If you're like most Americans, you don't eat a lot of fermented foods. Fermented foods are more popular in the Chinese, Korean and Japanese culture where fermented soy products like tempeh and kimchee are a dietary staple. In fact, the only exposure many Americans get to fermented foods is when they eat a container of yogurt with active cultures – but that's rapidly changing.
Fermented products are growing in popularity including fermented beverages like kombucha, a beverage prepared from fermented mushrooms, and kefir, a fermented milk drink. More natural food stores are carrying fermented foods and beverages because of the health benefits they offer.
What Are the Health Benefits of Fermented Foods?
One reason fermented foods and beverages are good for you is because of the natural probiotics they contain. Probiotics are "good bacteria" that keep disease-causing bacteria in check by competing for the same resources. There's only so much room available in your gut for bacteria and when the good guys move in, they push the bad ones out. Unfortunately, most people who eat Westernized diets don't get many natural probiotics in their diet. That's changing as yogurt and other fermented foods grow in popularity.
Probiotic bacteria not only keep bad bacteria in check, they also help to "tune up" your immune system. You may not know it but 70% of your immune system lies in your gut – so nurturing your gut immunity with probiotic bacteria keeps your intestinal tract healthy.
Some studies also show these friendly bacteria offer added resistance against infection. Plus they offer potential benefits for treating irritable bowel syndrome, some types of diarrhea and for preventing vaginal yeast infections. If you have gas and bloating after meals, probiotics may help with these symptoms because fermented foods are a natural source of intestine-friendly bacteria.
Fermenting Foods Reduces Anti-Nutrients
Another benefit to fermenting foods, especially soy, is it inactivates anti-nutrients that block the absorption of minerals from the foods you eat. Soy contains phytates, compounds that reduce the absorption of minerals like iron, zinc and calcium from your gut. Fermenting soy inactivates phytates, making it a healthier way to eat soy.
Examples of fermented soy foods you can buy at most natural food markets are miso and tempeh. You may have enjoyed a cup of miso soup at a Japanese restaurant and not realized you were doing good things for your intestines. Believe me – your intestines would thank you if they could.
Other examples of probiotic-rich foods are sauerkraut, kimchi (fermented cabbage), fermented cheeses and soy sauce. Just as there are fermented foods, you can nurture your intestines with probiotic beverages like kefir and kombucha.
Fermented Beverages: Another Source of Probiotics
Kefir is a probiotic -rich beverages that has the consistency of thin yogurt and is available in a number of flavors at natural food markets. It has a slightly tart taste like yogurt, but you can blend it with fresh fruit for a sweeter taste. You can even make your own kefir at home.
Kombucha is fizzy and has a rather tart taste. Some companies that produce it like Synergy add flavors like lemon, strawberry and cranberry to it to give it more mainstream appeal. Being an acquired taste, some people don't like it when they first try it but after drinking it a few times, its fizzy effervescence becomes addictive for some.
How to Enjoy the Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
You can enjoy the benefits of probiotic bacteria by simply eating a container of yogurt with active cultures every day. If you're a little more adventurous, give kefir or kombucha a try. There are ways to make eating kefir more fun. Try making a kefir parfait by adding nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and spices to kefir. It's a healthy way to start the morning. Sip on a bottle of flavored kombucha as a healthy replacement for soft drinks.
Why not make your own sauerkraut? You'll get the benefits of the probiotic bacteria and the anti-cancer compounds in cabbage at the same time. Sauerkraut you buy in cans at the grocery store don't contain live probiotics. Here's a video to show you how:
When buying cheese, skip the packaged cheese at the grocery store and buy aged cheese with natural probiotics. Fermented soy is rich in isoflavones, natural compounds that may reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. You can buy miso at most natural food markets and use it to make soup, sauces and salad dressings. You can also add it to soups and stews for greater health benefits.
You'll want to avoid using high heat since it can destroy the probiotic bacteria. Try tempeh, another fermented soy product, as a substitute for meat. It's a good choice for meatless Mondays. By scouring the web, you'll find a number of tasty recipes using tempeh.
Next time you're at your local natural food market, pick up some kimchi. It's a popular vegetable side dish in Korea made of fermented cabbage and other fermented veggies. It has a spicy taste that's as tongue tingling as it is healthy. In fact, you can ferment your own vegetables at home using a starter culture you buy at health food stores or online.
The Bottom Line?
Enjoy the health benefits that fermented foods and beverages have to offer. You might discover you enjoy the taste as much as you do the health benefits.
British Journal of Nutrition / Volume 107 / Issue 06 / March 2012, pp 876-884.
Eden Foundation. "Fermented Food: Safer to Eat"