Skip to content
Home » Why Live Culture Fermented Foods Are Good For Your Gut: Kathryn Lukas (Transcript)

Why Live Culture Fermented Foods Are Good For Your Gut: Kathryn Lukas (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Microbe Evangelist Kathryn Lukas’ talk titled “Why Live Culture Fermented Foods Are Good For Your Gut” at TEDxUniversityofNevada 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


My Journey Begins

I’m a microbe evangelist. My journey began in 1994 in Germany where I encountered a microbe that would dramatically alter the course of my life. I found it in a farmer’s cellar in a barrel of freshly fermented sauerkraut. It tasted nothing like the bracingly sour canned stuff I’d grown up with. This was mild and tart and crunchy and it fizzed on my tongue. It was so delightful.

But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just knew I wanted to learn more. Learning how to cook and owning a restaurant in Germany gave me ample opportunity to do just that. I discovered that there’s a springtime version that’s typically eaten fresh and that the falltime version, which is meant to last through the winter, is usually a little saltier and typically eaten cooked.

I learned how to finish my sauces and my soups with its juice, best secret ingredient ever. And I noticed that the chef who taught me how to cook would drink it whenever he was hungover, which was often, and he would make this miraculous recovery.

I also learned that the sour in sauerkraut came not from vinegar, as I’d always assumed, but from a transformative microbial process called fermentation. I didn’t really understand what that meant until I went to a natural chef culinary program in California many years later and made my first batch of sauerkraut. We massaged salt into fine shreds of cabbage until they became translucent and weepy. And then we tucked the mixture into a small fermentation crock and we waited for the alchemy to begin.

Learning About Fermentation

Over the next few days, the crock literally came alive. We could hear it gurgling and burping as we worked on other projects in the kitchen. When the instructor handed me a forkful to taste a couple of weeks later, I was immediately blasted back to that farmer’s cellar and that fizz on my tongue. I’d learned the culinary uses for sauerkraut in Germany, but now I needed to understand exactly what had happened in that crock, what had transformed those simple ingredients into something truly extraordinary.

At the time, Sandor Katz’s book, “Wild Fermentation,” was the go-to resource for novice fermenters and I dug into it with a fervor. I learned that communities of microorganisms are responsible for many types of fermentation and that these are tiny little beings that breathe and eat and produce waste products, kind of like we do. I became so fascinated with fermentation that in 2004, I decided to go on a cultured walkabout.

I traveled to Southeast Asia and learned about one of the oldest ferments on record, fish sauce, which is very similar to garum, which was made in ancient Greece and eventually morphed into soy sauce in China. I met a kraut guru in Austria who, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, would preach microbe wisdom while scooping sauerkraut out of a big wooden barrel at his family’s market booth in Vienna.

I traveled to an Incan village deep in the Sacred Valley in Peru and I learned about chicha. It’s a milky, sweet beer revered for its health benefits and its mild buzz. It’s made with corn mash and saliva. There’s an enzyme mostly found in women’s saliva called pitulin and it helps kick-start the fermentation by breaking down the starches into more easily digestible sugars for the microbes.

I was mesmerized as I watched these women chewing and spitting into a big communal bowl. The friend I was with told me that initially, only Incan virgins were allowed to perform this ritual. Now, fortunately, this is no longer the case and I had the great honor of being invited into the chewing circle.

A Symbiotic Partnership

It was a little weird at first, but it didn’t take long before I was chewing and spitting and laughing with my new friends. It was so beautiful to witness how playful they were and how much pride they had in their craft. And I remember feeling this immense joy knowing that we were creating a healing and delicious elixir for the community. And it was then I knew I wanted to do something similar for my community, minus the spit.

No matter where I went in the world, I noticed a common thread between all fermenters, a genuine love and respect for their microbes. Every culture everywhere utilizes fermentation in some way to alter consciousness, to preserve food, to make food more safe or more nutritious, and of course to make it more delicious. And I started to realize that this is an ancient and symbiotic partnership. These microbes had figured out long ago how to provide valuable services for us humans.

Pretty clever survival strategy. And recent research into the origin of life suggests that we might even be their descendants. Now some of these microbes came under scrutiny in the mid-19th century. Commercial microscopes had brought the microbial world alive for scientists and researchers and allowed microbiologists to identify spoilage microbes in wine, beer, and dairy.

Louis Pasteur, along with other scientists, figured out that heat killed those microbes and pasteurization was widely adapted by the food and beverage commercial productions. Louis Pasteur’s work also advanced germ theory, the idea that specific microbes cause specific diseases. And his work saved countless lives, but it also made microbes the enemy. By turning them into germs, we start to fear microbes.

The Impoverished Western Gut

We went from partnering with microbes to waging an all-out war on them. Over the last 150 years, some of our most beloved foods and beverages have either been completely lost or replaced with feral versions, like canned sauerkraut. We’re now discovering this may have been to our detriment. There’s speculation that 90% of all disease begins in the gut.

Poorly processed foods, overuse of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, chlorinated water, antibacterial everything, they’ve all played a role in what scientists are now calling the impoverished Western gut. Compared to hunter-gatherer tribes in South America and Africa, our gut microbe communities are significantly less diverse.

Now those populations are more susceptible to infectious disease, but they have almost none of our modern ailments. Microbiome science, the discovery that humans are a collection of microorganisms that outnumber our human DNA by 10 to 1, is radically changing our relationship to the microbial world.

Researchers and doctors are starting to think of our guts as ecosystems that need to be carefully tended, and they’re looking at new ways in which we can partner with microbes to bring balance back to our microbiomes. One of the first things they suggest we do is to eliminate, to the extent that we can, substances that are harmful to our microbes from our homes and from our diets. Those hunter-gatherer tribes, they eat a lot of roughage. It turns out our gut microbes love fiber.

They ferment it and turn it into a protective mucosal lining for our guts. And including a diverse array of live culture-fermented foods and beverages in your diet appears to have a profound effect on increasing gut microbe diversity and overall health and well-being. The Koreans never went to war with their microbes. They have a strong, vibrant, and mostly matrilineal fermentation culture.

Rekindling Our Relationship with Microbes

In November, you can see mothers and daughters and grandmothers and aunties come together out in the streets, making big batches of kimchi, a spicy and aromatic cabbage ferment. And in Korea, if you are an exceptionally good cook, it’s said that you possess seon mat, or good hand taste. Korean artist and bio-designer Jiwon Woo wondered if she could capture her mother’s hand taste so that she could use it whenever she missed her mother’s cooking. She — this inspired her 2017 study called “Mother’s Hand Taste.”

She collected hand microbes, in this case yeast, from 12 participants and she asked them to make a fermented rice wine with the ingredients she provided. She discovered that in three of the four families, there was a continuation of the yeast in the samples regardless of geographic location. She could tell which family had made which wine. That’s because when you ferment at home, you’re not just making something tasty and nourishing, you’re making a family heirloom, rich with your family’s unique microbial signature.

And that’s what I want us to do. I want us to rekindle this ancient relationship with the microbes that our ancestors relied on and that our bodies still remember, much like mine had in Germany. In 2008, I left a perfectly good career as a chef to start a fermented food company that makes sauerkraut. I’m pretty sure that was the microbes’ plan all along.

Thank you.

Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.