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Before I started eating real foods, ferments like sauerkraut, plain yogurt, kombucha, and aged cheese were not even on my radar. These fermented foods tasted and smelled too strong to me, and I had no interest in eating them. I preferred my bland carbohydrates, thank you very much!
Fast forward a couple of years, and I noticed I started to enjoy these foods and even craved 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 (check out this post about the importance of traditional foods), I was eventually brave enough to try it.
Now that I have, I will never go back. I appreciate all the health benefits of fermented foods. I even eat kimchi regularly!
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods go through a process of lacto-fermentation 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, vitamins, minerals, biologically active peptides, and various strains of probiotics. The lactic acid bacteria even produce vitamin K2, which is important for bone health.
The natural fermentation of foods preserves nutrients and breaks the food down into a more digestible form. For example, the fermentation process in sourdough bread degrades the gluten, making it easier for the digestive system to break it down and absorb it. It even lowers the FODMAPs in wheat, particularly the oligosaccharides fructans and raffinose, making it easier to digest for those with IBS and other FODMAP issues, like bloating after meals.
This, along with the bevy of probiotics created during the fermentation process, could explain the link between the consumption of fermented foods and improved digestion.
Overall, the main reasons to use fermentation in traditional cuisines are:
- helps food resist spoiling and becoming moldy.
- helps prevent food from transferring bad bacteria or other pathogens to the person eating it.
- keeps the food fresh and consumable between harvest and eating (makes food shelf-stable).
- changes or improves the flavor of food (think cucumbers to pickles).
- improves the nutritional value of food by producing vitamins and other nutrients, as mentioned above.
One of the ways it improves the nutritional value of the food is that it helps break down anti-nutrients or “plant toxins” that are naturally present in food. For example, fermenting soybeans helps lower their levels of phytic acid. Olives require fermentation to even be edible. Some ferments reduce the level of oxalates, like in pickled beets.
Common Fermented Foods
Cultures around the world have been eating fermented vegetables, dairy, and other foods for years, from sauerkraut in Germany to kimchi in Korea and everywhere in between. These foods have been an important contributor to human health for generations.
Here are just a few examples of fermented foods with some recipes for making them yourself or incorporating them into recipes:
When we think of pickles, we usually automatically think of cucumber pickles, but you can pickle many different foods, including green beans, radishes, carrots, beets, and more. Here’s how to pickle cucumbers.
Germans have been fermenting cabbage for thousands of years to keep it all winter long. Not only is fermenting cabbage practical for food storage, but it’s also highly beneficial to health. You can easily learn how to make sauerkraut at home.
This Korean side dish is more than just fermented cabbage. Traditional family recipes mix things up by adding in other vegetables like spring onions, cucumber, celery, bamboo shoots, seaweed, and more. It also varies in seasonings, including zingy spices and condiments like Korean chili powder, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce.
The Japanese fermented soybean paste, called miso, with salt and koji (a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae). Some add other ingredients, like seaweed, grains (rice or barley), and sesame seeds. Cooks will use miso in soups and sauces and as a seasoning.
This fermented soybean cake is originally from Indonesia. They ferment soybeans with a fungus, either Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae. Many marinate it in brine or spices and then pan-fry or deep-fry it. It can then be eaten alone or used as an ingredient in soups, stir-fries, or sandwiches. It’s really good at absorbing the flavors of whatever you cook it in.
This is another fermented soybean food from Japan. They ferment whole soybeans with Bacillus subtilis var. Natto. It’s an acquired taste, as it has a very strong smell and flavor and has a sticky or slimy texture. They often serve it with rice, and (believe it or not) it’s popular breakfast food in Japan. It’s eaten cold, and some people enjoy it with added onion or kimchi.
The yogurt most people buy today is nothing like its original form. We used to make yogurt with raw milk and without added sugar, colors, and flavors. The cultures break down the proteins and sugars in the milk to make it more digestible. The live bacteria in the yogurt also have benefits for the diversity of the digestive system.
Another form of fermented dairy is cheese. A different type of culture is used to make cheese than yogurt. Even the different types of cheeses have different bacteria cultures. Longer fermented or “aged” cheeses break down more of the sugars, which means they tend to be better tolerated by those with lactose intolerance.
The health benefits of fermented drinks are similar to those of fermented foods:
Traditionally made from grapes, wine is also made from many different fruits, including apples, cherries, and even pumpkin. You’ve probably heard that wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, which comes from grape skins. When picking out a bottle of wine, there are certain things to watch out for, like potential pesticide levels, GMO exposures, sulfites, and more. Learn more about how to choose a healthy wine in this podcast episode.
This now popular drink is fermented tea. It was originally made with black tea and sugar and fermented with a starter called a SCOBY—an acronym for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. Now, kombucha is made with a variety of teas and flavorings. Some even have fruit juices or coconut water added to them.
Commercial kombucha can be expensive and has added sugar, but luckily, you can easily make it yourself. Here’s how to make kombucha at home. You can make it in batches, but I like to make continuous brew kombucha to save time and keep it always available.
Traditional cultures have made kefir by fermenting milk. However, it doesn’t have to use cow dairy. For those struggling with dairy sensitivities or allergies, try my Coconut Milk Kefir Recipe. You can also make it with water in my Water Kefir Soda Recipe.
Studies have even shown the link between probiotic-rich foods and overall health. Sadly, with technological advances and changes in 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 milk, pasteurized yogurt has replaced homemade, vinegar-based pickles and sauerkraut have replaced traditional lacto-fermented versions… the list goes on.
Even grains were safer to eat when we prepared them by soaking, sprouting, and fermenting them. These traditions largely reduce the anti-nutrient content (phytic acid and lectins, for example) and make them less harmful.
Instead of the nutrient-rich foods full of enzymes and probiotics that our grandparents probably ate, today’s average diet consists mainly of sugar-laden, lab-created dead foods.
So, why are fermented foods good for you? We’ll cover that next.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
Why eat these foods? Besides the fact that they taste great (I promise the taste will grow on you!), there are several great reasons to start making and eating fermented foods:
- Probiotics – Eating fermented foods like miso 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, aid digestion, and enhance immunity.
- Postbiotics – Fermented foods also help improve your body’s production of what are called POSTbiotics. These are the product of your gut bacteria digesting a prebiotic substance, like fiber. They are actually a waste product of the bacteria. Postbiotics include things you may have heard of, like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), including butyrate, enzymes, lysates, and amino acids. You can learn more about postbiotics here.
- 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. Fermentation also improves the bioavailability of nutrients in the food. For example, fermented oat gruel improves iron absorption. You may not need as many supplements and vitamins because you’ll be absorbing more of the live nutrients in your foods, thanks to the microorganisms helping you out.
- Improve Gut Health – Including lactic acid bacteria from fermented foods can improve digestive health. Fermentation basically activates nutritional compounds in foods (for example, flavonoids) so that they benefit the body, improving cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic health.
- Promote Weight Loss – Fermented food may also help in the battle of the bulge. Daily consumption of fermented foods leads to decreased body weight over time. The balance of gut microbiome species can make the difference in promoting weight loss or weight gain. For that reason, these foods are important to consider in the fight against obesity.
- Improve Mental Health – Improving intestinal health with fermented foods may improve your mental state by feeding microbes that produce feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin (which common antidepressants called SSRIs help you recycle). Addressing the gut should be a key part of mental health care.
- Lower Inflammation – Including more fermented foods in your diet can help to lower inflammation. Increasing certain good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract promotes the production of certain postbiotics or metabolites that are anti-inflammatory.
- Balance the Immune System – By increasing the diversity of species in the microbiome, fermented foods also help balance the immune system.
Practical Benefits of Fermented Foods
- 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. With sea salt, you can ferment many foods very inexpensively. You can make drinks like water kefir and kombucha at home, and they cost only pennies per serving. Adding these things to your diet could also cut down on the number of supplements you need, helping the budget further.
- 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 without losing the nutrients like you would with traditional canning.
- Save Space – If you can vacuum-seal them, you can store lacto-ferments in your pantry or garage instead of refrigerating them. This is really helpful in the summer when I try to save as much fresh produce as possible.
Bring on the Bacteria! How to Incorporate Fermented Foods Into Your Diet
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 one head of cabbage worth in a quart-sized jar).
You can also incorporate fermented drinks like carbonated water kefir and kombucha, which are inexpensive to make and can replace unhealthy drinks like soda.
I love the starters from Kombucha Kamp to make my own! To get started, order a single SCOBY culture here. You’ll have the option to upgrade if you’d rather get a second one to have on hand or to have 2 gallons brewing at a time.
However, if you have any digestive issues, start slow on fermented foods. You may want to begin with just a tablespoon of sauerkraut a few days a week or a few sips of kefir and work up from there. If you notice any bloating or stomach upset, slow down, stop, or talk to your doctor about making sure you aren’t struggling with SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth).
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Pfleghaar, D.O., FACEP, ABOIM. Dr. Jennifer is a double board-certified physician and is now working in Emergency Medicine and has an office in Ohio practicing Integrative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Are you a fan of fermented foods or still on the fence? If you already eat fermented foods, please share your favorites!