November 16, 2021
Fermenting: Back to Basics
by Mona Jauhar RDN, LD
If you can find Kombucha on tap and order kimchi from a local restaurant, it means fermented foods have very well become part of the common food lexicon. But is eating something just because it’s trendy the right way to go about it? What about the real reason behind the resurgence of fermented foods across the globe?
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Cultures around the world have used the fermentation process for thousands of years for its health benefits and food preservation effects. But what we are seeing today is the same foods reestablishing themselves as Functional foods. Fermented foods are preserved using an age-old process that not only boosts the food's shelf life and nutritional value but can give your body a dose of healthful probiotics — live micro-organisms crucial to good digestion. The production of bioactive peptides, vitamins and other compounds produced by the microorganisms involved in fermentation have key roles in the body, such as blood health, nerve function and immunity. Kimchi and sauerkraut, along with other fermented foods such as kombucha and tempeh, are full of good bacteria called probiotics, which help promote a healthy gut microbiome. Let’s look at the health benefits of these foods in detail:
Fermented foods are useful because they help provide a spectrum of probiotics to foster a vigorous microbiome in your digestive tract that can keep bad bacteria at bay. If people eat probiotics (like those found in fermented foods) from early childhood, that can help train the immune system to tolerate — and cooperate with — a diverse, beneficial microbiome. Fermenting certain foods may also result in a reduction of fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs). FODMAPs are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, which may contribute to gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
Probiotics found in fermented foods may also provide modest heart-related benefits, according to a review article published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology last year. One study found that eating kimchi daily helped people lose weight and lowered their blood pressure. Another noted improvement in blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Research has shown that fermented dairy may increase serum HDL levels (healthy cholesterol) and may play a role in preventing hypertension (high blood pressure).
Mood and behavior
The gut and brain are linked, through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Serotonin – a neurotransmitter involved in mood – is made in the gut and research further suggests that as probiotic bacteria contribute to a healthy gut, they are also linked to a healthy mind.
Weight management and diabetes
Controlling your weight is the key to managing type 2 diabetes, and with fermented foods that are low-carb and nutrient-rich, weight loss becomes easier. You can consume fermented foods like probiotics once a day, to improve your gut bacteria, which can then help you regulate your weight and blood sugar.
Fermentation makes nutrients more bioavailable to the body. Fermented foods support easier digestion and better nutrition by allowing nutrients to be absorbed and not just eliminated as waste. It improves bioavailability of some dietary nutrients, including B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
The bacteria that live in your gut have a significant impact on your immune system. Due to their high probiotic content, fermented foods can give your immune system a boost and reduce your risk of infections like the common cold. Fermentation also increases antioxidant activity in foods, which protect immune cells from oxidative stress
Not all created equal
They are all produced through the action of live microbes, but many fermented foods are subsequently processed in a way that kills or removes the fermenting microbes before they are consumed. Sour dough bread, wine, many beers, and many unrefrigerated fermented foods such as canned olives, sauerkraut and the like are fermented but do not contain live microbes. Some useful facts:
- Although cheese is fermented, it's not known to bring the same health benefits as yogurt. The difference is live microbes.
- The bacteria in kefir, a fermented dairy beverage, may support the immune system by stimulating immune cells. This doesn’t necessarily apply to other fermented dairy products.
- The jars of pickles you can buy off the shelf at the supermarket are sometimes pickled using vinegar and not the natural fermentation process using live organisms, which means they don't contain probiotics.
- To ensure the fermented foods you choose do contain probiotics, look for the words "naturally fermented" on the label, and when you open the jar look for telltale bubbles in the liquid, which signal that live organisms are inside the jar.
- Fermented foods that contain a wide range of bacteria are more likely to offer extensive health benefits. If possible, choose fermented foods that list several different bacterial strains.
- Some fermented foods, such as pickles, tend to be high in sodium. People concerned about their sodium intake, especially those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, should check the sodium content that the label lists.