Vegans, vegetarians, home gardeners and small-scale farmers all love their vegetables, and who can blame us?

There are so many ways to enjoy vegetables. Although, vegetables aren’t always bioavailable to us, which means that some vegetables contain properties that can cause digestive upset or even inhibit the absorption of certain essential vitamins and minerals.

In this previous article, we learned that grains and legumes need to be sprouted in order to optimize their nutritional value—so what about vegetables? How do we maximize their benefits? We look towards fermentation.

What is fermentation?

Fermentation goes beyond alcoholic beverages. It’s a process in which bacteria, yeasts and enzymes break down sugar molecules in food and produce gasses, alcohol and acids. You can ferment dairy, grains, and our main focus: vegetables. All it takes is the addition of salt and water to ferment something safely.

Bad or harmful bacteria can’t tolerate salt, so with the presence of salt in a ferment, it allows the space for good bacteria (lactobacillus) to do the hard work of fermenting. This lactobacillus bacteria converts lactose and other sugars into lactic acid and leaves us with a deepened flavour of cultured vegetables, yogurt, kefir or sourdough bread.

Fermenting is the original method of preservation

Before the introduction of canning and freezing, fermenting was a way to help preserve food for the winter. The reason it’s coming back into the mainstream is that unlike with canning, fermenting vegetables helps them retain their vitamins and minerals (since high-heat pasteurization rids us of many of the beneficial nutrients in vegetables). Fermenting can also enhance the nutrient profile of vegetables, producing additional vitamins such as vitamins C, B12 and K.

Fermenting is easy on our guts

With the introduction of processed foods and other factory-farmed foods grown in poor soil, our guts have taken a real hit. Fermenting our vegetables (that we’ve grown ourselves or gotten from organic farms) helps support and strengthen our digestion and gut health.

Why should we be eating in symbiosis with our guts? Well, it plays a role in supporting the body’s immune system, regulating blood pressure, and (of course) digesting our food. The lactic acid bacteria in fermented foods help to predigest food for us by creating enzymes that break down those hard-to-process molecules and help reduce symptoms of chronic gastrointestinal diseases.

Fermentation helps rid plant-based foods of anti-nutrients

Did you know that digestive upset and flatulence is a symptom of the plant trying to poison you? Animals can run away when they’re being hunted but plants can’t, so they pump toxins as defense mechanisms to protect themselves from being overeaten by an insect in the environment. When an insect eats enough of one of these plants, the chemicals add up and can kill the insect. We can’t eat enough plants for them to kill us, but over time they can cause an impact on the body’s systems.

Oxalates are a common “anti-nutrient” found in kale, spinach, chard, and other hearty leafy greens which interferes with calcium absorption. Oxalates can crystallize in tissues if consumed regularly which can create arthritis-like symptoms or kidney stones. The good news is that fermentation drastically reduces these oxalates as well as other anti-nutrients such as cyanide, phytates and saponins.

Beyond the nutritional benefits, fermenting vegetables also creates a delicious new flavour profile for our bodies and palettes to enjoy. That way you can eat your plant-based meals without digestive disruption, garden your favourite veggies to your heart’s content, and experiment with flavour enhancers to produce the tastiest and most bioavailable veggie meals out there.