Pickles and sauerkraut might not be the first things to come to mind when you think of healthy foods, but a growing body of evidence shows that fermented foods are essential to a healthy diet and optimal health. Rich in probiotics and beneficial bacteria, fermented foods have been associated with a wide range of health benefits including improved digestion, increased immunity, cognitive function, and nutrient absorption. So, here is everything that you need to know about fermented foods and the best-fermented foods to help boost digestion.
What are Fermented Foods?
Although their name does sound slightly less than appealing, fermentation is a natural method of food preservation that was used for centuries before the use of refrigeration. Historically, fermentation 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 for a later date or for the winter months when fresh produce was no longer 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, helps to preserve the food and enhances its micronutrient profile at the same time.
What are the Benefits of Fermented Foods?
Not only does fermentation help to enhance the preservation of foods, but it transforms the natural sugars and starches in the foods into beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics. Probiotics are a form ‘good’ bacteria that live in our gut and have been shown to support health. These friendly bacteria are present in the billions in our bodies; in fact, our human cells are outnumbered ten to one by bacteria. There are many different strains of probiotic bacteria, lactobacillus being the most well know, however other strains include bifidobacteria, saccharomyces, and streptococcus. Not only are these probiotics present in our gut to help with digestion, but they are also essential for the absorption and assimilation of nutrients in our food. Moreover, given gut health is so important to our overall health, the consumption of probiotics has been shown to have a positive effect on a multitude of different health aspects including supporting cognitive function, boosting immunity, helping treat irritable bowel disease, helping fight allergies, and killing harmful bacteria, yeast and microbes.
How Often Should you Eat Fermented Foods?
Traditionally, fermented foods were consumed daily, if not at every meal; however, if you are completely new to fermented foods they can be a bit of an acquired taste. Therefore, instead of forcing fermented foods into every meal, try to eat fermented foods every now and then, and slowly increase your consumption over time while paying attention to how you feel. For some, the increase in beneficial bacteria may cause mild to moderate symptoms of discomfort including gas, breakouts, and headaches; however, these symptoms will likely dissipate over time. If for any reason symptoms persist, it is best to consult a health practitioner.
The Best Fermented Foods for Digestion
Although probiotics can be found in supplement form, the traditional method of consuming probiotics was always done through food. In fact, all cultures from around the world consumed at least one, if not more, forms of fermented foods in their diet. So, here is a list of popular fermented foods for digestive health:
1. Cultured Yogurt
Yogurt is the most well-known fermented food, however, not all yogurts are created equal. Although the traditional method of making yogurt is done by fermenting milk with specific lactic acid-producing cultures, manufacturers no longer always follow these traditional methods, and, therefore, much of the yogurt in our grocery stores contains little if any probiotics at all. In Canada, all yogurts must contain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and, although these are forms of bacteria, they are often harmed in processing and do not have the same health benefits as probiotics. Therefore, in order to ensure you are buying real cultured and fermented yogurt, opt for versions made simply of whole milk and ‘live active cultures‘ or ‘live bacterial cultures‘, and avoid sweetened versions as much as possible.
Similar to yogurt, but thinner in consistency, kefir is a cultured and fermented milk drink. Kefir is made by adding kefir grains or ‘starter’ grains (a complex combination of bacteria, yeasts, milk proteins, and complex sugars) to milk to allow it to ferment. Kefir is commonly made from cow’s milk, but can also be made from goat or sheep’s milk, and has a tart, sour, and slightly effervescent taste. Kefir is great on its own or added to smoothies or salad dressings.
Sauerkraut is a form of fermented cabbage and has its root in Eastern European diets. Sauerkraut (aka “sour cabbage”) is made by mixing together fresh cabbage and salt, pressing down on the mixture, which releases water and causes fermentation. Sauerkraut has a crunchy texture and tangy flavor and can be eaten on its own or pilled onto dishes of meat and potatoes, stews, and eggs.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish that is made of fermented vegetables. Although the most well-known version is made from salted napa cabbage and spices, there are in fact hundreds of varieties of kimchi, and it is often mixed with spices, ginger, and garlic. Kimchi is typically found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store near other Asian ingredients or pickles and sauerkraut, and can be added to dishes of meat, rice bowls, ramen, or bibimbap, but can also be eaten on its own.
5. Pickled Vegetables
Bet you didn’t know pickles were a fermented food? Well, they are, but not all pickles are fermented. Most store-bought pickles are made with vinegar, which does not contain the same live bacteria and probiotics as fermented pickles. In order for cucumbers or any vegetable to contain probiotics, they need to have been pickled in a solution of salt and water and left to ferment using their own naturally present lactic acid bacteria. Therefore, when shopping for pickles look for brands that are made simply of water and salt or that state the pickles have been fermented.
Miso is a Japanese seasoning that is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus called kōji that’s been cultivated from rice, barley, or soybeans. Over weeks, sometimes years, the enzymes in the koji work to break down the structure of the beans to create different varieties of miso such as white, yellow, red, and brown. With its salty, earthy, and slightly funky flavor, miso can be used as a condiment and flavoring in broths, salad dressings, or seasoning for fish and meats.
Natto is also a traditional Japanese dish made of fermented soybeans, has a slimy, sticky, and stringy texture, and contains a bacterial strain called Bacillus subtilis. Although less common in North American cuisine, natto is commonly paired with rice as a breakfast dish, but because of its strong flavor and texture, it is a bit more of an acquired taste.
Also made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is very similar in use and texture to tofu. Tempeh is made by pressing fermented soybeans into a cake-like texture and has a slightly firmer and nuttier flavor profile than tofu. Rich in plant-based protein, tempeh can be baked, steamed, roasted, or sauteed into dishes.
Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage made from black or green tea and is often paired with various fruits or flavors. Kombucha starts out as a sugary tea, which is then fermented with the help of a SCOBY (an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), before it transforms most of the sugar in the tea into a fizzy, slightly tart, and mostly non-alcoholic beverage that is relatively low in sugar. Thanks to its rising popularity, kombucha is now easily found at most large grocery store chains in a variety of different flavors.
The Botton Line
Fermentation is a natural process that can help to extend the lifetime and nutritional value of foods. Fermented foods are rich sources of probiotics and beneficial bacteria, and including them in your diet can support your health in a variety of different ways. Whether you love fermented foods or are completely new to eating them, incorporating them into your diet regularly is a great way to support digestion and overall health.