Question: Would you say fermented foods are at the top of your list of must-eat foods?
If you answered no, you’re missing out on the benefits of a great food subgroup (it’s not quite large enough to warrant an entire “group” designation). When Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” perhaps he was thinking about fermented foods. After all, sauerkraut and several other cultured foods have been around since ancient times.
So what makes fermented (aka, cultured) foods so special? The fermentation process involves converting carbohydrates such as starch or sugar into an acid or alcohol. Often it involves the use of various bacteria to produce lactic acid in selected foods, providing us with beneficial bacteria, aka probiotics.
Read more about fermented foods and probiotics
Although we often think of pickles and sauerkraut as being fermented foods, many of the commercial brands you find on your supermarket shelves have been pasteurized, which destroys the probiotics. Therefore, if you want foods that are truly fermented, you should check the labels or make your own at home.
Health benefits of fermented foods
Assuming you have truly fermented foods in your possession (and you’ll find a list of possibilities at the end of this article), here are the health benefits you can expect.
1. Enhanced immune system function. The majority of your immune system is in your gut, which is where good and bad bacteria reside. Probiotics are an essential player in the immune system because they help with the production of antibodies to pathogens and are involved in the function of the mucosal immune system in the digestive tract.
2. Source of important nutrients. Depending on the type of fermented foods, they can be excellent sources of various B vitamins, as they help produce these nutrients. Fermented foods also are excellent sources of vitamin K2, which is essential for heart and bone health.
3. Provide lots of beneficial bacteria. Be sure to include a variety of fermented foods in your diet so you can enjoy a wide variety of beneficial bacteria species, even more than you might find in a probiotic supplement.
4. Help with detoxification. The probiotics in fermented foods can help eliminate toxins from the body. The more variety you eat, the better the detox!
5. May help with weight loss. A well-balanced population of gut microflora may help fight excess weight. Eating more fermented foods can help bring about that balance.
6. May improve mood and behavior. The gut produces more serotonin (a neurotransmitter that has a positive impact on mood and behavior) than does the brain. When the gut is in balance, serotonin levels are higher, resulting in positive mood and behavior.
7. May improve autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. Fermented foods provide beneficial bacteria and help balance the gut, which can be instrumental in managing conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic skin conditions, inflammatory bowel diseases, lupus, kidney problems, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes.
Each type of fermented food or beverage provides a mixture of different microorganisms. Some are available in mainstream supermarkets while others are available only from ethnic markets or online. Be sure you are getting a product that has been truly fermented with bacteria. You can always make your own fermented foods as well!
Below is a list of fermented foods to consider adding to your diet. As you can see, there is a variety to choose from:
• Kefir: available in both dairy and soy. It is typically fermented with about a dozen or more bacteria and yeasts, which makes it an especially good source of probiotics.
• Yogurt: for store bought, be sure the label says “active cultures.” You can also make it at home. Try Cultures for Health starter kits. They have dairy and nondairy options.
• Kimchee: This is a staple in my home. Kimchee is a Korean vegetable dish that may contain cabbage, cucumber, radish, scallions, or other vegetables and seasonings.
• Amazake: a Japanese fermented rice drink.
• Bagoong: Philippine condiment consisting of fermented fish or shrimp.
• Some cheeses: fermented hard cheeses must have live cultures added to them and renin or a renin substitute. You can also find cultured cottage cheese.
• Doogh: Persian yogurt-based beverage.
• Fermented tofu: sometimes available in flavors such as herbed or smoked.
• Kombucha: a tea beverage fermented typically with a colony of yeast (usually Saccharomyces) and bacteria. The company, Cultures for Health, also has a kombucha starter culture kit that makes it easy to do from the comforts of your home.
• Miso: fermented soybeans.
• Natto: soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto
• Pickles: many pickles are not truly fermented; read the label to ensure you are getting what you are looking for.
• Poi: Hawaiian food made from the root of the taro plant, available fermented and non-fermented.
• Sauerkraut: truly fermented sauerkraut is prepared with lactic acid bacteria; be sure to read the label to ensure it is indeed fermented.
• Tempeh: fermented soybeans that are often combined with grains.
If you make your own fermented foods at home, you can be more adventurous. For example, you can ferment fruits, which can then be used as dessert toppings, condiments, or in chutneys, salsas, and smoothies. Most fruits can be fermented; you can begin with fresh fruit or used canned or frozen (organic, unsweetened), which reduces the processing time. Some good candidates are peaches, apricots, plums, mangoes, pineapples, apples, pears, and berries (except for blackberries).
Most vegetables can be fermented too; just choose the ones that are in season and ripe. Some popular vegetables you can ferment at home include asparagus, beets, bell peppers, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, garlic, green beans, radishes, and turnips.
Enjoying fermented foods
If you are not used to eating fermented foods, introduce them into your diet slowly as the sudden influx of lots of beneficial bacteria may initiate some gastrointestinal symptoms as your gut gets accustomed to the change in flora. Experiment by adding a small amount of one fermented food one day, see how you respond, then try another. Repeat and enjoy!
Mother Earth News. Make your own yogurt
WikiHow. How to ferment fruit.
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