In case you haven’t heard, fermented foods are all of the rage right now. Restaurant menus and grocery stores alike are selling and stocking sauerkraut and kimchi, and every food commercial on TV seems to mention probiotics. Although they have become ‘trendy’, fermented foods are deeply rooted in tradition and have been used by cultures around the world for centuries. Not only was this age-old method of food preservation practices, but it was incredibly valuable to food culture because of the many health benefits of fermented foods that are still relevant today.
What are fermented foods?
First things first, let’s clarify what fermented foods actually are. Although their name does sound slightly less than appealing, fermentation is a natural method of food preservation that was used for centuries before the advent of refrigeration. Historically, the fermentation of foods was used as a natural method of preservation to keep foods edible for longer periods of time without spoilage. As opposed to allowing fresh produce or dairy to go to waste, foods were fermented and stored to be eaten at a later date or in the winter months when fresh produce was not available. In order to ferment foods, microorganisms including bacteria, yeast or fungi convert the natural sugars found in foods (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) into lactic acid. This process, also known as lacto-fermentation, not only helps to preserve the food but enhances its micronutrient profile.
Types of Fermented Foods
Traditionally speaking, every culture from around the world fermented some form of food based on what is available to them geographically; from sauerkraut in Germany to pickled herring in Iceland, to kimchi in Korea, and everything in between. Today, some of the more traditional versions are less readily used, however some of the more common includes:
- Sauerkraut: Made by fermenting cabbage with sea salt, sauerkraut is one of the most readily available fermented foods.
- Kimchi: Sauerkraut’s Korean cousin, this version of fermented napa cabbage is made with added spice.
- Tempeh: Similar in concept to tofu, however, tempeh is made from naturally fermented soybeans.
- Miso: A fermented paste made from soybeans, barley, or rice commonly used in soups.
- Sourdough: Made of naturally fermented grains, sourdough is the only real bread that uses fermentation.
- Pickled Vegetables: Vegetables such as cucumbers, beans, carrots, and beets are often fermented and pickled for preservation.
- Yogurt or Kefir: The by-products of the fermentation of milk, although not all forms of yogurt are naturally fermented.
- Kombucha: Kombucha is a tangy, effervescent beverage made of fermented black or green tea.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
The fermentation of foods has many benefits, namely a high content of probiotic bacteria and support of gut health, however, here are some of the most notable health benefits of fermented foods.
1. More Easily Digested
The bacteria present in fermented foods essentially help to ‘pre-digest’ the food for you, making it more easily digested, absorbed and assimilated in your digestive tract.
2. Full of Probiotics
Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria so by consuming fermented foods you are adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system.
3. Helps Curb Sugar Cravings
The natural sugars present in the food are what trigger the fermentation process, so the longer a food ferments, the less these natural sugars are present in the food and the more beneficial bacteria are present. Not only does this reduction of sugar reduce the stimulation for further sugar cravings, but the added benefits help to promote a healthy microbiome, which can trigger sugar cravings when it is unbalanced.
4. Supports Your Immune System
Approximately 70% of your immune system lives in the gut, so a healthy gut = a healthy immune system. When the gut is compromised, be it a leaky gut, disrupted microbiome, or a combination of both, your immune system, in turn, becomes comprised as it fights additional microbes and is subject to inflammation. By consuming probiotic-rich foods, you are supporting the mucosa (gut lining) as a natural barrier, making the immune system more robust.
5. Reduces Anti-Nutrients
Some foods contain natural compounds that impeded their digestion, however, the process of fermentation can help to reduce or remove them. Phytic acid, for example, which is found in legumes and seeds, binds minerals such as iron and zinc, reducing their absorption when eaten. However, phytic acid can be broken down during fermentation so the minerals become available.
5. Increase Nutrient Absorption
When your gut flora is out of whack, or foods contain anti-nutrients, it is difficult for your body to digest and absorb nutrients no matter how well you eat. Even bags and bags of kale won’t give you the nutrition you think you are getting if your microbiome is not well-balanced. Fermented foods produce the digestive enzymes which ensure you get the most nutrients out of all foods you ingest.