Fermentation can enhance your plant-based diet, says biologist Flavio Sacco

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fermentalista Photo: Flavio Sacco

Fermentation is as old as mankind. While no solid records exist, it likely started with beverages similar to what we now call beer and wine. Back then, the main function of this culinary technique was to preserve food, but today it’s a means of exploring new flavors and textures.

It’s also good for us. The microorganisms cultivated in fermented foods play an important role in enriching and maintaining our intestinal flora, forming the basis of our immune system.

Just ask biologist Flavio Sacco, the co-founder of Laboratorio Italiano Fermentati (LIFe). The company developed Italy's first certified organic line of naturally fermented and unpasteurised vegetables under the brand name Orto Fermentato — widely reviewed by the abillion community.

Known to his social media followers as Fermentalista, Sacco works to build on the age-old tradition of fermentation within the vegan context. The company experiments with fermentation traditions from around the world and adapts the final products to the Italian palate.

We chat with the fermentation enthusiast and advocate of healthy food on his world of microbes and why integrating them into a plant-based diet will give your health a boost.

See also: Go with your gut feeling! The benefits of fermented food

fermentalista Photo: @pbrain30

How and when did you start your fermentation journey?

Fermented foods, in terms of taste, have always been part of my life because as a child I was lucky enough to have lived in Asia and Africa, where fermented foods were the norm. I later became aware of what they were from a technical point of view when I studied biology at university and explored the subject in greater depth.

How does fermentation help people following a plant-based diet? What are the benefits?

Fermentation is a fantastic flavor enhancer. It allows us to create complex, acidic foods with pronounced umami (savory) notes even when using plant-based raw materials. In common thinking, these characteristics are associated with food of animal origin, especially umami. However, plant-based products such as miso or kimchi have similar unique and satisfying complexities and flavors.

In addition, fermentation – thanks to the work of microorganisms – enhances the nutritional value of many plant-based foods by making it easier to assimilate certain nutrients already present and by creating other compounds from scratch, such as nattokinase in natto.

How would you suggest integrating more fermented food in a plant-based diet?

Initially, I would recommend combining them with dishes that are already part of your diet, such as unpasteurised sauerkraut or fermented carrots in a salad. Then I would try to change the paradigm of the first, second and side dish and explore more single dishes, such as bowls, where you can include a legume, or grains and play with fermented vegetables to add flavor and acidity to the dish. In sandwiches, fermented vegetables are a real changemaker.

fermentalista Photo: Flavio Sacco

At which point did you decide to turn fermentation into a business? And why?

I decided to turn my passion into a business, i.e. creating a line of fermented vegetables under the brand Orto Fermentato, because I saw a gap in the market. Given the importance of fermented products for a healthy microbiota, which is the basis of our health, I want to improve people's diets by offering a good and healthy product while respecting basic principles, such as non-pasteurisation and the use of natural spontaneous fermentation (without starters).

I started by teaching others how to prepare fermented products but I saw that many people did not have the time to ferment food themselves. Hence, I decided to launch a ready-to-eat product maintaining high production standards while fermenting at scale.

Fermentation is fairly common in Italian cuisine but your product line is largely sauerkraut and kimchi – is there a reason for this?

Fermentation is a very broad subject that encompasses many categories of food. Bread, wine and yogurt are all very common fermented products. However, there was a total lack of fermented products with three main characteristics: rich in live cultures at the moment of consumption (not pasteurized); vegetable-based; and high biodiversity of species and strains of lactic acid bacteria without the use of starters. None of the fermented products used in traditional Italian cuisine contain these characteristics.

fermentalista Photo: Flavio Sacco

There’s a perception that some fermented foods, like kimchi, require animal-based products to kickstart the fermentation process or enhance flavor. How do you replicate this with a vegan version?

In the case of kimchi, the fish or prawn sauce is more needed for the flavor than the fermentation process. With a lot of work on the recipe, we managed to achieve a kimchi that is pleasing to the Italian palate, while still retaining the main flavor characteristics of traditional kimchi.

From the reviews of our kimchi, we seem to have succeeded. Much of the work we’ve done is a "secret", but it is based on the management of microorganisms on the vegetables. We put them in the ideal conditions to create the flavors we want, and that took a lot of experimentation and innovation. The transformations these microorganisms bring about are truly incredible.

How have you localized such products to the Italian market?

I started with the processes and transformations purely from the point of view of microorganisms and then we did a lot of research to find ingredients of Italian origin that could come as close as possible to the original flavours. The most difficult part for Kimchi was to find a combination of chillies of Italian origin that would replicate the delicate spiciness of the Korean one.

The result is very satisfying and instead of imitating something else, it has become a product with its own strong identity. Tradition, for me, is a product made with the raw materials of that area and the tools available at that time. Tradition always starts with an innovation, which is nothing more than a change in the availability of processes and raw materials in a given historical period. In this case I would say that Orto Fermentato fermented vegetables represent an innovation and hopefully a new tradition.

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This article is so helpful, thank you ❤️
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