What fermented foods can do for you

Plus, 5 fermented foods to know

Yogurt is fermented by adding bacterial cultures to dairy or non-dairy milks. Nasir Khan, Flickr
29 April 2020
29 April 2020

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What do beer, yogurt, olives and sauerkraut share in common? They’re all examples of foods and beverages made through fermentation – an ancient method of preserving food using microorganisms such as bacteria or yeasts. These microorganisms convert carbohydrates into alcohol and acids, which then act as natural preservatives.

But aside from preventing food from spoiling, fermentation also stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics, which provide a wide range of health benefits. Here are five reasons to include a regular intake of fermented foods in your diet.

Fermented foods help digest and absorb nutrients…

If you’re lactose-intolerant, you’ll probably have better luck with fermented dairy products such as yogurt or buttermilk than with milk. That’s because the live bacteria used in fermentation can break down lactose into sugars that are easier to digest. What’s more, they can do likewise with antinutrients like phytic acid, which are found in cereals, nuts and legumes and slow down nutrient absorption.

…and they can restore the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut.

Probiotics in fermented foods can improve intestinal health in the long run, too: the human digestive tract contains a large variety of bacteria and other microorganisms, which are collectively referred to as the gut flora or gut microbiota. Some of these bacteria play an essential role in digestion and absorption, while others are harmful and can cause digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

By restoring a healthy balance between these “good” and “bad” bacteria, probiotics can help treat and prevent a number of gastrointestinal diseases.

Fermented foods strengthen your immune system…

The digestive tract makes up about 70 percent of our immune system, which explains why the probiotics in fermented foods have been linked with a lower risk of contracting infections such as flu and the common cold. They can also help our bodies recover more quickly from illnesses.

…and are high in nutritional value.

Fermentation can increase the availability of nutrients that can be absorbed by the body. These include vitamins B12 and K, which sustain the nervous system, maintain bone density and stop wounds from bleeding.

They could even improve mental health.

Why do we get “butterflies” in our stomach when we get nervous or stressed? The brain and the gut flora are connected through a system of biochemical signals and influence each other: a healthy mind is often accompanied by a healthy gastrointestinal tract, while physical discomfort in the gut can cause, or be caused by, stress, anxiety and depression.

Several studies have suggested that the probiotics in fermented foods can alleviate psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Now, here are 5 fermented foods to know:

Kefir

Photo: Jules, Flickr
Photo: Jules, Flickr

Kefir is catching on quickly as a probiotic superfood. A fermented drink made by adding kefir grains to milk, it contains several times as many bacterial and yeast strains as yogurt, giving it a rather sour and tart taste. Nevertheless, these probiotics have been shown to be effective at treating digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome, as well as preventing bacterial and fungal infections, alleviating allergies and asthma, and possibly even combating cancer. Kefir is incredibly easy to make at home, too.

Miso

Photo: Ancient Foodlore, Flickr
Photo: Ancient Foodlore, Flickr

A Japanese condiment often used in soups, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus known as kōji, which is also used to make soy sauce. While beans are well-known for causing gas and bloating, the fermentation process breaks down the antinutrients in the soybeans, making miso relatively easy to digest. Miso consumption is also associated with reduced blood pressure and a lower risk of stroke, although further research is needed to determine whether these connections are causal.

Skyr

Skyr. Photo: Francis Mariani, Flickr
Photo: Francis Mariani, Flickr

What looks, tastes and feels almost exactly like Greek yogurt, but isn’t? Skyr (pronounced “skeer”) is a once-obscure cultured dairy product – technically a type of cheese – from Iceland that has recently gained fandom across the globe. Made from copious amounts of skimmed milk, giving it a thicker and creamier texture than most yogurts, skyr owes much of its popularity to its probiotics, high protein content and low calorie count.

Tempeh

Tempeh. Photo: Stacey Spensley, Flickr
Photo: Stacey Spensley, Flickr

Like miso, tempeh is made with fermented soybeans, albeit in the form of a solid block that can be fried, baked, sautéed or steamed, and used in anything from soups to salads to sandwiches. Rich in protein and vitamin B12, tempeh originated in Indonesia but is growing in global popularity as a healthy and climate-friendly meat substitute,

Kimchi

A staple of Korean cuisine, kimchi is prepared by fermenting vegetables – typically napa cabbage – with brining salt, and then flavoring them with chili powder, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and other seasonings. Aside from serving as a delicious side dish, kimchi is highly nutritious, packed with probiotics and easy to make.


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