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!

Some other great recipes from around the web:

Real Fermented Sour Pickles

Lacto Fermented Ketchup

Fermented Salsa (lasts up to six months!)

What’s your verdict? 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. Chevyfarmgirl91 says

    SO Love this! I have been on this big fermented food kick for the past month! :) You are amazing!

  2. Ryandkels 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.

  3. 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

  4. Bernie says

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

  5. Anonymous 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? 

    • 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.

  6. Jodi from Hot Pink Chilli 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 from Hot Pink Chilli 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

  7. 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 sen 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…

  8. 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!!

  9. 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!

  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?

  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!

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