biodiversity because we are increasingly being forced to recognise the importance of biodiversity in the larger world. We now understand more than ever, the incredible repercussions of extinctions upon other creatures, in a wider world where there is so much interdependence. There is no difference in our digestive systems. When we take antibiotics or drink chlorinated water we are causing species extinctions within our own bodies. The idea of eating live culture foods and taking probiotic supplements is about encouraging biodiversity and it is a strategy of eco-immuno nutrition.
Graeme: I like how it encompasses the link between beneficial gut organisms and immunity. Most of our immune system is located in or near the gut as it is these organisms that train the immune system. The greater our internal biodiversity and the healthier our ecosystem, the greater our immunity. Prebiotics become part of that nurturing strategy. The use of prebiotics involves consuming foods that stimulate probiotic organisms. Fructooligosaccharides and inulin are two of the most effective prebiotics. These food components are found most abundantly in members of the alium family. Onions, garlic, leeks and shallots are tremendously valuable foods. One study I read reported a 73% reduction in cancer associated with the consumption of one spring onion each day!
Sandor: Yes, you can feed this ecosystem the good stuff to sponsor enhanced resilience or you can also sponsor a biological imbalance with serious consequences if your nutrition is ill informed. Candida, is a good example of this. A sourdough complex involves both yeast and bacteria but if you feed the dough with sugar you will always have yeast dominance. A yeast overgrowth in our bodies is also fed by overconsumption of sugars. In this case we create dysbiosis, or an imbalance where pathogenic organisms are no longer kept in check. Abstinence from sugar, and everything that contains it, is the only way to counter candida.
Graeme: Candida is extremely difficult to beat. I fought the fight myself recently. It involved immune supporting herbs like pau d’arco combined with probiotics and prebiotics in high doses, live culture foods (like Bio-Bubble), substances that kill candida (like capryllic acid, oregano oil, garlic etc) and the complete removal of sugars from my diet. It was hard not eating any fruit for 4 weeks. I had to throw everything at it to reclaim control. This concept of induced ecological imbalance has a direct parallel with agriculture. As growers develop an understanding of the importance of the Soil Foodweb they also begin to realise that there is a price to pay when disrupting the biological balance. When you use a nematicide, for example, the price is particularly high. This chemical takes out all nematodes (both good and bad) and it also compromises several creatures that normally control root knot nematodes. It turns out that the main control mechanism for the damaging root knot nematode is the predatory nematodes that have also been killed in the chemical onslaught. The chemicals create an unbalanced ecology where there are no biological control mechanisms for the bad nematode, so when he returns to the scene he thrives unchecked. Your chemicals just selected for the very creature they were designed to control and you will use an ever-increasing amount of these chemicals in the absence of natural control. It works for the chemical salesmen but not for the rest of us. Antibiotics kill indiscriminately and create a similar breeding ground in which candida can flourish.
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