I had the pleasure of speaking with Katherine Courage. She is an English major by training and a journalist by day. She grew up in a science family and was the black sheep that went into the humanities graduating with a degree in journalism. The world around us is so complex and there is more information out there that anyone can sink their teeth into. I think that it is important for journalists to dive into these important matters and bring it to people in a simple way to understand it so people can make better decisions in their everyday life. Read on to learn about how different countries such as Japan, Switzerland, Korea, and Greece incorporate fermented foods, how your microbiome starts to form as soon as you are born, and how to boost your good gut bacteria.
What Type of Science Interested You In Your Early Years?
I was very interested in:
I was fascinated by looking at the long time scales in the environment around us. When we think about the microbiome and the timescale that bacteria are living in our bodies and creating their own environments, it is so reduced from what we are used to thinking about. We have to look at both the big picture and the small picture...
The microbiome is a fascinating area because bacteria, yeast, fungi, and viruses are all intrinsically in us as humans.-Kriben Govender
During school, I found myself diving into these issues and getting back to my scientific roots. Once I graduated, I worked at Scientific American magazine and this is where I got my science education. I keep learning about science every day. Throughout the years there were many more papers coming out about the microbiome. It intrigued me because I love Ecology and the idea that there is a whole Ecology of organisms in our bodies and on our bodies appealed to me. I followed it throughout the years and then there was enough research and enough products coming out that I wondered if the products really matched the research…That is how I came to write my latest book.
What Was The First Moment That You Heard About the Microbiome?
I was an intern that was sitting in my cubicle at the Scientific American office and I was looking through articles and there I saw a paper called: “The Human Microbiome Project.” That caught my eye because it was a whole new area of health and science that I didn’t know about. This was about 10 years ago, the early days when we were just starting to get a picture about what microbes were, and that they were living in our guts and on our skin. I thought it was interesting so I covered the story then forgot about it. Over the years more and more information started coming out.
It has almost been a decade but prior to that, we thought of microbes to be enemies and something that we need to destroy and kill because they harm us. Interestingly, they are actually so fundamental to us being alive, healthy, and thriving. Without them, we couldn't exist.-Kriben Govender
What is The Microbiome From Your Perspective?
The Microbiome is the collection of organisms that live in our bodies and on our bodies. They are a microscopic community of microbes. There are all of these different communities within the human microbiome:
All of the populations in these areas are different and they have different jobs to do.
What Stage Are We At For Understanding The Microbiome?
We are like the explorers from centuries ago spotting an unknown island in the sea and we are still at a distance. We can tell it's there but we have no idea what is going on in there and:
-The dynamics at play
-The connections to other ecosystems
This is exciting because there will be so many discoveries. The microbiome is linked to many illnesses like inflammation, autism, and diabetes. These are just connections and we don't know the dynamics between them just yet.
We have been diving into this field for 10 years and we think we have figured it out... but a lot of the time is it causal or is it a biomarker. I have to remind myself that we know nothing yet, the interaction between microbes and humans is so complex.-Kriben Govender
How Do We Acquire Our Microbiomes?
We develop a lot of the microbiome from our very earliest days:
-Early Days of Infancy
There is a lot of science on the microbiome and how a person is born whether it’s vaginally or through cesarean section. This will determine whether the first microbiome is more gut bacteria or skin bacteria. From there, it can also be influenced by whether a baby is fed by breast milk or formula. But since we are still in the early days, we do not know the long term effects on this.
I thought about this information a lot throughout my research for my book even though I was not planning on having a child right then, it was still in the back of my mind. The mothers’ microbiome influences what is passed on to the offspring. Eating a diet rich in fibre and fermented foods is very beneficial!
We also know that the vaginal microbiome will influence the baby. This has not been studied as much as of right now. That microbiome also changes throughout pregnancy with the preparation for childbirth and preparing to inoculate your baby with it’s first microbiome.... In pregnancy, there is the western idea of:
-Making sure you are super safe
-Not eating dangerous foods because your immune system is weakened
And then the Eastern idea of eating great fermented foods. I was torn between the two because I wanted to keep my baby safe but I also wanted to eat all of the bacteria-rich fermented foods.
There aren't many people that are empowered with this information going into pregnancy.-Kriben Govender
2 Tips for Moms to Be:
Did You Order A Stool Test to Determine Your Gut Flora Before Pregnancy?
I did a couple of different tests a few years ago. They were new on the market and I was interested in it. I didn't do it around the time when I was having the baby. This would be a GREAT idea because then you would see where your bacteria count stands or if there is an influx of harmful bacteria. You can order a stool analysis HERE.
It would be interesting to see if there was a status quo and then get the test and then see if they can tweak the microbiome as much as you can going into pregnancy. -Kriben Govender
How Did You Get Interested In Fermented Foods For Your Book?
As a journalist, I asked myself what I was interested in, which happened to be food and travel. Fermented foods were an obvious choice because the research was becoming more popular with the connection between diet and the gut microbiome. I think a lot has gotten left out with what these fermented foods are doing and what are they not doing in our guts.
Fermented foods are such an inherent part of our culture. Following this path to different cultures, you would discover these types of food, the processes, and methods of fermentation in each one of them.-Kriben Govender.
Different Cultures and Their Relationship With Fermented Foods
I started my journey of writing this book with the idea that I would love about the gut microbiome and I wanted to include food. The history of yoghurt is amazing. This is actually how the study of probiotics got started. As I was doing my research for an idea for the book, a new study came out showing that once we take probiotics, they don't take up residence in our gut. The researchers couldn't find them weeks later. It was very interesting because these probiotics in kombucha, yoghurt, and fermented foods are transient. As they go through, they elicit benefits on the whole system and interact with the other microbes. In the United States, we do not have a good culture of fermented foods or fibre, we missed the boat for a long time. Many other cultures have a rich fermented food tradition. I started to look at the blue zones and looks at:
-What groups are super healthy
-Where are there lower disease rates
I wanted to see what they were doing to feed their microbiomes. Fermented foods were part of their culture, not something that they go out of their way and eat. They don't have their daily handful of probiotic pills it's just the way people eat and live in other places.
We bought into the marketing that if we take these probiotics it will repopulate the gut and they will live in there and be happy. I did a calculation on a billion strain probiotic pill and looking at that percentage I realized that it is a drop in the ocean compared to what is already in the gut. Then you have to think about the pills being able to get through the gut, the acidity in the stomach, the immune system, other flora, and then having to find a niche somewhere in the gut and attach to the lining... THEN populate. You can paint a picture of how ridiculous that theory was. Science is now well established and we are all in agreement that it is not going to populate the gut. It is most likely going to be a transient situation.-Kriben Govender
The West has sadly lost most of their fermented food culture. Luckily we are just now starting to get back into it. But with the industrialization of food, we are looking for shortcut methods like using a pickling process instead of classic fermentation processes that take more time, more effort, and more money. In that sense, we lost the fermented culture but the Asian cultures have maintained their roots in fermented foods.-Kriben Govender
The idea for this book brought me to different countries to observe various fermented foods. I went to Korea, Switzerland, Greece, and Japan. I will break down each experience and how fermented foods were inherently implicated within their culture!
Korea and Their Love For Kimchi
Korea was my last stop. I went to study kimchi since it is their national food but while touring the food market I realized that there are SO many fermented foods that make their way as sauces or condiments. It was great to see how similar fermented foods have immigrated and moved into different cultures in Asia. There is an exchange of different fermented foods in these cultures. There are little tweaks here and there:
-Fermented bean pastes are a little different
-Fermented soy sauce is a little different in each region.
This drove home the point of how key these foods have been over thousands of years in keeping us healthy and happy and how much we are lacking this in our diet!
Is Kimchi Always on The Plate?
In Korea, a lot of their meals are all about balance. It doesn't feel like a real meal if there isn't balance. They need each taste:
You need all the flavors and experiences to make it a full meal. One researcher that is studying the microbial environments of Kimchi and other fermented foods was saying that these days there might be only 1 type of Kimchi on the table. There used to be various types at the table at all times years ago. Each kimchi offers a different collection of microbes. When they were constantly ingesting all of the different microbiomes, each one would do something different. Eating this way will help your immune system and help to build a richer microbial environment.
You can make different Kimchi by adding in different ingredients, recipes, and it is also different throughout the fermentation process. The microbial profile changes from when you first make it vs a year later. Which means you get the different microbes throughout its lifetime as well. Picking up THIS fermentation kit can help you get started on your fermentation journey! It is a simple way to boost that immune system and feed your microbiome. (Here are some basics about fermented foods if you are just starting out!)
Having different ages of ferments could help you increase diversity! -Kriben Govender
Switzerland and Handmade Alpine Cheeses
When I was looking into different fermented foods that offer beneficial bacteria I came across papers about different alpine cheeses that have live probiotic bacteria in them. When we think about foods that have probiotics benefits we think of:
We don't usually think about a table full of cheese and think “oh that is going to be really good for my gut!” These alpine cheeses still offer live probiotic bacteria in them and in Switzerland they have been eating this way for hundreds of years. It was great to talk to the cheesemakers and see the processes since they are still making the cheese by hand!
In our western countries, we have lost the artisanal cheeses. In countries like France and Italy, they still use raw milk in their processes. This process is banned in Western Countries. We have lost this great source of probiotics because of that ban.-Kriben Govender
There is this tension between the traditional ways of doing things and the health & safety regulations that have been put into place. In my travels and research, I learned so much about the equipment that people have been using for hundreds of years to make these cheeses or other fermented things. This equipment acquires a microbiome of their own. All of the bacteria and fungi colonization in the wooden cheese making equipment. This keeps that cheese safe from harmful microbes! If you use all stainless steel equipment, you aren't able to colonise with these beneficial microbes. The wood equipment makes the health agencies nervous since our new scientific understanding is that everything needs to be sterile. But sometimes the sterile way can be more harmful because it doesn't have the native microbes keeping it safe. We want to keep the bad stuff out of our food but it would great to let some of the good stuff stay in there too…...
It is almost like the wooden vessels are taking on a life of their own. After so many decades of being used they develop their own:
These cultures preserve and protect the food a lot more effectively and efficiently than using a sterile vat that has been sanitized with chlorine and chemicals. And then essentially you have no competition for any nasty type of organisms. That is when you run into problems. Maybe these things that we think are great for public safety, might be doing more harm in the long term. We are reducing the diversity of microbes that are coming through our food supply by adopting these processes.-Kriben Govender
Greece and Fermented Table Olives
I went there to look at the yoghurt making process and how people are eating it in their every day life. I discovered so many other fermented foods that people are eating such as table Olives! In the traditional preparation, they are fermented and offer live microbes. It was great to see all of these foods that we might eat everyday from the supermarket (which are now very pasteurized!) have been making appearances on traditional greek tables for centuries in their authentic form.
How Do They Make The Fermented Olives?
This is more of an industrial process. This wasn't something that people were fermenting on their kitchen counters. A lot of the operations use caustic soda or lye to give the olives character. But the traditional way is to ferment them in liquid and let them develop their own microbiome and let them get sofer and tastier.
Are Prebiotic and Fibrous Foods a Staple In Greece?
It was great to see how much the foods that nourish our native microbiomes are incorporated in all of these diets. My eyes were opened in Greece to all of the different vegetables people eat like the diversity of greens and the wild foraged Horta (weeds from the hillside) This introduces so much more fibre into our diets. People are eating more microbes AND they are doing a great job at feeding their native microbes by:
-Eating Whole Foods
-Eating a Diverse Diet
We focus on the microbes and getting more of them into our diet but once they are in there we need to feed them with fibres. In Australia, the number of vegetables consumed pales in comparison to countries in Europe or Asia. We tend to stick to a few vegetables all the time and that is the extent of it. If you look at other cultures there is SO much diversity. You go to the market and you see vegetables that you have never seen before. There is so much variety where you can “eat the rainbow.” Going to the supermarket and picking something you have never tried before and giving it a go will help build more diverse gut flora. -Kriben Govender
Japan and Their Rich Fermentation Culture
I loved my visit to Japan because with each meal there were so many small dishes. There were more types of food served at one meal than maybe our family eats in a week! Many different foods offering different fibres and nutrients it is a great way to eat.
In Japan, they make Nukazuke. Which is like kimchi but the Japanese version. It is all different types of pickles that they make and they are fermented with rice bran or koji. This seems to be the hero starter culture in Japan.-Kriben Govender
In Japan, they have such a rich fermentation culture. They pay reverence to the food and the fermentation process. In some places, they sing to their koji and it is a whole ritual. You are nourishing the living organisms we just can't see them. Just paying the love and respect to the whole food process from the very first spores all the way till you are sitting down and eating the beautiful diverse food. It is a different way of approaching food than we have in the United States. In the USA it is a mechanist thing saying “I am hungry, I need to put something in my body to make that feeling stop so I can get onto work.” We need to take the time to think about our food and try to make more of it ourselves. It's a valuable lesson to take away from these other cultures.
You can go to any food outlet in Japan and it is almost perfect. You can go to the local convenience store and the presentation and the amount of care and preparation that goes into making that food is evident. I have eaten at convenience stores that have served amazing food! It is all fresh and prepared not processed. The amount of meat consumption was tiny. They only use very small amounts of premium expensive meat. 90% of the whole dish was varieties of vegetables! That is another hint of what is going on in those blue zones vs the modern societies where we see metabolic diseases. We might be consuming too much meat which might be harming the microbiome.- Kriben Govender
Are There Any Other Findings From Your Book “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”?
I learned in my research that we look at the microbes as wonderful helpers and things that are producing beneficial compounds for us. BUT just because it's generally a good microbe and it’s part of our microbiome, doesn’t mean it's always making good compounds for us. Some microbes make harmful compounds if we feed them too much meat. I think of them as our translators. They are translating our diet into different compounds for our body. Some of these compounds are great. Meat is one of those things that might be a treat once a week in places like Greece. Every other day was a vegetarian diet. Meat was the exception rather than the rule.
Blue zones are also consuming a lot of seafood. Omega 3 fatty acids influence the microbiome as well -Kriben Govender
We need to integrate all of these other great foods into our diets without placing them as “special foods.” It is not this weekly cup of yoghurt to reseed our microbiome. Science has told us that this is not how it works. We need to keep this idea that these foods are healthy to have in our diets! We don't have to treat them as the magic pill that is going to cure us from getting any illness. Just keep a balanced approach.
Make your fermented vegetables when you can. I make:
-Kefir (Here is a great starter kit)
I also pay attention to the fibre amounts in each one of my meals. Cocoa powder is a great prebiotic food to add! I treat myself to unsweetened hot cocoa in the morning.
If I have a craving for something warm, I add raw cocoa powder with milk and boiling water. It is comforting and rich in prebiotics and polyphenols -Kriben Govender
Grab yourself a few starter kits so you can implement these fermented foods into your everyday life. Remember that microbes are transient and we need to feed our gut microbiome prebiotics and probiotics every single day. Our gut microbiomes start from the day we are born and we need to constantly feed them so the good bacteria can grow and flourish. Share this with a friend that you would make fermented foods with!