Fermented foods have undergone the natural process of fermentation by beneficial bacteria, fungi, or yeasts. During this process, sugar molecules present in food are converted into alcohols or acids. Fermented foods are a nutritious and rich source of probiotics, which are the good bacteria your body needs. When you learn how to incorporate fermented foods into your diet, you can reap all the benefits of probiotics without even having to take supplements — and still enjoy delicious foods and drinks.
What are fermented foods?
Fermentation gives food a bitter taste, but it also extends its shelf life. The process is often carried out using a starter culture of bacteria or yeast added to food. Other times it is done by placing the food in a brine of salt water.
The most common fermented foods are kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and cultured yogurt. Kombucha is an increasingly popular fermented tea drink that you can find in most supermarkets. Kefir, a fermented drink made from kefir grains and goat’s milk, has been shown to improve symptoms of lactose intolerance.
4 important reasons to eat fermented foods
Fortunately, the effects of consuming fermented foods have been well studied. Many ancient diets in cultures around the world included fermented foods and beverages, from yogurt in the Mediterranean to fermented soy products in East Asia. Here’s what fermented foods can do for your health, according to research:
- Improve your digestive health
One of the main roles played by beneficial bacteria is the assimilation of nutrients from your diet. Fermented foods are a source of beneficial bacteria, as well as prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that provide nourishment to good colonies of bacteria. So when you eat fermented foods, you are doing more to protect the good bacteria populations. This goes a long way in preventing digestive disorders and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome.
- Get more nutritional benefits
Food acquires nutritional value through the process of fermentation. Good bacteria produce vitamins and minerals that add to the nutrition already present in food. Fermentation removes anti-nutrients such as lectin, which block nutrient uptake. The microorganisms responsible for the fermentation process also create enzymes that also help the body absorb nutrients from food.
- Boost your immune system
Beneficial microorganisms are involved not only in the digestion and assimilation of nutrients, but also in immune function. Much of your immune system’s activity takes place in the gut, where microbes signal to your immune cells that a pathogen is present. Because good bacteria help your immune system respond and respond to threats earlier, eating fermented foods regularly can potentially reduce your incidence of colds and flus.
- Protects against atherosclerosis and heart disease
The probiotics in fermented foods help your heart health by reducing cholesterol absorption in the gut. This lowers your risk of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, or the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. The cholesterol-lowering benefits of fermented foods may also help lower your risk of heart disease and metabolic diseases.
Fermented Food Safety Tips
Although some fermented foods can be found in stores, you can benefit from fermented foods by making your own at home. When making a batch of kimchi or sauerkraut, or other fermented vegetables, store it in airtight containers. Whether you’re making kombucha or kimchi, work in a well-sanitized space to avoid contamination with bad bacteria. Fermented vegetables will keep for up to nine months in the refrigerator.
Eat fermented foods for your health
Taking probiotic supplements is one way to support your gut health. However, incorporating fermented foods and beverages into your diet naturally gives you the probiotics your microbiome needs. Instead of taking probiotic supplements, eating more fermented foods helps you save money, add new flavors to your meals, and get prebiotic fiber that beneficial bacteria can feed on.
- “Kefir Improves Digestion and Lactose Tolerance in Adults with Lactose Maldigestion” by Steven R. Hertzler, PhD, RD and Shannon M. Clancy, MS, RD, May 1, 2003, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- “Health Benefits of Fermented Foods” by Nevin Şanlier, Büşra Başar Gökcen and Aybüke Ceyhun Sezgin, October 20, 2017, Critical journals in food science and nutrition.
- “Effects of Probiotics on the Incidence and Duration of Cold and Flu Symptoms in Children” by Gregory J. Leyer, PhD; Shuguang Li, MS; Mohamed E. Mubasher, PhD; Cheryl Reifer, PhD and Arthur C. Ouwehand, PhD, August 1, 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.