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I often sing the praises of bone broth as a healing food, but fermented foods are just as important for a healthy body. Fermented foods are a great way to get probiotics in the diet (among other things) and are very easy (and cheap) to make at home.
What Is Fermentation?
Fermented foods are foods that have been preserved through the process of lacto-fermentation. During this process, naturally occurring bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food to produce lactic acid, which preserves the food. Fermented foods can be stored in a cool place (32-50 degrees) for as long as a year or more.
This process also creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics. Fermentation helps make food easier to digest and often boosts its nutritional value.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods have been a staple of the human diet for centuries until advancements in technology and food preservation replaced the need for fermentation.
But preservation wasn’t the only or even most important benefit of fermentation. There are many benefits of fermented foods.
- Source of probiotics – Eating fermented foods and drinking fermented drinks introduce beneficial bacteria into the digestive system. Studies are constantly showing how probiotics help slow or reverse disease, boost the immune system, and improve bowel health, among other things. In this podcast, we discuss how some of these probiotics in fermented foods may not survive as much as we once thought, but they are still beneficial for other reasons…
- Helps with digestion and assimilation– Fermented foods contain probiotics and digestive enzyme that help the body digest and assimilate the nutrients in the food you’re already eating.
- Budget friendly – Healthy eating can get expensive quickly, but home fermented foods are some of the least expensive health foods available. You may even be able to ditch your probiotic or enzyme supplements.
- Easy and safe preservation method – Homemade foods only last a few days in the fridge but fermented foods can last as long as a year or more! Lacto-fermented foods also don’t lose the nutrients like traditionally canned foods do and are known to be as safe or safer.
Many health advocates today encourage the reintroduction of fermented foods into the America diet. It’s not uncommon now to see unpasteurized fermented foods and drinks in grocery stores.
Fermented Foods vs. Probiotic Supplements
Probiotic supplements do help in some circumstances, but often fermented foods carry even more benefit when we’re talking about those specific strains of probiotics found in fermented foods. This is because they contain beneficial enzymes and other substances that influence the gut, even if those probiotics don’t have strong survivability in the gut.
As mentioned earlier, fermented foods do contain probiotics, but even more importantly they contain important digestive enzymes necessary for properly breaking down and assimilating food. Some of the probiotics may not survive the high temperatures and acidity in the gut, but the enzymes can.
Additionally, the fermentation process does some of our digestive work for us by breaking down certain compounds in the food we eat so they are more easily digested. For example, a 2010 study found that proteins are broken down and “pre-digested” by fermentation.
Another example is grains and dairy products. The fermentation process breaks down anti-nutrients and hard-to-digest compounds (like lactose or oligosaccharides) so these foods become easier to digest.
Increased Nutrient Absorption
For children and those with digestive issues (candida, leaky gut, and so on) this increase in digestive performance is really important. Fermentation can unlock a lot of nutrition that an ill digestive track wouldn’t otherwise absorb. Instead of becoming more nutrient depleted (which leads to more difficulty in creating digestive enzyme and assimilating nutrients), fermented foods help address those nutrient deficits.
Wider Variety of Probiotic Strains
Fermented foods have a much more diverse profile of probiotic strains than probiotic supplements do. According to research performed by Sandra Buerger and Alexander Smith, probiotics from supplements form neat white piles when added to a petri dish. Fermented food probiotics are much more colorful and diverse — meaning they contain many more strains of probiotics.
There’s no doubt about how much money you’ll save by fermenting your own probiotics at home versus buying them. A high quality probiotic supplement goes a long way toward restoring or building up gut health (and you don’t have to wait a week for them) but fermenting foods at home gives the biggest bang for your buck.
What Can You Ferment?
You’d be surprised by what you can ferment! From vegetables to dairy, fermenting foods at home is simple and easy. Here are some of my favorite kinds of fermented foods.
Most people are familiar with fermented vegetables (even if they haven’t tried them yet!). Fermented vegetables are very easy and inexpensive to make and pack a huge nutritional punch, so I recommend trying them.
Dairy and Non-Dairy Ferments
Fermented dairy like yogurt is a traditional food that dates back centuries. But supermarket yogurt is almost completely devoid of probiotics (or so high in sugar that it cancels out the benefits). That’s why it’s nice to make your own. Dairy products can be more digestible when fermented, but for those who still can’t tolerate dairy, I’m including non-dairy alternative recipes.
I haven’t spent much time fermenting fruit, but it’s on my list of things to try. Fermenting fruit is a great way to preserve it but is a little bit more involved than fermenting vegetables.
There are three kinds of fruit fermentation:
- Lacto-fermentation (the same kind of fermentation you achieve with vegetables)
- Alcohol fermentation (like when making wine or mead)
- Vinegar fermentation (this is what you do to make apple cider vinegar, for example)
As mentioned, the microbes during fermentation consume sugars and starches in food and turn it into lactic acid. But fruits are much higher in natural sugars so they need closer supervision so they stay in lacto-fermentation and don’t cross over into alcohol fermentation. To lacto-ferment your fruit, don’t let them sit for more than a couple of days. Also, adding whey, kombucha, or water kefir can help avoid transitioning to alcohol fermentation.
My family doesn’t drink soda at all. We stick to healthier drinks like water, herbal tea, and homemade fermented drinks. Fermented drinks are a great way to have a “treat” drink that’s also healthy for the body. Here are some of my favorite recipes:
- Homemade Root Beer
- Coconut Water Kefir
- Water Kefir Variation
- Natural Ginger Ale
- Continuous Brew Kombucha
- Coffee Kombucha
- Ginger Honey Switchel
- Elderberry Kombucha Soda
- Fermented Lemonade
- Beet Kvass
Meat and Fish
This may be a surprising one for many, but you really can ferment meat and fish! It’s better known as curing and is done in a similar way to fermenting other foods.
Here are a few rules to follow:
- Meat doesn’t contain its own sugar so a source of sugar is usually needed in the rub or brine.
- Curing salts #1 and #2 are usually used to cure the meat. These contain artificial nitrates that turn into nitrites during curing. Alternately, you can use celery powder that contains naturally occurring nitrates (this is what is used in “uncured” meats).
- These meats are often made with a starter culture (like whey) to boost the probability of the meat being cured safely.
I don’t eat many cured meats, so I don’t think I’ll try fermenting meats. But I have come up with alternatives to cured meats (like corned beef) that are just as good.
Ferment in Your Kitchen!
Fermented foods are not only less expensive than probiotics supplements, but they offer other benefits like better digestion and improved nutrition. Fermenting at home is very easy too. Even if you’re nervous to try it at first, you’re bound to learn to love ferment!
Do you eat fermented foods? What are your favorites?