Fermented foods have undergone the natural process of being fermented by beneficial bacteria, fungi, or yeast. In this process, sugar molecules in the foods get converted to alcohols or acids. Fermented foods are a nutritious and rich source of probiotics, which are the good bacteria your body needs. When you learn to incorporate fermented foods in your diet, you can reap all the benefits of probiotics without even having to supplement — and while enjoying delicious foods and drinks.
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermentation lends foods a bitter taste, but it also extends their shelf life. The process is often achieved using a starter culture of bacteria or yeast added to the food. Other times, it’s done by placing the food in a brine of salt water.
The most common fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and cultured yogurt. Kombucha is a growingly popular fermented tea drink you can find in most supermarkets. Kefir, a fermented drink made from kefir grains and goat milk, has been shown to improve symptoms of lactose intolerance.
4 Important Reasons to Eat Fermented Foods
Luckily, the effects of eating fermented foods have been well studied. Many ancient diets in cultures around the world included fermented foods and drinks, from yogurt in the Mediterranean to fermented soy products in East Asia. Here’s what fermented food can do for your health, according to research:
- Improve Your Digestive Health
One of the major roles beneficial bacteria plays is assimilating nutrients from your diet. Fermented foods are a source of beneficial bacteria, as well as prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that provide food for good bacteria colonies. Thus, when you’re eating fermented foods, you’re doing more to protect good bacteria populations. This goes a long way in preventing digestive ailments and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome.
- Get More Nutritional Benefits
Foods gain nutritional value through the fermentation process. The good bacteria produce vitamins and minerals that add to the nutrition already in the food. Fermentation removes anti-nutrients such as lectin, which block nutrient assimilation. Microorganisms responsible for the fermentation process also create enzymes that also help the body absorb the nutrients found in the food.
- Boost Your Immune System
Beneficial microorganisms are involved not just in digestion and nutrient assimilation but also in immune function. Much of your immune system’s activity takes place in the gut, where microbes signal your immune cells when a pathogen is present. Because friendly bacteria helps your immune system react and respond to threats sooner, eating fermented foods regularly can potentially reduce your incidence of common colds and flus.
- Protect Against Atherosclerosis and Heart Disease
The probiotics in fermented foods help your heart’s health by reducing the absorption of cholesterol in the gut. This lowers your risk for high blood pressure and for atherosclerosis, or the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. The cholesterol-lowering benefits of fermented foods can also help reduce your risk for heart disease and metabolic diseases.
Fermented Food Safety Tips
While some fermented foods are found in stores, you can benefit from fermented food by making your own at home. When you make a batch of kimchi or sauerkraut, or other fermented vegetables, store it in air-tight containers. Whether you’re making kombucha or kimchi, work in a well-sanitized space to avoid contamination with bad bacteria. Fermented vegetables keep for up to nine months refrigerated.
Eating Fermented Foods for Your Health
Taking probiotic supplements is one way to support your gut health. However, incorporating fermented foods and drinks into your diet naturally gives you the probiotics your microbiome needs. As opposed to taking probiotic supplements, eating more fermented foods helps you save money, add new flavors to your meals and get prebiotic fibers beneficial bacteria can feed on.
- “Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion” by Steven R. Hertzler, PhD, RD and Shannon M. Clancy, MS, RD, 1 May 2003, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- “Health benefits of fermented foods” by Nevin Şanlier, Büşra Başar Gökcen and Aybüke Ceyhun Sezgin, 20 October 2017, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
- “Probiotic Effects on Cold and Influenza-Like Symptom Incidence and Duration in Children” by Gregory J. Leyer, PhD; Shuguang Li, MS; Mohamed E. Mubasher, PhD; Cheryl Reifer, PhD and Arthur C. Ouwehand, PhD, 1 August 2009, Pediatrics.
- “Probiotics and their Effects on Metabolic Diseases: An Update” by Juhi Aggarwal, Gaurav Swami and Mayur Kumar, January 2013, Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research.