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A sour twist on nutrition with fermented foods

RJ Marvin will be the first to admit he hardly serves as a portrait of perfect health. He’s working on it. It hasn’t been easy to watch his weight during the last several years, what with graduating from the Erie Community College culinary arts program and working as a cook at some of the top restaurants in Western New York.

He cultivated a passion for fermented foods at his last stop, Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora – so much so that he and his wife, Lindsey, recently opened the region’s only specialty fermented food shop, Barrel + Brine, on the West Side.

“It’s the most primal way of creating food,” said RJ, who sports a tattoo of a “full sour” pickle on his left arm.

It also happens to be quite healthy.

The Marvins spend their days in their new shop at 257 Carolina St. using salt, other spices and yeasts to break down mostly vegetables in ways that make them easier to digest. The result: higher concentrations of fiber, vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids, along with a cacophony of probiotics, the friendly bacteria that devour their unwelcome kin and create better balance in our digestive tracts. This tamps down inflammation, a root cause of sickness and chronic disease.

Their offerings include sauerkraut, dilled beans and several varieties of pickles. They also bottle their own brands of Kombucha tea and kimchi brine, the latter of which they advise drinking a bit at a time, as a “gut shot.”

The couple is on to something, said Peter Horvath, director of sports nutrition in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Science at the University at Buffalo.

“Think of your colon as an ecosystem, a tropical jungle,” said Horvath, whose Ph.D. dissertation focused on dietary fiber analysis and human colonic fermentation. Researchers have only begun to understand the importance of that jungle – our microbiome, he said.

Microbial cells outnumber their human cell companions in our bodies by about 10 to 1. More than a trillion take shelter in the gut alone, and medical researchers have become fascinated with their interplay. They are master communicators, helping produce neurotransmitters that provide information to our bodies, and play a major role in the performance of our immune system. Researchers now believe what happens in our gut may have an impact on conditions as varied as Alzheimer’s, arthritis and mood disorders. Probably obesity, too.

“Probiotics appear to be really helpful in making our colon happy,” Horvath said. “They protect us against diarrhea and constipation. They probably protect us against colon cancer, and we now think they have things to do with prevention of breast cancer, urinary cancer, pancreatic cancer and other cancers. So a healthy microflora is turning out to be an incredible thing.”

Diets packed with processed sugars and animal fats tend to feed bad bacteria, Horvath and other say, while fermented foods, vegetables and most fruits tend to encourage proliferation of the good ones.

Along with the Marvins, Horvath recommended the following fermented foods in moderate amounts, along with a variety of other healthy choices.

1. Sauerkraut Barrel + Brine sells two varieties: one made from cabbage; the other with red cabbage, caraway seed and antioxidant-rich beet juice. Both also contain salt and the superfood garlic. The fermentation process lasts about two months, partially digests the ingredients, and pulls out the natural sugars and juices. Sauerkraut is a good source of fiber, vitamins B, C and K, and several minerals, including iron. “I also like to think about the probiotics, or the beneficial bacteria that I’m consuming, as kind of like some Navy SEALs that I’m introducing inside of my gut,” RJ Marvin said.

2. Kombucha This fermented Japanese black or green tea comes from a centuries-old recipe. It, too, is rich in vitamins, probiotics and antioxidants able to boost metabolism, better balance pH levels and crimp inflammation. Two glass jars of it sit on a counter at Barrel + Brine. The liquid mix includes ginger, lavender and elderflower topped by a “SCOBY,” or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. “It kind of looks like jellyfish floating on top,” Lindsey Marvin said. “It grows. It’s living.”

3. Kimchi RJ Marvin ferments this Asian specialty using cabbage, carrots, daikon radishes, scallions, ginger, red chillies, sea salt and garlic. Ginger has great flavor and packs lots of vitamin C, immunity defense and beneficial bacteria. Lindsey Marvin, who also manages the Sephora skin care shop at the Walden Galleria, said its properties also are good for the skin and eyes.

4. Yogurt The healthier kind must include live and active cultures. Many varieties in grocery stores don’t. “Sometimes yogurts are loaded with chemicals and sugar, and that’s only going to feed bad bacteria,” said Jennifer Jennings, a family nurse practitioner and owner of Cardea Integrative Health in Cheektowaga. “But certainly it can be a healthy food source provided you get the right kind, the right strains.” Non-flavored Greek yogurt with no sugar added is good because it contains probiotics for a healthier gut and digestion, she said, and can improve respiratory and urinary health.

5. Kefir A drinkable Persian-style yogurt fermented less than its thicker cousin. It also contains live and active cultures that promote gut health in ways similar to the healthiest of yogurts and other fermented foods.

6. Pickles Horvath calls them “sauerkraut made with cucumbers,” if they are fermented. “I often recommend pickles to athletes before competition because usually they’re high in sodium – which is different than most varieties of sauerkraut,” he said. “We have to worry about sodium intake but if you eat a pickle before a competition, you tend to drink more water.” Pickles are low in calories and come with the same benefits as other fermented foods, Horvath said, if they’re fermented and not just preserved in a vinegar solution. He advised a check of the label to tell the difference.

7. Tempeh Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and packs lots vitamins and amino acids. “One of the ones we’re really concerned about is vitamin B12 because it’s only made by microorganisms, not by animals,” Horvath said. “Animals get them by digesting microorganisms.” He said B12 is common in fermented foods.

8. Miso Miso is a paste made from barley, rice or soybeans fermented for several months, sometimes longer. “One of the concerns with miso is it tends to be very high in sodium,” Horvath said, “but some people swear by garlic miso soup as an incredible dish when you’ve got a cold.”

The Marvins look to make miso and tempeh in the coming months. RJ Marvin looks to use lima beans and black chickpeas to make his first miso batches, as well put together roasted banana miso ice cream.

“Like so many other things, it has to be used in moderation,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s a cure all and some that it’s detrimental to your health. It’s up to the individual decide what’s best for them. I can tell you I rarely get sick. If I start getting sick, I eat kimchi or drink Kombucha tea.”

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On the Web: Learn more about Barrel + Brine at

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