Fermented foods have been used medicinally around the world for centuries, and their myriad of health benefits have been long understood. As part of our regular diet, fermented foods can support both digestive and immune health, and add rich and delicious flavor to our meals.
According to Sandor Katz, author of the bestselling book Wild Fermentation, “fermentation makes foods more nutritious… microscopic organisms-our ancestors and allies-transform food and extend its usefulness. Fermentation is found throughout human cultures. Hundreds of medical and scientific studies confirm what folklore has always known: Fermented foods help people stay healthy.”
Before digging deeper into the nutritional benefits, let’s take a quick look at what fermented foods are exactly. The process of fermentation is one in which enzymes act on organic substances (such as proteins and carbohydrates), breaking them down into simpler compounds, similar to the process of digestion. Fermented foods can almost be thought of as partially pre-digested foods, which is why those who have trouble digesting a certain food in its raw form are often able to eat it once it’s been fermented (milk vs. yogurt, for example).
Fermentation is activated by a mold, yeast or bacteria. Those microorganisms work alone or together to feed and grow on certain foods, thus generating the fermentation process (or in other cases, causing foods to spoil). The processes of fermentation are complex and, in fact, there is an entire science devoted specifically to its study, called zymology.
Brief History of Fermentation
Humans are thought to have fermented foods since the Neolithic age, beginning with foods and beverages such as cheese, beer, wine and breads. Asian cultures fermented foods such as milk, soy, vinegar, yogurt, pickles and other types of alcoholic beverages. Over time, fermented foods have taken many forms, such as kvass from eastern Europe, miso from Japan, sauerkraut from China (not originating in Germany, contrary to popular belief), and tempeh from Indonesia.
Of course, ancient cultures did not understand the what or the why behind fermentation, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that fermentation was discovered to be caused by living organisms; not until the 1900s was there a deeper understanding of enzymes, coenzymes and their roles in fermentation.
In our modern society, we now have the understanding and ability to control and manipulate the fermentation process, which is used in industrial food production.
Nutritional Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are chock-full of friendly gut bacteria, also known as probiotics. Foods rich in probiotics have been shown to support heart health, prevent gastrointestinal diseases, and even help to alleviate mood disorders and depression.
When we hear the word “bacteria,” we generally think of something that is bad or harmful to our body. While this can certainly be the case, many are surprised to learn that our gut is home to millions of good bacteria that support both healthy digestion and immune function. In fact, without properly balanced gut flora, we are more susceptible to diseases stemming from poor immune health, such as food allergies and sensitivities, seasonal allergies and asthma, frequent colds and infections, and autoimmune diseases.
Fermented foods offer an effective and simple way to achieve, and maintain, adequate levels of good gut bacteria, thus helping us to prevent future disease and to support existing conditions.
Top Fermented Foods to Incorporate Into Your Daily Diet
This traditional dish from China was originally made with cabbage and rice vinegar, but can include many other vegetables, such as carrots or green beans. Today, sauerkraut can be purchased at your local health food store, or made at home. Be sure to opt for raw sauerkraut, as that is the form that offers probiotic benefits. Enjoy 1/4-1/2 cup with any meal.
Another excellent vegetable-based option, kimchi originated in Korea. Enjoy it just like sauerkraut, as a condiment alongside a main meal, but keep in mind it is usually a bit spicier.
Kombucha tea has been all the rage recently, and for good reason. A fermented tea drink, this newly popular beverage can now be purchased not only at any health food store, but sometimes even at convenience stores. Because it does have a much higher sugar content than vegetable-based fermented food options (otherwise known as lacto-fermented foods), we advise to stick to a maximum of eight ounces per day.
Yogurt and Kefir
These traditional dairy-based fermented options might or might not be tolerated by those with dairy sensitivities. When choosing yogurt, be sure to opt for a plain, whole-fat brand instead of a low-fat/no-fat option, as the latter commonly have added sugars and are stripped of their health-promoting fatty acids. Kefir is a yogurt-like fermented dairy beverage.
This fermented food is made from soy, and is commonly served at Japanese restaurants in soup. You can find it at a health food store in a powder or (more commonly) a paste form, and you can use it at home in cooking. While more processed versions of soy, such as milk or tofu, can be inflammatory for some people, miso is an excellent soy alternative.
Historically, pickles were made by allowing them to ferment in a mixture of simple salt water, which produced a highly nutritious fermented food. Nowadays, pickles are often made using vinegar. That type is not fermented, so make sure you read the labels on any store-bought pickles.
Adding one serving of fermented foods to your daily diet can go a long way in improving your health. While higher doses of probiotics can be a hugely beneficial supplement to bring your levels of healthy gut flora up to par, fermented foods are a key to proper maintenance.