Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut have become increasingly popular in recent years, but they’re certainly not new. Such foods have been a staple in human diets around the world for millennia, and with good reason. Studies show that regular consumption of fermented foods can improve the health of your gut microbiome, fight inflammation and even help you absorb more nutrients from food. Plus, fermented foods add depth of flavour to a variety of dishes and incorporating them into your diet is easier than you might think.
Why Are Fermented Foods Trending Around the World?
Well, they are super healthy and delicious of course. They also have historical roots around the world, such as jun from the Tibetan highlands and sauerkraut from Eastern Europe. They have been valued for centuries as a healthy and refreshing accompaniment to heavier meals, as well as snacks and condiments.
It is likely that you have eaten fermented foods all your life. Many foods go through fermentation processes before they become edible: cheese, bread, wine, beer, tea, and chocolate go through different fermentation processes. When we talk about “fermented foods,” we generally mean foods that keep the good bacteria from the fermentation process that can be used by our body. They often contain vegetables and are also packed with vitamins and minerals (unlike pickling, which is heat dependent: fermentation doesn’t require heat, so the good bacteria don’t die). Every year more and more people are realizing the benefits of fermented foods, so now might be a good time to consider adding more to your diet.
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods are foods that have undergone a fermentation process in which natural bacteria, yeast, or fungi break down the sugars and other nutrients in the food and produce organic acids, alcohol, and gases. This process preserves the food and can also increase its nutritional value and improve its flavour and texture. Examples of fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kombucha, and sourdough bread.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods offer several potential health benefits, including:
- Improved Digestion: Fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria that may help improve digestion and reduce symptoms of indigestion such as gas, bloating, and constipation.
- Boosted Immunity: The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods can also help boost the immune system and protect against infections and other diseases.
- Improved Nutrient Absorption: Fermentation can help break down nutrients in food, making them more bioavailable and easier for the body to absorb.
- Reduced Inflammation: Some research suggests that eating fermented foods may help reduce inflammation in the body, which is associated with a variety of chronic diseases.
- Weight Control: Fermented foods can also help with weight control by regulating appetite and reducing cravings for sugary or high-fat foods.
- Improved Mental Health: New research suggests that eating fermented foods may have a positive impact on mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Overall, adding fermented foods to your diet can be a delicious and nutritious way to support your overall health and wellness.
Are Fermented Foods Healthy for Children?
Yes, fermented foods can also be beneficial for children. In fact, introducing fermented foods to children early can help build a healthy gut microbiome, which can have a positive impact on their overall health and well-being.
However, it is important to introduce fermented foods gradually and in small amounts to allow the digestive system to adjust. Some children may also find the taste or texture of fermented foods unfamiliar or unappetizing, so it may take time for them to get used to these foods.
Do Women Choose Fermented Foods as a Diet?
Yes, fermented foods can be beneficial for women who are dieting. In fact, adding fermented foods to your diet can be a healthy and nutritious way to support your weight loss goals.
Fermented foods are typically low in calories and high in fibre, which may help promote feelings of fullness and reduce cravings for high-calorie and high-fat foods. Additionally, the beneficial bacteria in fermented foods can help improve digestion and reduce inflammation, which can aid in overall health and weight loss efforts.
Some fermented foods, such as kefir or yogurt, also contain probiotics, which may help improve gut health and boost immunity, which may be particularly beneficial for women who are dieting and are at higher risk of malnutrition or immune system suppression.
In general, incorporating fermented foods into a healthy, balanced diet can be a great way to support weight loss and overall health. However, as with any dietary change, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need and that your diet is tailored to your specific health goals and needs.
A Changing Microbiome
One of the biggest benefits of fermented foods comes from probiotics. Recent research suggests that the type of gut bacteria in Americans’ bodies is changing. One possible reason is that the microbiomes in our bodies are not renewing themselves as regularly as in previous generations. Changes in the population of gut microbes can lead to an imbalance between beneficial and harmful gut bacteria, leading to health problems. When the digestive tract contains an unhealthy mix of organisms, it can lead to a weakening of the gut walls, which release their contents into the bloodstream, a condition unsurprisingly known as a leaky gut syndrome.
Developing a Healthy Microbiome
When people consume probiotics (like those found in fermented foods) from an early age, it can help train the immune system to tolerate and work with a diverse and beneficial microbiome. After the first few months and years of life, a person’s microbial population is relatively stable, but adults who regularly consume fermented foods can still benefit.
Adding fermented foods to the diet is relatively easy. You can find naturally fermented foods in health food stores and many supermarkets. Fermentation is easy and safe to do at home, too, by following a few simple instructions. Do remember that not all fermented foods are created equal. For example, although cheese is fermented, it is not known to provide the same health benefits as yogurt.
Live cultures are found not only in yogurt and a yogurt-like drink called kefir, but also in Korean pickles (called kimchi), sauerkraut, and some pickles. The pickle jars you can buy off the supermarket shelf are sometimes pickled with vinegar rather than the natural fermentation process that uses living organisms, meaning they contain no probiotics. To make sure the fermented foods you choose contain probiotics, look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label and as you open the jar look for tell-tale bubbles in the liquid, which indicate there are living organisms in the jar.
Diabetics Can Enjoy Fermented Foods
Fermented foods can be a useful addition to the diet of a person with diabetes, although it is important to be aware of the specific types of fermented foods and their effects on blood sugar levels. Some fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut are low in carbohydrates and may only minimally affect blood sugar levels. Additionally, the beneficial bacteria in fermented foods may help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation, which may be beneficial for people with diabetes.
However, other fermented foods, such as some bread or alcoholic beverages, may contain higher amounts of carbohydrates or sugars, which can cause blood sugar levels to rise. It is important for people with diabetes to know the carbohydrate and sugar content of the fermented foods they eat and to carefully monitor their blood sugar levels.
As with any dietary change, it’s important to check with your doctor or a registered dietitian before including fermented foods in your diet if you have diabetes or other medical conditions. They can help you create a personalized, balanced eating plan that supports your overall health and blood sugar control.
Five Ways to Enjoy Fermented Foods and Take Advantage of What They Have to Offer
1) Top a Pan With Kimchi
Stir Fry Dishes are a tasty, nutritious way to incorporate a variety of whole, plant-based foods into one meal. They can also serve as a vehicle for fermented foods like kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made with fermented vegetables such as cabbage, radishes, onions, garlic, chili peppers, ginger, and other spices. You can find kimchi in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores, usually near other fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, and tempeh. It has a spicy but tart flavour, but if you’re not a fan of spicy foods, there are mild varieties that still offer plenty of flavour and health benefits.
2) Add Sauerkraut to Sandwiches and Salads
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. Although “sauerkraut” is made up of German words, this food has its origins in China, according to the New York Times. The fermentation process gives the cabbage a tart, salty flavour that enlivens many dishes. While most people know sauerkraut as a hot dog topping, that’s not the only way to eat it. Try adding a few tablespoons of sauerkraut to sandwiches or top salads for extra flavour. Sauerkraut also goes well with avocado toast.
It is important to know that sauerkraut is not just sauerkraut. Some sauerkraut is made by rapid pickling rather than fermentation. While pickling imparts a similar astringent taste, it doesn’t provide the same probiotic benefits as fermentation, according to Harvard Medical School. To distinguish between fermented sauerkraut and pickled varieties, check the ingredient label. According to the UMass Chan School of Medicine, fermented sauerkraut is made with salt water, while pickled sauerkraut is usually made with vinegar. Also, fermented sauerkraut is usually refrigerated, but pickled sauerkraut can often be found on grocery store shelves.
3) Snack Yogurt With Live Cultures
Yoghurt, a fermented milk product, has been a staple of the human diet for millennia and can serve as a filling, high-protein snack. Whether you pair it with fresh berries and cinnamon, or peanut butter and banana, or use it in a delicious tzatziki dip, there are many ways to incorporate yogurt into your diet. Look for varieties made with live, active cultures, which are the probiotic components that provide many of the health benefits associated with fermented foods, according to the International Dairy Food Association. It’s important to note that many yogurts contain a significant amount of added sugar, so it’s always a good idea to check nutrition facts and choose plain or flavoured varieties with minimal added sugar.
4) Add Kefir to Smoothies
Kefir is an acidic fermented milk drink that originated in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. While kefir can be drunk wonderfully straight, it is particularly suitable as a basis for probiotic smoothies. As with yogurt, plain kefir or flavours with little added sugar are ideal. You can add kefir to a smoothie to moderate the acidity of plain and low-sugar varieties. If you add a serving or two of fruit for sweetness, you won’t be missing out on refined sugar. As a bonus, certain fruits, like slightly overripe bananas, are high in prebiotic fibre, which serves as food for the probiotic bacteria found in kefir. By pairing your kefir with a banana, you encourage those good bacteria to stay in your gut.
If you’re lactose intolerant, you’re in luck: people with lactose intolerance tend to tolerate kefir. The fermentation process breaks down most of the lactose it contains.
5) Make Salad Dressings With Miso Paste
Miso paste is a traditional Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans. If you’ve ever eaten a hot bowl of miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, the miso paste is what gives it its unique salty umami flavour. Besides miso soup, you can also use miso paste to make delicious salad dressings by mixing it with tahini, lemon juice, tamari, minced garlic and ginger, a squirt of pure maple syrup, and water to thin.
Doctors Are Not Skeptical About Fermented Foods
Doctors and other health professionals may recommend fermented foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fermented foods offer several potential health benefits, including better digestion, increased immunity, and reduced inflammation, which may contribute to overall health and well-being.
However, it is important to note that while fermented foods are a healthy addition to most people’s diets, they may not be suitable for everyone. For example, people with certain health issues or sensitivities may need to avoid or limit fermented foods, and some fermented foods, such as alcoholic beverages may not be appropriate for certain demographics, e.g., pregnant women or people with liver disease.