The Science and History of Fermented Foods

by Raychel Agramon, RN, MPM, February 29, 2020

history of fermented foods

Probiotics are not novel scientific discoveries – they have been with us for as long as the world has been inhabited by humans. Before there were Kombucha or Yakult, there were fermented food products that have been enjoyed by the ancients thousands of years ago. Let's know more about history of fermented foods!

history of fermented foods

The History of Fermented Foods

The probiotic-rich sources of the early days were developed through fermentation, a process that is still practiced today. According to the book “Flour and Breads and their Fortification in Health Disease and Prevention,” this form of food preservation is one of the oldest methods in the world. In this process, starches or sugars are converted by microorganisms into alcohol or acid. 

Since fermentation makes food more acidic, it prevents spoilage – this was highly important for merchants and wanderers back then. Imagine taking week-long journeys through the desert with no sign of civilization for hundreds of kilometers. Without a doubt, fermented food had sustained these travelers for the long journey ahead. 

More than just preserving food, fermentation helps food taste better as well. 

No one knows when exactly the practice of fermentation has started, though researchers believe that it had been done in as early as 7,000 BC. Archaeological investigations show that the ancient Egyptians were already consuming Laban Khad (fermented milk in goat skin) and Laban Rayeb (fermented buffalo milk) back then. 

Formal documentation about the process, however, was not seen until roughly a thousand years later. Inscriptions show that fermented food items were eaten by the early peoples residing by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

With its long history, it comes as no surprise that many fermented food products were mentioned in ancient holy texts. From the Bible to the Vedic Samhitas (collection), here are the notable mentions of probiotics throughout history: 

history of fermented foods

The Vedan Probiotic Saga 

Vedas are ancient holy scriptures written in the Sanskrit language. Believed to be a revelation to the Aryans, the Vedas contain teachings, songs, and traditions. The four major anthologies are the Atharva Veda, Rig Veda, Sama Veda, and Yajur Veda. 

Vedas – which have been written 2,000 years ago – holds one of the earliest records when it comes to probiotic consumption. In a study by Gogijeni et al, it was said that during the prehistoric times, the Hindus were already consuming fermented milk products. 

This influence was eventually carried on to modern times, as the Indian subcontinent boasts of a cuisine rich with benefits of fermented food. One good example is Dahi, a yogurt made from either cow's milk, goat milk, or buffalo milk. To give a zesty flavor (apart from improving the fermentation process, dried red chilies are also added to the milk pot. Such an ingredient is also rich in probiotics such as Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus, Lactococcus lactis, Streptococcus cremoris, Streptococcus diacetylactis, and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Other examples of traditional Indian fermented foods are:

  • Idli, a rice cake made of rice and fermented black lentils
  • Dosa, a breakfast food made from black gram, rice, and salt 
  • Dhokla, a vegetarian entree made from split chickpeas and rice
  • Khaman, a Gujarati staple made from channa flour or besan 


history of fermented foods

The Bacteria in the Holy Bible 

As the fundamental text of the Catholic faith, the Bible serves as a guide for its 1.2 billion followers. More than just communicating God's will, the bible is a historical account of how life was for Jesus and his followers.

Beyond its tales of moral lessons, the bible also mentions fermented food products for several times. In Genesis chapter 18, verses 1-8, it was said that "Abraham offered to God Father, in oak wood, fermented milk." Similarly, in Isaiah chapter 7, verse 15, it was mentioned that "it will be eaten curdled milk and honey."

Apart from fermented milk products, another probiotic-rich additive that was mentioned in the bible is leaven which is a substance like yeast to produce fermentation in breads. This lactobacillus-rich dough is the namesake of the “Parable of the Leaven,” which can be found in Luke, chapter 13, verses 20-21. The story goes: 

And again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened." 

The interpretation of this short story varies according to the reader, however, one thing is for sure: probiotics were already present in the Jewish diet long ago. 

Theoretically, such food may have helped curb disease and improve life expectancy in the early days. According to a study printed in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, research on the 15 Kings of Judah showed that their average life expectancy was 52 years old. This was essentially good for someone who lived in 6000 BC – when diseases were prevalent and the practice of medicine was primitive. Add to that, living for more than five decades is commendable especially if you are a royal with a target behind your back. 

history of fermented foods

Since the early ages, history of fermented foods sources have been around to provide sustenance to our ancestors. They might not have known it, but they were getting healthier with each milk curd that they take. With science supporting the benefits of probiotics on the gut and the skin, go and do what our ancestors did in the Veda and the Bible –  consume probiotic-rich sources!