Fermented Foods: Are they Really Part of a Healthy Diet?

Fermented Foods: Are they Really Part of a Healthy Diet?

Kimchi, Natto, Sourdough Bread, Yogurt, Wine, Beer, and Saurkraut. What do they all have in common? All of them are foods that at one point or another go through the process of fermentation. Fermentation is a chemical process that preserves food using microorganisms. At least, that is the general definition that can be found in a dictionary. In the world of cooking and nutrition, it is a cooking style that creates an acidic taste and preserves healthy microorganisms.  It is the oldest metabolic process for single-celled organisms. It also has been the primary use of gaining energy for single-celled organisms when there is no presence of oxygen. So, what do fermented foods have to do with nutrition? It boils down to our guts.

Our Microverse

At the risk of sounding like an episode of Rick and Morty, I am simply going to put this out there. We have a universe in our own bodies. In fact, our bodies are practically an entire ecosystem of living single-celled organisms. In fact, there are 100 trillion of these little guys floating around in our bodies. According to the American Microbiome Institue “Taken collectively, these organisms outnumber our own human cells 10 to 1, making up 5 pounds of our body weight.” That is an amazing and intimidating revelation. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

microbes, fermented foodsThe Institute also points out, “Nearly every scientific study performed that has attempted to correlate the microbiome with specific traits or diseases has been successful.  In other words, studies are finding that our bacteria (or lack thereof) can be linked to or associated with: obesity, malnutrition, heart disease, diabetes, celiac disease, eczema, asthma, multiple sclerosis, colitis, some cancers, and even autism.”

These microbes also play a role in regulating our immune system. “During childhood, the immune system becomes accustomed to foreign antigens in our body and develops a tolerance to them.  Once homeostasis is established, non-pathogenic microbes and other harmless antigens will not induce an inflammatory response.”

Our universe inside our gut dictates our health in a very profound way. And it plays a huge part in something like obesity.

The Center of Ecogenetics, a microbiome research facility, gave a good example, “The gut microbiome is different between obese and lean twins. Obese twins have a lower diversity of bacteria, and higher levels of enzymes, meaning the obese twins are more efficient at digesting food and
harvesting calories. Obesity is the result of a poor combination of microbes in the gut.”

It is also why no two people are 100% the same.  “. The human microbiota can be affected from all sorts of factors, ranging from diet — for example, vegans and vegetarians have a distinct gut microbiome — to exercise habits, age, location, and many more we might still not know of.”

So, if the microorganisms in our guts are important to our health, what do we do to help them along?

Fermented Foods and Microbes

Remember the first paragraph? Microbes don’t need the presence of oxygen to gain energy. As long as they have access to natural sugars, they can make and ingest their own energy, leaving behind things like lactic acid and alcohol. One benefit from this is that they preserve food after finishing their process. Another is that they leave behind some of their own offspring in the food. These friendly bacteria go in your gut and help with regulating the ecosystem within it.  If you add some fermented food or drink into your diet, about once a week, your gut, and your immune system will benefit greatly from it.

“If you’re consuming a diet rich in fermented foods, you’re essentially bathing your GI tract in healthy, food-related organisms,” says food scientist Robert Hutkins, PhD, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose lab focuses on the link between fermented foods and human health.

So, if you like the idea of introducing fermented foods in your diet, there are a few you can try out below.

Types of Fermented Food:

1. Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk product (made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk) that tastes like drinkable yogurt. It is Turkish in origin and comes from the word Kief which means “good feeling”.

2. Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented beverage made of black tea and sugar (from various sources like cane sugar, fruit or honey). It contains a colony of bacteria and yeast that is responsible for initiating the fermentation process once combined with sugar.

fermented foods

3. Sauerkraut 

Sauerkraut is one of the oldest traditional foods, with very long roots in German, Russian and Chinese cuisine, for example. The word Sauerkraut means “sour cabbage” in German, although the Germans weren’t actually the first to make sauerkraut (it’s believed the Chinese were).

Real, traditional, fermented sauerkraut needs refrigeration. If you find a glass jar and the label mentions fermentation, you are more likely to get real sauerkraut.


4. Pickles

Didn’t think that pickles had probiotics? Fermented pickles contain a ton of vitamins and minerals, plus antioxidants and gut-friendly probiotic bacteria.

What is the best brand of pickles if you want probiotics? When choosing a jar of pickles, look for “lactic acid fermented pickles” made by a manufacturer that uses organic products and brine, refrigerates the pickles, and states that the pickles have been fermented. If you can find a local maker, such as at a farmers market, you’ll get some of the best probiotics for your health.

5. Miso

Miso is the byproduct of fermenting soybeans, barley or brown rice with koji, a type of fungus. It’s a traditional Japanese ingredient in recipes including miso soup.

6. Raw Cheese 

Raw milk cheeses are made with milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. If you want to find real fermented/aged cheeses,  look for cheese that has NOT been pasteurized. The label should indicate that the cheese is raw and has been aged for six months or more.

7. Yogurt

This is the most common food in America to contain probiotics. They contain live and active cultures that help with digestion. There is little in the way of lactose in it and it is often tolerable for a lot of lactose intolerant people.