Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Before I started eating real foods, things like sauerkraut, plain yogurt, kombucha and strong aged cheese were not even on my radar. These foods tasted and smelled too strong to me and I had no interest in them. I preferred my bland carbohydrates- thank you very much!

Fast forward a couple years, and I noticed that I started to enjoy these foods and even wanted them from time to time. I was always afraid to try making them myself, but as I read more and more about their health benefits, I was eventually brave enough to try it.

Now that I have, I will never go back!

saurkraut recipe Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

What Are Fermented Foods?

Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lactofermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics.

Natural fermentation of foods has also been shown to preserve nutrients in food and break the food down to a more digestible form. This, along with the bevy of probiotics created during the fermentation process, could explain the link between consumption of fermented foods and improved digestion.

Cultures around the world have been eating fermented foods for years, from Sauerkraut in Germany to Kimichi in Korea and everywhere in between. Studies have even shown the link between probiotic rich foods and overall health (PDF). Sadly, with the advances in technology and food preparation, these time-honored traditional foods have been largely lost in our society.

Where Have All the Fermented Foods Gone?

The amount of probiotics and enzymes available in the average diet has declined sharply over the last few decades as pasteurized milk has replaced raw, pasteurized yogurt has replaced homemade, vinegar based pickels and sauerkraut have replaced traditional lacto-fermented versions…the list goes on.

Even the much dreaded grains were safer to eat in earlier times since their preparation included soaking, sprouting and fermenting, which largely reduces the anti-nutrient content and makes them less harmful (I still didn’t say good!).

Instead of the nutrient rich foods full of enzymes and probiotics that our grandparents probably ate, the average diet today consists mainly of sugar laden, lab created dead foods.

Why Eat Fermented Foods?

Besides the fact that they taste great and really grow on you, there are several great reasons to start making and eating fermented foods:

  1. Probiotics- Eating fermented foods and drinking fermented drinks like Kefir and Kombucha will introduce beneficial bacteria into your digestive system and help the balance of bacteria in your digestive system. Probiotics have also been shown to help slow or reverse some diseases, improve bowel health, aid digestion, and improve immunity!
  2. Absorb Food Better- Having the proper balance of gut bacteria and enough digestive enzymes helps you absorb more of the nutrients in the foods you eat. Pair this with your healthy real food diet, and you will absorb many more nutrients from the foods you eat. You won’t need as many supplements and vitamins, and you’ll be absorbing more of the live nutrients in your foods.
  3. Budget Friendly- Incorporating healthy foods into your diet can get expensive, but not so with fermented foods. You can make your own whey at home for a couple of dollars, and using that and sea salt, ferment many foods very inexpensively. Drinks like Water Kefir and Kombucha can be made at home also and cost only pennies per serving. Adding these things to your diet can also cut down on the number of supplements you need, helping the budget further.
  4. Preserves Food Easily- Homemade salsa only lasts a few days in the fridge- Fermented homemade salsa lasts months! The same goes for sauerkraut, pickles, beets and other garden foods. Lacto-fermentation allows you to store these foods for longer periods of time without losing the nutrients like you would with traditional canning.

Bring on the Bacteria! How to Incorporate Fermented Foods Into Your Diet

I’ll be delving into this more in the next few weeks and providing some recipes, but adding fermented foods to your diet can be an easy process (and can save you money on probiotics and digestive enzyme supplements!)

On a basic level, you can make foods like sauerkraut with just cabbage, water and salt on your counter (that recipe can be adjusted down to make 1 head of cabbage worth in a quart size jar).

You can also incorporate fermented drinks like Water Kefir and Kombucha (cultures available here) which are inexpensive to make and can be carbonated like soda!

Are you a fan of fermented foods or are you still unsure? If you already eat fermented foods, please share your favorites!

Reader Comments

  1. Ryan says

    We made our first big batch of sauerkraut last fall and are still enjoying it (well, my husband enjoys it, and I choke it down because it’s good for me). I try to eat about a tablespoon with every dinner, and I mask it with the food I’m eating so I can’t taste it as much. I’m hoping to develop a taste for it, but as for now it’s still nasty to me. But I do notice it helps my digestion a lot. I also try to drink some homemade goat milk kefir every morning, but I’m still experimenting with the culturing of it to get it to my liking. This summer when beets come to my farmers market I’ll be making beet kvass, and I have some yogurt starter to try my hand at yogurt soon.

  2. Analise Hess says

    Hi Katie! Do you make your own yogurt? Or can you recommend a yogurt starter? I have a six month old on the GAPS diet, and it’s time to begin introducing yogurt whey, but I am not sure what’s legit.

    Thanks! Analise

  3. Bernie says

    what percentage of food intake should be fermented foods and can you take in too much fermented food?

  4. Stef says

    I’ve read over and over again how beneficial fermented foods are for the gut. I’ve been gluten free for 5 years, dairy free for a couple, I take a probiotic daily, and just started the paleo diet a couple weeks ago. Problem is, I’m kind of scared of fermented foods. Years ago, I stopped eating cabbage, since I seemed to react to most cruciferous veggies (bloating/cramping). I also am nervous to do the kefir/whey due to my reactions to dairy. Any suggestions on easing into this stuff? 

      • brent says

        I am celiac and have been off gluten for about 5 years now. I tried kefir before my celiac diagnosis and it was the most helpful thing I had tried in an effort to solve my digestive issues. Recently, after a round of antibiotics I started drinking kefir again. I saw results almost overnight. We are now trying other cultured foods. I’m a believer in this rediscovered food.

    • says

      An excellent reference on fermenting your own foods is Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. He says that when fermenting your own foods there is one rule of thumb: if it smells bad don’t eat it. If smells good it is safe.

  5. Jodi says

    Hi Katie, I’m staying off dairy at the moment as part my mission to heal my gut. I can still tolerate foods cooked in home-made organic ghee but have been warned to stay off my own home-made yoghurt which I make with raw milk. That said, does whey count as dairy as far as leaky gut goes? Or do all the milk solids and proteins stay in the strained yoghurt?
    Thanks heaps :)
    Jodi

    • says

      There can still be some milk proteins in the whey. I’d avoid it if you are off dairy completely. You can make most things with sea salt without even needing the whey, they will just take longer to ferment.

      • Jodi says

         Thanks so much for replying, I suspected as much… I’m about to embark on a huge fermented foods making spree this week to help my healthy bacteria grow: Kombucha, Kimchi, Kefir and Sauerkraut here I come :) Thanks again, other than the real bible, your website is my health bible x

  6. says

    I’ve read conflicting information and wonder if you can clarify the question of what type of yeast is in kefir (both water and milk kefir). I’ve read that if you are sensitive to candida then kefir may not be good for you and may not be good for children. On the other hand I’ve read that the yeast in kefir is different to candida and will actually cannibalize (i.e. destroy) candida yeast. I have not been able to find a reliable reference on this question. Does Wellness Mama have any information to clarify this? Love your site. Thanks

    • says

      I’ve seen mixed research on this and also mixed reactions with clients. I think that there is an individual component that depends on the person’s gut flora, which can vary a lot even with those how have Candida. I usually suggest sticking with water kefir (or just Kombucha) and gauging reaction to see if a person is sensitive…

      • Sally says

        It shouldn’t be harmful, good luck I am also suffering from the candida and the best thing you can do is avoid sugar at all costs!! I feel much better when I take my probotics and herbal supplements and watch what I eat. I don’t eat as many carbs and eliminated dairy other than plain yogurt with acidophilus. Also drinking apple cider vinegar is great just water it down or add it to a drink mix.

        Take care,

        Sally

  7. says

    Hi Katie, love your site! Curious where you get your Fermented Cod Liver Oil… My organic markets don’t carry fermented, nor does my co-op… I see a few on Amazon, but none in your store – do you have a preference? Supplements are only as good as their quality and was curious if you’d chosen one based on research?

      • says

        Thanks so much! I’ve been taking GP FCLO for almost 2 months – and they’re definitely worth the $$. Noticed a difference after 3 days, and continued to notice benefits through the first few weeks. Definitely more energy!!! This after finishing a bottle of “Garden I Life Olde World Cod Liver Oil” with no noticeable results. I’m a convert!!

  8. says

    I wish fermented foods had been a regular in my diet years ago. I’ve started brewing my own kombucha (my first batch hasn’t turned out so well, I guess there’s a learning curve) I also have lately been including kefir and plain yogurt (just tried non-homogenized yogurt yesterday) every day, even though I’ve long thought I was allergic to dairy, but I have no tummy troubles and my cravings are gone!

  9. Amy Frev says

    Question: I have looked at the Wise Choice Market’s website and was interested in trying some things out (but their stuff is pretty pricy)…so I thought I would try making my own fermented veggies. They sell a “starter culture” but other websites I found show just using salt brine to ferment the veggies. What is the difference? Which do you recommend? Thanks!

  10. says

    I’ve had some success with the salt-only method but the cultures make it faster and provide certain levels of probiotics… I do like to use the cultures when I can… Once you culture them though, you can save some of the liquid and add that to future batches in place of a new culture packet…

    • Amy Frev says

      Thanks for your reply! Couple more questions….So to “save some of the liquid”..do you mean the liquid that you put over the veggies…save that? And to save it, just put it in a jar and put in the refrigerator?

  11. Sharone says

    Everytime I’ve tried fermented foods (kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc) I’ve hated the taste. I would really like the benefits, but I just don’t know if it would ever be possible for me to eat them. I know yogurt isn’t the best source, but that’s the only one so far that isn’t too strongly flavored that I can actually eat it. Any tips?

    • kim says

      I don’t like Kefir, LOVE kombucha which is really pleasant w/ green tea unflavored. Sauerkraut is good after 7 days, so maybe you could make smaller batches and consume when less pungent

  12. Meredith says

    Should the fermented foods I eat (I’m thinking Sauerkraut and kimchi, specifically) also be raw? Do the same benefits exist whether or not its raw?

  13. Shelly says

    I made homemade sour kraut . Took three weeks, but I love it. It’s quite simple. The hardest part is waiting the three weeks while it ferments.

  14. Bren says

    Question: what is properly home fermented sauerkraut supposed to taste like? I bought a jar of Bubbies fermented ($10!!) sauerkraut and It is DELICIOUS! Does homemade taste like that? Someone with some experience please help me out!

      • Elise says

        I have a question about Bubbies brand- are their products non-pasteurized? Pasteurized fermented products don’t contain the good bacteria you are looking for as they have been killed off in the process.

  15. Virginia says

    Hello! I am new to this fermented foods. (But I do love kombucha and kefir water). I love this article, but do you have any references to back up the health claims/ benefits?

    Thanks! I appreciate your blog! There’s so much great information here!

    • Kathy says

      I do. My mother grew up in Luxembourg, and at the time had no refrigerators. I asked her yesterday, as I have been researching probiotics/fermented vegetables, and she said she remembers her grandmother making sauerkraut in a ceramic container with a wood thing that was weighted down with a clean rock and covered with a towel. She also said the large local farmers had big rooms with big vats with fermenting milk, cheeses, buttermilk, veggies, ect. She ate all these things on a regular basis until she came to United States. She is 77 years old and in good health and not on any medications. (with the exception of past few years frequent UTI’s of which they put her on daily antibiotics, which I think has killed most of her good bacteria) She didn’t learn this technique as her mother was a single mom and worked fulltime. I believe if she had learned and continued this form of eating she wouldn’t have the UTI’s. I am wondering if the current diabetes and heart disease is a byproduct of not eating these things our great-grandmothers ate on a regular basis.

      • Sheryl McGee says

        yes fermentation has many health benefits! Google Dr. Mercola’s website for that and other important health info. He is a dr, turned health informant. I’ve also read eating a couple tablespoons of fermented foods with each meal is “very” beneficial! Fermented foods help with digestion and important gut flora which is most of our immune system. And proper digestion is one of the most important things. It’s how our bodies ingest nutrients and keep down inflammation because our food is properly used so it does not inflame the body. Inflammation is a major problem, health studies are showing its behind a majority of health problems! It is the first problem that starts in our bodies and then as the body reacts to defending itself it makes chloresterol to protect. “Over abundance” of chloresterol becomes a problem in our system. So “some” chloresterol isn’t the problem, in fact healthy bodies & minds need some, it is the inflammation that’s the culprit! Inflammation equals excess chloresterol. And, inflammation health studies are finding is at the heart of most diseases as it’s the first sign of in balance, even cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, etc can start with inflammation which sets off a whole list of reactions in the body. So that’s why chewing your food very good (your stomach doesn’t have teeth :)) and fermented foods help digestion and gut flora, then there will be little or no inflammation! My dad is 92 and does not take any medications. I think it was the fermented food he ate on the farm as a child! If you need more info, do what I do and read “health” books! :)

  16. Paola Díaz says

    Hello, I’m new in all this world of fermented foods and drinks, but I have a lot of questions, I making now kombucha, and trying to get some milk kiffer, now we discovered that my mom has a weak liver and doing some research I found the beet kvass it’s super good for this matter, my question is, at some point could anyone got to much fermented drinks or can I just trying everything, I don’t want to saturate my organism (if this possible), I just want to try new and healthy things for me and my family, and of course help my mom’s liver. Thank you in advance.

  17. Annie says

    Kimchi made with napa cabbage (or other veg) and various spices is the best fermented food I’ve ever had, raises the bar!

  18. Janine says

    Something I found regarding fermented foods. I’d love your wise feedback Katie. I’m a little confused!

    ‘Dr. Raymond Peat, who has been studying and writing about nutrition for 40 – from what I see, perhaps fermented foods aren’t that healthy after all! What do you think?

    According to Dr. Peat’s articles lactic acid in fermented foods is actually stressful and inflammatory for the body and can really mess with your metabolism and its ability to make energy. Fermented foods are actually stressful to your entire system. Yes, it’s fun to make them and to and to eat them. But, if you look at the cellular level and how lactic acid reacts to the cell: fermented foods are actually unhealthy. When our cells are stressed they make lactic acid. Our liver then needs to convert lactic acid to glucose- which takes a lot of energy. So for those of us that don’t have a fast metabolic rate – extra lactic acid in the system is just too much burden on a liver that is already dealing with a lot in this day and age of all kinds of toxins. Perhaps fermented goods should be limited at the least?

    Dr. Raymond Peat: “The presence of lactic acid, which indicates stress or defective respiration, interferes with energy metabolism in ways that tend to be self-promoting. Harry Rubin’s experiments demonstrated that cells become cancerous before genetic changes appear. The mere presence of lactic acid can make cells more susceptible to the transformation into cancer cells. (Mothersill, et al., 1983.)”

    Traditionally people ate fermented foods because they had no choice. Methods of the times used the production of lactic acid to preserve foods because there was no refrigeration. However, when you eat these foods, the lactic acid goes through your digestion and into your circulation. A buildup of lactic acid in the liver will overpower the organ and the liver, which becomes overworked, cannot do its job well.

    If you are feeling well, a bit of lactic acid may be ok. But, it can also push the system over the edge. I believe most people can’t deal with much extra stress. Most people’s systems (at least people I work with) have been weakened by years of poor eating and stress. Historically, when people ate fermented foods, they may have had stronger systems; meaning their thyroids were stronger, having been breast fed for 4 + years. Now we have PUFA in the diet plus all kinds of toxic elements in the environment. Our system just can’t handle the lactic acid in the diet.

    Ray Peat actually says he avoids all fermented foods. He stopped using black pepper (a fermented food, apparently) about 30 years ago when he saw the toxicity studies.

    Regarding cottage cheese, Dr Peat said that if he suspects that his cottage cheese has a lactic acid dressing on it so he actually washes off his cottage cheese! He told me, “some have a ‘dressing’ with lactic acid added. If that’s the only kind available, I wash it until just the curds are left.” So from that statement, it seems Dr. Peat avoids all fermented foods.

    Dr. Ray Peats thoughts on fermented foods:

    “Fermented vegetables, beans, and fish have been associated with cancer for a long time, and fungal toxins are the main carcinogens, but too much lactic acid is toxic, and even acetic acid could be in some situations.”

    Dr. Peat lists studies for interest, including a study of the association between diet and esophageal cancer in Taiwan (1) explored the importance of dietary factors in the development of esophageal cancer.

    The purpose was to evaluate the effects of several common dietary factors on the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus in a Taiwanese population. The association between diet and esophageal cancer was examined over a 6-year period.

    Consumption of preserved and overheated foods was found to be associated with increased risk of esophageal cancer, whereas intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, and tea was inversely associated with this risk. Men who consumed fermented bean products, salted food and preserved/pickled vegetables more than once a week after age 40 years had a 3.4-fold risk.

    So, it sounds like, lactic acid actually puts stress on the liver. With all the toxins, with the pollution, with the stress, with low thyroid and high estrogen, the body just can’t deal with added lactic acid. A little bit of Kimchee may be fine, but personally I’d rather eat ice cream’.

  19. Janine says

    Re: Lactic Acid. FYI: I emailed Dr Ray Peat and he said – “In the winter in the far north, fish liver was the main source of the essential vitamin D. When livers are stored in a barrel, their enzymes break down the tissue in processes that don’t require oxygen, causing the fat to separate from the disintegrating protein. That’s apparently where the “fermenting” is involved, since oils don’t ferment. Since fish oils and other polyunsaturated oils increase the need for vitamin E and selenium, I think it’s best to get vitamin D from sun exposure or to take a concentrated supplement, without the fish oil. Butter oil is just a refined form of butter, and generally I think less refined foods are preferable, to minimize the exposure to oxygen and contaminants”

  20. Pankaj Mehrotra says

    Too Much of anything is bad. If we are going to replace fruits and other healthy foods with Fermented foods thinking we are following a healthy a diet , its going to give us bad experience. Everybody knows Yogurt is very good for health but you can not have it all the time. One should learn to have balanced diet comprising natural as well as fermented foods.

  21. Leah says

    Hi Katie, I love your website! I’ve been fermenting my own vegetables for awhile with natural salt, my husband loves it and eats alot! My question is, is there too much sodium in fermented foods?

  22. Caz says

    Hi Katie , actually my question is similar to the previous poster (Leah) ….I’ve just started to enjoy fermented veg after my herbalist recommended the benefits. I use approx one and a half tablespoons of sea salt in 2 cups water. But, (and she didn’t mention it), nor have I seen any reference to it, can one ingest too much salt this way, leading to blood pressure/ heart problems ? The amount of veg I’m looking to eat per day, would be about 1 or 2 tablespoons. Thanks for any advise.

    • Cindy says

      You can make it with homemade celery juice instead of salt for a super healthy sauerkraut…
      Would love wellness mama to talk more about this….

  23. Kevelyn says

    Katie,

    Wanted to know if you dehydrate your ferments, will they still contain the good LABs probiotics?

    Also, what would be the best way to store them if the probiotics are maintained through dehydration?

    Thanks in advance!!

  24. Lindsay says

    Hi Katie
    Can you please provide me with the research source that fermented foods produce Omega 3’s? Thank you so much…helpful post!

  25. Grace says

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks for this useful information.

    I was wondering whether cooking fermented food would reduce health benefits? I love cooking kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage dish) into a stew and was wondering whether it isn’t really a good idea nutrition-wise.

    Thanks for your help.

  26. Jalana says

    Would you mind resubmitting the link you have attached to the study? I am in the process of researching fermented foods in the lab. Although this is older data I would be interested in reading it.

    Thank you,

    CM

  27. Noma says

    I’m here in Kathmandu and have been Kombucha brewing withy the help of a friend. Let me know if you’re note rested in joining our co-op.

  28. William says

    Hi Katie,
    Just wondering your thoughts on my adding Kombucha to my Kimchi as a bit of additional liquid and get the fermentation started?
    I let the Kombucha age a bit longer until it is like a vinegar.
    Thanks

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