When our Paleolithic ancestors started cultivating grain, population exploded. We had more calories, could store grains for the winter and were suddenly able to feed more people. However, body height, life span and general health actually declined in the early agricultural age. So, what caused the disruption of the health of early agriculturalists? Grains, while filling, they contain anti-nutrients and are generally hard to digest. Bodies were not able to derive the nutrients they were previously realizing from their previous paleo diet—and overall health suffered. It was a shock to the system and evolution had no time to adjust. (Our genes adapted less than 1% over the last 10,000 years.) Over time however humans figured out ways to make these agricultural foods more digestible and therefore more nutritious. How? Through sprouting, soaking and fermentation.
Sprouted, soaked and fermented foods eliminate anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid (which robs our bodies of minerals) but most importantly, add living enzymes to foods, which not only pre-digest the nutrients in this food (grains) but also assist in digesting other less enzymatic foods you may be eating.
Our northern ancestors ate dense, whole-grain sourdough breads. Allowing the grains to ferment before baking helps dough rise, preserves it for weeks, adds superior flavor and a better nutrient profile by boosting enzymatic action. Moreover, they used the whole grain, creating breads you had to chew for a good while because they were so dense...and yes, all that chewing produced salivary amylase! Today we have forgotten how important it is to soak any kind of grain, seed or nut in order to reduce anti-nutrients and boost enzymatic action. And in many cultures light, fluffy six-chew breads are preferred.
Many other foods were fermented and added to important regional flavors: vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles; fruits like these north African preserved lemons pictured above; fish like gravlax, herring and fish sauce; meat such as smoked salami, bacon and ham; beans produced miso, tempeh and soy sauce; and dairy was transformed into yogurt, kefir and cheeses. These foods became important dietary staples and all of the living enzymes in these foods helped digest less enzymatic foods. Slowly the health of the agriculturalists recovered and body height slowly increased. 50 years ago we were almost back to the height of our ancestors. Unfortunately this trend has again reversed itself. In recent decades height is again declining in the US.
About 400 years ago sugar was added to diets in more significant amounts than ever before and more and more flour was refined. In the last 50-100 years less and less food was grown by the families who ate it; much of agriculture and food production was controlled by the food giants, who increased refinement, introduced GMO and served up cocktails of flavor enhancing chemicals—many with addictive properties. The culture of fermenting, sprouting and soaking our foods was forgotten in our industrial food systems. Efficient industrial replacements filled our supermarket shelves. Breads were made with un-sprouted and refined flours, added yeast and artificial nutrients our body does not recognize; pickles and other typically fermented foods were now mass-produced using vinegar and pasteurization. Dairy and cheese were also pasteurized—and pasteurization kills all enzymatic activity in all food.
Luckily every culture has preserved some of the original techniques and we are witnessing a revival all over the world: you may find unpasteurized raw fermented foods now in health food stores and at fermentation festivals. You will more easily find sprouted nuts in a wider variety of markets and some States are even allowing sales of fermented raw milk products.
The best way to support digestion is to add fermented foods into your daily meals. The Japanese kept this tradition alive through the ages and have always served a small dish of Tsukemono and miso soup at every meal. They also commonly soak rice overnight before cooking. The Koreans have their kimchi, the Germans their sauerkraut, Americans their pickles (Bubbies is a good non-pasteurized brand) the Italians their salami, the Spaniards their olives. A European study has shown that eating a variety of fermented foods throughout the day proves most beneficial. Don't forget to read the labels and look for these products in the refrigerated section of your health food store. If they are not refrigerated, they have to be pasteurized—and if they're pasteurized, they're enzymatically dead.