This is Part 2 of the Sandor Katz interview. Click here to read Part 1.
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.
The Conversation – Part 2
Graeme: There is a direct parallel between the role of Lactobacillus in our gut and the role played by the soil foodweb in protecting their host, the plant. In fact, in both cases, a suite of similar exudates are released. These include B group vitamins (several of which are now recognised as plant growth stimulants), enzymes and protective biochemicals, including antibiotics. Soil life, including beneficial fungi and bacteria, is, in effect, the stomach of the plant, as the plant does not produce digestive enzymes. However, the parallel becomes even more profound when we realise that the very same organisms that live within us all can play a beneficial role in both our stomachs and in the soil. Are you familiar with the use of Lactobacillus in agriculture?
Sandor: I think that many growers who utilize composting or those who make silage have recognised the similarity between this form of decomposition and the human digestive process. However, they may not have recognised that the same organisms can offer similar benefits in both the gut and the soil. The best example of the use of Lactobacillus in the soil is the Japanese product, Effective Microbes (EM). I have recently received letters from people who are even adding EM during food fermentation with good results. Fermentation can actually be both anaerobic or aerobic. The fermentation that is involved in the production of vinegar, for example, happens on the surface where there is air, so it can be described as an aerobic process.
Graeme: We have worked with a large South African farming operation that successfully utilise both compost teas and EM inoculums in their operation. Many of the species of Lactobacillus found in EM are also found in our fermented drink, Bio-Bubble™. We demonstrate the making of sauerkraut to attendees at our courses using Bio-Bubble™ as a starter. The normal 3-week process is reduced down to just three days when Bio-Bubble™ is added during the layering process. One of the species that is common to both Bio-Bubble™ and EM is Lactobacillus plantarium. This species is such a voracious cellulose digester that it can prove a problem if over-applied in the absence of a carbon source. The South African farm actually found that this species was actually reducing levels of organic carbon in the soil if it was applied without a carbon source. Fresh green grass appears to be the most effective carbon source as this is a bacteria and these creatures prefer easy-to-digest organic matter. I would love to trial the benefits of applying Bio-Bubble™ to the soil some time. Lactobacillus can also be used effectively for disease control. A few years ago there was some research conducted in North Queensland where (yoghurt brewed with molasses) was compared to registered fungicides for the control of anthraxnose on avocados. The yogurt, foliar sprayed on the crop, actually outperformed the fungicides. Research funding for this project was suddenly cut following this finding. It appears that a kilo of yogurt is not a big money spinner!
Anyway, I had better get back on track with the interview. In the book you discuss the hygiene hypothesis in relation to the marked increase in allergies like asthma. Could you please explain this concept?
Sandor: There is an increasing interest in research that might help explain the allergy increase. Many children are growing up in an over sterilised environment where there is little contact with soil organisms. It is precisely this contact with a diverse range of microorganisms during childhood that strengthens our immune system. There is a growing body of research that supports this hygiene hypothesis. The immune system must come into contact with organisms to develop a response reaction. This works in the same way with external organisms and the organisms that live in our digestive tract. Much of the immune system is located in or near the gut to facilitate this learning process.
Graeme: Yes, the greater the numbers and diversity of gut organisms, the more robust the immunity. I feel that many people fail to think through the likely causes of dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut organisms). Most people are now familiar with the destructive potential of broad-spectrum antibiotics but they don’t even consider the contribution of everyday processed food items. Food was not designed to last on the supermarket shelves for up to two years but that is now possible and this has dramatically increased the profitability of marketing food. The extended shelf-life is due to the use of food grade stabilisers - biocides that kill single-celled spoilage organisms. Our gut houses a hundred trillion single celled organisms and why would we think that the biocidal effects stops at our mouth. Do you feel that food stabilisers are an issue in this regard?
Sandor: There is an absurd array of chemicals included in processed foods and the food grade stabilisers are amongst the worst of these in relation to the health of probiotic organisms. This expectation that food will be stable for ever on a shelf is a really terrible idea! Fresh food not only contains more nutrients and less contaminants but it also features a life force that is an important part of the nourishment. We divorce ourselves from any concept of life force with dead, processed food. It’s not just about the stabilisers, it’s the irradiation and heat during processing which destroys the precious enzyme component.
Graeme: Unfortunately, this beneficial bug killing side-effect doesn’t stop at our food, our drinking water contains chlorine and fluoride which are both biocides.
Sandor: I always used to advise people that you could volatise off the chlorine as gas if you left it standing for a while before using it but this is often not the case as new forms of chlorine have been developed which are less volatile.
Graeme: Longevity has often been associated with cultures that consumed live culture food. Do you feel that consumption of fermented foods can lead to a longer, healthier life?
Sandor: Longevity is multi-factorial and it would be too reductionist to attribute longevity solely to the consumption of fermented food. In many cases, we have created such a toxic environment that it seems unlikely that the simple consumption of yoghurt could counter that level of contamination. It seems that it is a constant across cultures that people recognise the power of live culture foods. The Japanese have institutionalised miso, the mediteranean cultures favour yogurt, the Koreans, kim chi and the Russians and Scandinavian countries cherish kefir. There is no doubt that these foods boost health on many levels and, in all likelihood, boost longevity, but they are not a magic bullet. There is food and water quality and a range of other contributing factors.
Graeme: It seems that human cultures and microbial cultures have been intimately interconnected through the ages particularly when we view the impact of alcohol in the equation. Has alcohol played a significant role in cultural development.
Sandor: The mere fact that we have used the word culture in both instances is revealing. Human culture refers to the entire accumulation of human language, art, literature and music. Many linguistic theorists support the idea that it was through altered states of consciousness that we developed and elaborated language. Fermented beverages, plants and fungi have been used to create these creative states. We simply become more playful and creative under the influence. The vast majority of cultures around the world have incorporated fermented beverages in their spiritual and religious practices and rituals. One major religion has even defined itself by the prohibition of alcohol. This, in effect, recognises the centrality of alcohol as well.
Graeme: In your book you discuss the concept of cultural homogenisation – the fact that we now live in a global village and that there has been a price to pay for this down sizing. What are the negatives associated with cultural homogenisation?
Sandor: Well, hybridisation is a good example of one of the down sides. Yesterday I spent time with people from the Australian Seed Savers Network. These people are involved in a noble battle to counter the homogenisation of agriculture. It has taken many thousands of years for fruit and vegetables to adapt to local conditions. This extraordinary and appropriate process has involved interactions with different soils, microbial environments and insect life. There are also different temperatures, sunlight hours and other environmental factors involved, but the end result is fresh food that has been bred to excel in local conditions. It will taste better and be more nutritious as a result. The concept of hybridisation has some benefits but it has led to a huge loss of species diversity. From a culinary perspective the world has become a more bland space and from a nutritional perspective there have also been many losses.
Graeme: The growing popularity of farmers’ markets is testimony to the move toward eating fresh, local produce, in season, and it has obvious import in relation to “food miles” in the face of peak oil. However, perhaps we should be extending this concept to embrace the special nature of local, open pollinated species with all of their benefits.
Sandor: Exactly, and this is the charter of the seed savers group. It is important work. This loss of diversity is mirrored in every aspect of our lives from agriculture to languages and culinary traditions. There are fewer languages in the world today than ever before, in fact, most of the languages that existed on the earth a hundred years ago have died out. It is the same with fermented foods. You can buy beer that is virtually identical all around the world right now and yet 100 years ago beer was a local phenomenon with very different flavours and characteristics and that became a memorable feature of different regions. Cheeses have also traditionally been a localised phenomenon with unique, particularised regional variations that made life more exciting.
Graeme: There are over 3000 varieties of apples and yet we are lucky to find more than seven varieties in the supermarkets. I remember a variety called Coxes Orange during my childhood in New Zealand that had a crisp, tangy quality to die for. During a recent seminar tour of New Zealand, I managed to buy some at a roadside stall and they were even better than what I had remembered. I am not a fan of cultural homogenisation. I feel sorry for those who feel more comfortable when they can buy a McDonald’s burger on a Tibetan mountainside!
Sandor: There are fewer types of everything and it tends to make everything more abstract. It is not based on what is particular about where we live. I think that by fermenting food in your home environment you can incorporate all of the particulars of your environment into your food. Although there are certain generic species of bacteria that are found everywhere on earth, the sub species are very particularized. For example, San Francisco, in California, is renowned for delicious sour dough breads. Recently, microbiologists have identified a sub species of Lactobacillus that is unique to this region and they have named it Sanfrancisensis. There are local varieties of bacteria and moulds everywhere. They are part of our lives whether we like it or not but by fermenting with them we invite them into our lives, we make them allies rather than enemies. This gets back to the spiritual aspect we spoke of earlier. It is a much more powerful and sustainable approach to treat microorganisms as our allies because we will never win the war if we make them our enemies.
Graeme: During my regular visits to Africa I have often heard of the little, one person stalls selling local lacto fermented beverages that used to be found on every street corner. A major soft drink manufacturer managed to convince local governments that this was an unhygienic, stone age practice, so the stalls were banned and replaced with soft drink machines. It is fairly obvious that the daily shots of these cereal–based, probiotic drinks were more nutritious than eleven teaspoons of sugar per can, phosphoric acid and addictive caffeine. It is actually possible to chart the decline in African health in direct relation to the widespread adoption of soft drinks and fast food. Do you think there is any possibility to market lacto fermented soft drinks to recharge gut biology on a daily basis?
Sandor: Well the Weston Price people are certainly fond of this idea. I recently tasted some delicious fermented ginger beers. In my book I include a recipe for Sweet Potato Fly which is an effervescent, lacto fermented soft drink that has a great taste. Yes, I think there is tremendous potential to commercialise these kinds of beverages.
Graeme: Our Bio-Bubble™ is more of a probiotic concentrate rather than a soft drink but it has a long shelf life and retains its fizz for over 12 months. Recently, I tasted a fizzy drink made from combining Bio-Bubble™ with raw sugar cane juice. The Bio-Bubble™ had been combined at just 10% and then the mixture was left standing at room temperature for several days until it too became fizzy. Then it was refrigerated and the end result was a real taste treat. We had it tested at the lab and it contained phenomenal levels of acidophilus.
Sandor: The only problem with commercialisation of lacto fermented drinks relates to their sugar content. If they are too sweet there will be problems with storing them on the shelf. The fizz comes from the release of CO2 during fermentation. If there is too much sugar present the Lactobacillus will continue to feed and the gas they release can swell containers and pose a problem. It would be such a good thing to offer a healthy alternative to the current soft drinks as they have become so insidious. I was recently reading about the issue of “pouring rights”, where the multi-national soft drink corporations buy the rights to supply their wares to all of the local school districts. There was even a famous case where a school boy was suspended for wearing a Pepsi tee shirt in a school that had sold the rights to Coke.
Graeme: Thankfully there is a growing movement to have these garbage drinks removed from kids’ tuck shops along with snack foods containing trans fats. The current US consumption of 75 kg of sugar per person per year is actually their biggest killer. It has made one in three Americans pre-diabetic and it has shortened many lives. Two recent studies of centenarians revealed that the only factor common to all of those that made the long haul was low blood insulin. Low blood insulin is, of course, all about low blood sugar and it is pretty hard to achieve this when you are consuming over 600 cans of soft drink per person per year1 (the current US average). I was interested to see that you have linked sugar to the three most popular legal stimulants, tea, coffee and chocolate and in turn these have been linked to colonialism. Most people are familiar with the microbial link to beer, wine and cheese but they are not, perhaps aware that fermentation is involved in tea, coffee and chocolate. How does the link to sugar and colonialism work?
Sandor: Actually I need to make a correction here as I made a mistake in the book. Black tea production involves oxidation rather than fermentation. There is a specialist, highly priced tea that involves fermentation but it is not the norm as I was originally informed. However, both coffee and chocolate involve a fermentation of the raw ingredients before processing. All three of these stimulants were imported at around the same time that Europe had begun using large amounts of sugar. All three had been traditionally consumed in their bitter form but very soon their consumption became associated with sugar. The whole colonial exercise of taking control of tropical lands where sugar cane could be grown was related to the growing sugar addiction. In fact, the hunger for sugar drove the process of colonialism. Of course, the stimulants also came from these tropical acquisitions and labour was required to produce all of them and this drove the large scale slave trading that developed in these regions. The whole world order, which remains in place up to today was derived from the remnants of a system driven by sugar.
Graeme: Wow! It almost seems like an evil substance in this context and, considering the fact that it kills more people than any other habit, perhaps it is. Sugar is now regarded as the most addictive of all substances. I struggle with that addiction after every evening meal where I crave something sweet. I like your suggestion in the book that globalisation amounts to cultural decadence and that the word decadence is appropriately derived from the word “decay”. Could you please elaborate on this idea?
Sandor: I try to remain hopeful rather than believing that complete destruction of the current system is inevitable. I like to think that we can reverse the tide. However, it seems both undesirable and unsustainable that we should be shipping our basic commodities thousands of miles. It seems ridiculous for any place on Earth to be growing exotic luxuries for people on the other side of the globe when they should be focusing on growing their own basic nutrition. Considering the specter of peak oil it is not desirable for us to become dependent on food sources from thousands of miles away. The rise and rise of farmers’ markets is a positive trend, as is the growing interest in producing some of your own food in the garden. Gardening is so important because of the connection with food I described earlier. It’s not necessarily about self sufficiency as this is not possible for many people but if we can produce some of our own food and this might simply involve fermentation, sprouting and perhaps, a few herbs, then we will sense benefits on several levels. The supporting of local markets keeps the money in the local economy and this is not necessarily the case when we support the large supermarket chains.
Graeme: There is a vague fear amongst some people that if they make a mistake when fermenting their own food they may inadvertently poison the family. What is your advice to these people?
Sandor: It’s simple. Get over your fears! The reason that fermentation has always involved the production of either acids or alcohol is because both substances inhibit pathogens. I have never heard of anyone having food poisoning from fermentation. I think people are confusing this process with stabilising and storing food through canning or preservation. They are aware that there are risks here if you don’t do it right. In fact, botulism is a very real outcome if food is not fully sterilized before the vacuum is created in the can. Sometimes if you mess up the fermentation you will have moulds on the top but these do not involve dangerous pathogens. There are many factors involved in home fermentations and it is important to not expect perfection.
Graeme: There is a nutritional amplification associated with femented foods. Does this apply to herbs? Would we get more of a healing punch if the herbs were lacto fermented?
Sandor: Herbal tinctures are currently stabilised with alcohol but prior to distillisation the herbs were fermented. The Roman catholics tried to put a stop to this when they persecuted thousands of herbalists as witches.
Graeme: The scale of this persecution is often not recognised. It was actually a holocaust. There were six million women killed as witches during the witch hunt period. Often the brightest and most creative souls were killed to reduce any competition to the patriarchal system that the catholic church favours. A European company is currently lacto fermenting a range of common garden herbs and marketing them as plant growth stimulants. They are even fermenting garlic and peppers to create a highly effective organic pesticide. During my recent visit to Cuba, organic growers were fermenting leaves from the neem tree and claiming impressive pesticidal and fungicidal qualities. I feel that there is an exciting, unrealised potential for lacto fermentation in agriculture. Thank you for giving up so much of your time to share your important information. I look forward to catching up when you next visit Australia.
Sandor: It was a pleasure.
1 Soft Drink Consumption: The Frightening Statistics and Associated Health Risk!