Fermented foods haven’t quite made it to the health and wellness trends hot list, but they’re definitely a contender. *Sips kombucha.* Before the days of refrigerators, humans usually made fermented foods in an effort to keep food from going bad.
But thanks to good ol’ science, foodies are taking note of the wonderful (and stinky) benefits fermented foods have on health. Here’s why you should add more fermented foods to your plate, and what foods to reach for when the hunger sets in.
By breaking down carbs into alcohol and acids, fermentation helps food last longer and avoid spoiling. Fermentation can also help improve the taste and texture of a food (we’re listening).
Take those delish olives for example. Fermentation removes the bitter compounds the olive naturally contains (which basically make it inedible) and transforms it into a delicious addition to just about any salad, appetizer, or martini.
Fermentation also produces probiotics, aka beneficial bacteria that make up part of the gut microbiome (your personal bacteria universe).
You can think of the gut lining as a barrier between the gut and the rest of your body — it allows good things (like nutrients) to pass through, and prevents harmful things (like toxins and pathogens) from going any further.
Basically, probiotics help keep the GI tract nice and healthy.
Why you should be pro probiotic
Probiotics may be even more important nowadays due to the overwhelming amount of processed foods in the standard American diet, overuse of antibiotics, and overall improved personal hygiene. (Not that personal cleanliness is a bad thing — please shower!).
We’re exposed to less bacteria, harmful or otherwise, and an overabundance of bad bacteria can weaken the gut lining, making us more susceptible to illness. But a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut via fermented foods can be very beneficial to keep the bacteria peace and upkeep your health.
Improves digestive health
The probiotics produced by the fermentation process are particularly supportive of a healthy gut. Besides helping to control traffic in and out, regular intake of fermented foods has been shown to ease constipation, improve lactose malabsorption, and fight off infections like H. pylori.
Boosts the immune system
The health of your gut can directly impact the health of your immune system and fermented foods are chock full of the good stuff. They contain a diverse group of nutrients, especially antioxidants, that help to battle inflammation.
Add to that the beneficial probiotics found in most fermented foods, and that equals a better chance of keeping illness at bay, and recovering faster if you do get sick.
The beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods supports a diverse, and healthy, gut microbiome that may also affect your mental health. While more studies are needed, probiotics are being studied for their role in regulating mood and stress response.
Science has started pointing to a relationship between a healthy gut and a healthy brain — which makes sense since the brain and the gut are in regular communication via your central nervous system.
In fact, a 2019 review of controlled clinical trials found that probiotics helped improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in otherwise healthy people.
Certain strains of probiotics, both through foods and supplements, have been studied for their weight loss effects. Studies that looked at milk fermented with the probiotic strain Lactobacillus gasseri, showed a significant impact on weight loss.
Many fermented foods also happen to be rich sources of fiber and protein. These two nutrients help promote that “I’m full” feeling and may help reduce overeating.
The probiotics found in fermented foods may also benefit heart health, especially blood pressure and total cholesterol levels.
Digest food easier
The bacteria naturally found in fermented foods begins to break down nutrients before we have a chance to take the first bite (hello, easier digestion!).
They also help break down compounds called antinutrients, found naturally in foods like nuts, legumes, and seeds that block absorption of nutrients we need. Nature is cray.
Get a good dose of probiotics from these fermented foods.
Who knew this classic hot dog topper could be so good for you? This fermented shredded cabbage dish is versatile and can be eaten beyond New Year’s Eve.
Sauerkraut has fiber plus a dose of antioxidants thanks to vitamins C and K. Pasteurization can destroy much of the probiotic benefits though so it’s best to choose raw or unpasteurized versions. The sodium content can also be high so if sodium is on your diet watchlist, moderation is key.
Rooted in ancient China, Kombucha is a fermented tea made with black or green teas. It’s a rich source of probiotics and antioxidants. The antioxidant content of the tea increases with fermentation, helping to boost the immune system and battle oxidative stress.
Made primarily from Chinese cabbage, kimchi is often made from a few nutrient dense green vegetables including spinach and celery. It’s a great source of antioxidants by way of vitamins A, C, and K.
Plus, it’s also a good source of the B vitamins folate, B6, and riboflavin. Similar to sauerkraut, kimchi can also have a lot of sodium.
Yogurt has been around for centuries and is one of the most popular sources of fermented food. It’s also rich in nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin B-12. But, not all yogurt is created equal.
The probiotic benefits of yogurt can vary so be sure to choose yogurts containing live or active cultures and aim for the plain variety with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Sorry, folks, you’ll have to ditch the flavored yogurt to reap the benefits.
Kefir is a great fermented dairy option if you have trouble tolerating lactose. Similar to yogurt, kefir is fermented and cultured milk, but it’s much thinner than yogurt and drinkable. (Adult Go-Gurt, anyone?)
The bacteria in kefir contains reduced amounts of lactose that make it a lot easier to tolerate. In addition, some small studies have shown that kefir may help with constipation and battle that pesky H. Pylori infection that wreaks havoc on your gut.
Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is high in protein and fiber and often used as a meat substitute. Similar to tofu, tempeh has a mild flavor and can be easily added to a variety of dishes.
It’s also rich in calcium so if dairy isn’t your thing, tempeh offers a lot in the nutrient department including iron, magnesium, and more than 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of manganese (an often forgotten, but important antioxidant!).
DIY sourdough is all the rage as the result of quarantine boredom, so chances are you have some laying around (or you know a guy).
If you suffer from any sort of gastrointestinal discomfort you may have heard of FODMAPs, aka fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. This group of fermentable carbohydrates that have been widely studied as the agonist of GI distress.
Sourdough fermentation helps to reduce these carbs making it easier to digest than other types of grains or breads.
Similar to tempeh, natto is made from fermented soybeans. But unlike tempeh, natto has a very strong flavor, is a bit stickier and stringier, and looks a little like the bean version of rice krispies treat batter.
Look and feel aside, natto has plenty of health benefits. A rich source of iron, protein, magnesium, and zinc, natto is an excellent source of nutrients and antioxidant power.
Miso is a traditional Japanese condiment made by combining soybeans (are we seeing a trend here?) with salt and a koji starter, usually made from a type of fungus.
Miso is nutrient rich, and along with other fermented soy foods, it’s considered a complete protein.
Fermentation reduces the antinutrients naturally found in soybeans, improving digestion and nutrient absorption. Regular intake of soybeans has even been associated with a lower risk of certain cancers.
Fermented foods can come with downsides.
If you’re not used to eating fermented foods, the increase in bacteria and acid may take your body a minute to adjust. It’s not uncommon to experience gas, bloating or constipation when first introduced.
However, if you notice this happens every time you drink your kombucha and doesn’t subside after a few weeks, it’s probably best to let it go and try something different.
Some probiotic rich foods contain substances called amines (like histamine) which can have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, but not in a good way.
This can trigger headaches for some people though research has yet to determine whether a low-histamine diet can reduce these. Histamines can also cause trouble for those who, for one reason or another, cannot properly break them down in the gut, and may cause an allergic reaction.
If this is you, a doctor visit is in order and likely an avoidance of histamine containing foods from here on out.
In addition, some products may contain too high amounts of added sugar, salt, and fat — so reading labels is important to be sure you’re reaping all of the benefits of these super foods. Salt is often added to foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, during the fermentation process.
Those who need to limit sodium should check with their doctor and aim to consume certain fermented foods in moderation.
Fermented foods can offer many health benefits. They help support a healthy gut, a healthy immune system and may even support a healthy mind.
When first trying these foods it’s not uncommon to experience some mild, but unpleasant, side effects. If these symptoms continue, it’s best to limit or avoid that food altogether.
As always, it’s important to be a savvy consumer. Read labels and steer clear of products with tons of added sugar. If you should be limiting sodium for any reason it’s important to speak with your doctor and consume these foods in moderation.