Cultures around the world have been enjoying fermented foods for centuries. Germany’s sauerkraut and Korea’s kimchi are just a few examples of fermented foods. While the popularity of these foods had experienced a decline over recent years with new technological advances in food preparation and preservation, interest has spiked significantly. Not only is fermented food a delicious addition to any meal, but there is also growing evidence that fermented foods help promote a healthy digestive system. When foods become fermented, they go through a process in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food, creating lactic acid. This process is called lacto fermentation. Fermentation has been shown to preserve the nutrients in the food. It also creates advantageous enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, and multiple strains of probiotic bacteria (1).

Benefits of Fermented FoodsMaintaining beneficial gut bacteria is essential to living a healthy lifestyle. These bacteria help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. Modern diets are high in refined sugar, which can cause bad bacteria to form in the gut. The state in which the gut flora is out of balance is called dysbiosis. Symptoms of dysbiosis include bloating, constipation, and diarrhea (2). Fermentation breaks down nutrients into forms that are more easily digestible. When lactobacilli proliferate in fermented foods, their vitamin levels increase and digestibility is increased.

Another benefit of fermentation is that it allows the body to better absorb food. When gut bacteria are properly balanced with digestive enzymes, the body absorbs more of the nutrients from food (1). Fermented foods combined with a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables is an amazing way to nourish the body.

Fermented foods can also support the immune system. Many gastrointestinal diseases are caused by H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori infection). Evidence shows that consuming fermented foods improves gastrointestinal symptoms in patients who test positive for H. Pylori. H. Pylori can induce symptoms that include aches or burning pain in the abdomen, nausea, loss of appetite, frequent burping, bloating, and unintentional weight loss (3). Research shows that probiotic cultures and fermented foods may have a detoxifying effect, which can help lessen the body’s exposure to harmful chemicals (4).

Fermented foods are also good for people with diabetes, as the carbohydrates in lactic-acid fermented foods have been pre-digested. This way, there is less of a burden on the pancreas. People with Inflammatory Bowel Disease can benefit from eating fermented foods. Many clinical trials have found that probiotics reduce abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and flatulence in patients with IBS, including Crohn’s disease (5).

Fermented foods also promote the production of acetylcholine in the body. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that facilitates nerve impulses such as bowel movements. In this way, adding fermented foods to the diet can reduce constipation (6).

Fermented Foods to Include in Your DietFermented foods are essential to good gut health, so it is important to know what foods are available. • Tempeh, made from naturally fermented soybeans, is a plant-based protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. • Sauerkraut is packed with probiotics and fiber. It’s great in salads, on sandwiches, or even plain as a snack. • Kombucha is fermented green or black tea flavored with herbs and fruit. Sometimes, a small amount of alcohol is produced during fermentation. Typically, it is less than .5% alcohol by volume. Kombucha is a healthy alternative to sugary drinks. • Miso is a fermented paste made from barley, rice, or soybeans. It can be used to add an umami flavor to dishes. It is used in many Asian dishes, and a little goes a long way when used in cooking. • Kimchi is similar to sauerkraut, except that it is spicy (6). It pairs well with many Asian dishes. • Yogurt is another fermented food that is available in great quantity. It’s important, however, to know how to pick the right yogurt. While yogurt is the result of fermentation, almost all the dairy in the U.S. is pasteurized and homogenized, meaning most of the beneficial bacteria are killed off. The few surviving bacteria need to make it past the stomach acid to get to the large intestine, which is very unlikely (7). For this reason, a variety of yogurt manufacturers will fortify product with bacterial strains that are clinically proven. That is why you should keep an eye out for yogurts that say they have live cultures and list them on their ingredients panel. Also, try to avoid products loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners that promote bad gut bacteria.

DIY FermentationFermentation is a relatively inexpensive way to incorporate healthy foods into the diet. Fermentation can be done easily at home, and often times only costs pennies per serving. Sauerkraut is made of just cabbage, water, and salt. Plus, these foods can last in the refrigerator for months. Lacto-fermentation allows food to be stored for longer periods of time without losing the nutrients.

There are various vegetables to choose from when it comes to fermenting, and cutting the vegetables into smaller pieces speeds up the fermentation process. Depending on what is being fermented, salt, starter culture, sugar, or whey can be used. When the vegetables are done fermenting, they will begin bubbling and producing a sour aroma. They can then be stored in a cold environment for months (5).

Many people are beginning to understand the benefits of fermented food. Reports show that U.S. retail sales of fermented beverages like Kombucha increased 37.4% in 2017. That number is expected to continue growing in 2018 (8).WF

  1. “Health Benefits of Fermented Foods” Accessed January 19th, 2018.
  2. “The Health Benefits of Fermenting” Accessed January 19th, 2018.
  3. “Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) Infection” Accessed February 12th, 2018
  4. “Gut Health and the Benefits of Traditional Fermented Foods” Accessed January 19th, 2018
  5. “What Is Fermentation? Benefits of Fermentation + How to Ferment Foods” Accessed January 19th, 2018.
  6. “7 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut” Accessed January 19th, 2018
  7. “Fermented Wheat Germ Extract” Accessed February 12th, 2018
  8. “What You Need to Know About Yogurt” Accessed January 19th, 2018
  9. “Fermentation on fire: US retail sales of Kombucha and other fermented beverages surged 27% in 2017” Accessed February 14, 2018
Published in WholeFoods Magazine April 2018