Friendly bacteria might not sound too appetizing, but Yasmine Mason says bring 'em on.
About two years ago, after her youngest child had entered kindergarten, Mason launched Fermentation Farm, a market in Costa Mesa specializing in unpasteurized-fermented foods, which she says aid digestion and boost immunity.
Simply put, fermentation is a natural preservation process that uses bacterial cultures, the good bacteria. A variety of food and drinks rely on fermentation, including yogurt, sauerkraut, cheese, sourdough, kombucha, beer and wine.
The key to successful fermentation is to make sure the food is submerged in liquid, usually salty water, also known as brine, but wine or whey can also be used, Mason said. The food should then be sealed in heavy ceramic cylindrical crocks or glass containers, she added.
Studies have found that foods fermented by lactic acid bacteria may actually help keep gastrointestinal systems healthy and properly functioning. The live cultures can add healthy microbes to the intestines, boosting the immune system and reducing the concentration of enzymes that promote cancer in the gut, some research has suggested.
Local practitioners, nutritionists and doctors have referred their patients battling digestive disorders and cancer to Fermentation Farm, Mason said, since the preserved foods are enriched with essential amino acids, fatty acids and vitamins.
"There isn't another place like this," said Cheri Swanson, a certified nutritionist who owns Swanson Health Center in Costa Mesa. "It's teaching people things that they just don't know."
"This is food science," said Mason. "Helping people day to day is the best part of this business."
The flavors produced by the good bacteria often don't carry many calories, and the food ferments, because they are already naturally preserved, may last for weeks. Some will increase in flavor and nutritional value slowly over months.
The process has long been part of human history, playing a prominent role in human survival before the days of stoves and refrigerators allowed people to preserve food.
Mason, who grew up on a family farm in Nevada, said that at an early age she understood the importance of growing organic vegetables and organically raised animals — those not fed hormones.
With her interest in teaching others about health, she attended chiropractic school and founded Lifespring Chiropractic in Newport Beach with her husband, Derek.
About eight years ago, Mason began experimenting in the kitchen.
Her vanilla-bean yogurt, hissing kombucha and sauerkraut quickly became hits among her family and friends.
Swanson, who is currently Fermentation Farm's biggest referral of patients, said she particularly shops for the store's pastured eggs and fermented ginger carrots.
"They taste like candy and help digest a meal," she said of the vegetables during a recent visit to the store.
The health shop features a six-tap kombucha bar offering black and green tea drinks in flavors like mango, black cherry and apple. Mason says not only do these stimulate the immune system and improve digestion, but they also aid liver function.
Glass refrigeration houses the store's locally sourced products, which include grass-fed beef, bison and lamb, and raw dairy and free-range eggs.
Mason said she plans to expand the store's variety and has already added pico de gallo, chimichurri, dill pickles and sprouted raw almonds — in barbecue, cinnamon and garlic flavors. She wants people to understand foods that are dense in nutrients, Vitamin B, electrolytes and collagen, which are also immune system boosts, she said.
Mason has also added organic fermented sodas and gluten-free sweets to appeal to the pickier palates.
A popular favorite is her "Zingy Yogurt," which is made up of cream, milk, raw honey, vanilla bean paste and villi mother culture. It can sit in the refrigerator for a week.
"It tastes like whipped cream," she said as she dipped a spoon into the yogurt's mason jar.
Fermentation Farm holds classes each month, ranging in topics from fermenting veggies and kombucha to gluten-free baking.
"You can't get well if you don't eat some healthy food," said Swanson, as she reached for another serving of mango kombucha. "And you can help yourself get healed with food. That's what's so cool."