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Is It Safe To Ferment Foods?

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The other day, we published an article on the process of food fermentation and included some of the health benefits of eating these types of foods. Fermentation of course involves the work of anaerobic bacteria working on the food that is being fermented, commonly in a salt brine. This does seem counter-intuitive to some people who have grown up with a fear of germs and believing that all food except fresh vegetables should be pasteurized.

Pasteurization of course involves a process that kills all bacteria.  For some people, the idea that there are “good bacteria” and that we need to have them living in our digestive system sounds a bit odd. However, as odd as it may seem to some, the fact of the matter is that the larger the numbers of good colonies of bacteria living in our digestive system, the less risk we are at for becoming a victim to diseases caused by bad organisms. On the article we wrote, we receive a comment from George Ross who writes,

I’m not sure I would want to take a chance on fermenting foods. I am too concerned about the food being ruined by bad bacteria and then getting sick from eating it. Isn’t that a reasonable fear?

Mr. Ross’ question is a reasonable one considering that many of us have a learned fear of all bacteria and germs.  However, as pointed out above, it is simply not true that we should be afraid of all bacteria, and in fact, should be welcoming far more of good anaerobic bacteria than most of us have. But even with that in mind, what are the dangers, if any, of purposely allowing bacteria to ferment our foods? Is there a danger that our food could become rotten, or worse yet, contaminate us if we eat it?

In our response to Mr. Ross, it was pointed out that a microbiologist named Frederick Breidt who works for the United States Department of Agriculture is reportedly extremely confident about the safety of food fermentation as a method to preserve it.  In an article posted at Food Safety News, we quote:

Fred Breidt, of the USDA’s Food Science Research Unit at North Carolina State University, has studied this issue and recently published a paper on the survival of E. coli 0157 in cucumber fermentation brines.

“The presence of live growing cells of lactic acid bacteria, which are the ones that ferment pickles and cheese and a lot of things, actually in competition cause E. coli to die off rather quickly, because they produce things other than just the acid, that’s in the fermented foods,” said Breidt.  ”Lactic acid bacteria are highly efficient killers of other bacteria, and they do a marvelous job. This is why vegetable fermentations pretty much always works.  It’s been working for thousands of years.  It’s one of the oldest technologies known to man and it always works, and the reason is these lactic acid bacteria are very good at what they do, and we take advantage of that as a technology.”


Elsewhere, Mr. Breidt is almost reported to have said that in his opinion, fermented vegetables are even safer and are of less risk than raw fresh vegetables. And when you consider how often some vegetables, especially imported from other nations, end up being contaminated with E. Coli, you may understand the point that has been made. There have been a number of E. Coli outbreaks due to vegetables including green onions, potatoes and leeks to name a few in recent memory. Some of these outbreaks have been caused by soil conditions while others were caused by unsanitary handling of the produce.

Food fermentation as a means to preserve it has been around with us as Mr. Breidt points out for thousands of years. And as we show in our article, it has many additional health benefits go far beyond preservation.  If you have been wondering about the safety of vegetables and fruit that have been fermented, and it’s held you back from trying it, we hope this will alleviate any concerns you might have and invite you to experiment and try fermenting your own.  It can be fun, rewarding, and you’ll be very happy with the healthy benefits your fermented foods provide!


Our Fermented Foods Section


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