If the monkeys ferment, why not you?

Analysis: Humans and Our Non-Human Ancestors Have Eat and Evolved Alongside Fermented Foods for a Long Time

Through John leech, Thégasc

How old is the art of fermentation and why should you be doing it too? The Egyptians pioneered the art of beer brewing and leavening bread at least 4,500 years ago. The ancient Chinese brewed mead 9,000 years ago, according to evidence found in clay pots unearthed in Jiahu, China. Although physical evidence from further afield is lacking, we can look to evolution for some insight into our long history with fermented foods.

Of shrews get drunk on fermented tree nectar and bees making bread To scavengers preserving their deceased dinners with yeast, research has proven that animals are no strangers to fermentation. However, humans and African apes are in a class of their own when it comes to fermented foods. As our common ancestor was fruit-eating, they would have encountered high levels of alcohol in some of the fruits they picked. We know that our ancestors evolved to consume fermented fruits because they possessed a keen sense of smell, sensitive to ethanol, which helped locate fallen fruits, and an enzyme 40 times more efficient at oxidizing ethanol than other animals.

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Excerpt from Culture File by RTÉ lyric fm, evangelist of the Irish fermentation movement, April Danann on West Cork wild yeasts

Given that our last common ancestor with African apes was over 10 million years ago, our common adaptations for fermented foods mean these traits are at least as old. The drunken monkey hypothesis (yes, that’s a real thing) suggests that it was our love for ethanol that drove our relationship with fermentation, and indeed some of our primate cousins ​​have shown a preferably 2-5% alcohol solutions based on water. At least three species of primates are known to cause ripe fruit to drop to the ground and return later to eat them, when the alcohol content is higher.

However, a new study suggests that pre-digestion of food through fermentation is what makes fermentation so important to us. As our ancestors left the trees and explored the savannahs, tuber fermentation opened up a whole new food resource, according to the study. Fermentation may have been so important that it, not the fire, that unlocked the extra nutrients we needed to increase our brain size.

Now that we know that humans (and our non-human ancestors) have been eating and evolving alongside fermented foods for a long time, how important are fermented foods in our everyday lives? He is valued that up to a third of all food consumed is fermented. This includes many products, such as coffee, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages.

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Extract from the cultural file of RTÉ Lyric FM, the guru of fermentation, Sandor Katz on teaching the world to stop worrying and loving the microbe

Let’s go back a bit. If we no longer need fermentation to access nutrients, why would these foods be important? Research over the past two decades has show that the microbiome is very important to human health. The microbiome is the collection of mainly microbes, bacteria, fungi and viruses that live on and in the human body.

Our own bodies contain many different microbial ecosystems, from our eyelids to our mouths, from our lungs to our gut. Each site has a unique community of microbes and performs important tasks for us. For example, the gut microbiome helps us digest our food, protect us from pathogens, and has been linked to a wide range of chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular health, obesity and depression. It is a very complex ecosystem and it is not easy to determine if, how or what causes disease in such a diverse ecosystem.

However, one pattern that has emerged in microbiome studies is that diversity is best. The more species there are in the gut microbiome, in general, the healthier an individual is. By studying large populations of people, many parts of the world, we see that populations living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in non-industrialized regions of the world have higher microbial diversity than those of us living in the industrialized world.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, a deep dive into the intestinal microbiome

In our world (Ireland), we disinfect everything. We pasteurize our food, we sterilize our homes, we take antibiotics when we are sick, and we eat processed foods. These changes have mostly saved lives, reducing our exposure to pathogens and making infectious diseases much less dangerous. However, it comes at a cost, and due to a relatively sterile environment, both our food and our living spaces, our industrialized microbiomes are not as diverse as our more traditional neighbors elsewhere on the planet. We also suffer from higher rates of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease, all of which have been linked to the gut microbiome.

So, are fermented foods important? In the context of the microbiome, the foods of most interest are those that contain live microbes when we eat them. Fermented foods are difficult to study for several reasons, largely due to the variable nature of their own microbiomes. However, the evidence from recent years is growing, with studies showing that certain foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir have positive effects on certain diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health, obesity and depression.

In the context of the microbiome, the most interesting foods are those that contain live microbes when we eat them.

A study from the beginning of the year show for the first time that daily consumption of fermented foods (and a few servings per day as well) has increased the diversity of our microbiome while reducing inflammation status. Chronic inflammation is associated with a wide range of chronic diseases. Fermented foods provide daily exposure to billions of living microbes, microbes we no longer encounter due to our westernized environment.

More importantly, they are free from infectious disease risks, perhaps occupying the perfect position between traditional diversity and modern security while helping to reduce chronic disease. Much more research is needed, but the role of fermented foods in health is becoming clearer by the day.

Dr John Leech is a MASTER researcher at APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Center based at Thégasc


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ




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