The Benefits of Fermented Foods

From kimchi to kombucha, sauerkraut to sourdough, fermented foods have been around for almost as long as man. Most likely discovered by accident and originally used to prolong the life of food, fermentation is experiencing a boom at present – kombucha on tap, kimchi with your dinner and of course, sourdough bread. You might be wondering what all the fuss is about, and what health benefits you might see when you add fermented food to your diet. 

We’ve been eating fermented food for centuries and while initially developed as a way to preserve foods, improve flavour and eliminate food toxins people are now turning to these foods for their potential health benefits. 

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are foods and beverages that have been subjected to controlled microbial growth and fermentation. Fermentation is an anaerobic process – this means it happens without oxygen – in which microorganisms like yeast and bacteria break down the components of food such as sugars like glucose and turn them into other products such as organic acids, gases or alcohol. These products of fermentation may then continue to further alter the composition of the original foods, and it’s these products that give fermented foods their great flavour, texture and appearance.

Clockwise from left to right: Pickled radishes, sour plums, fermented green & black olives, kimchi, pickled onions, and sauerkraut with juniper berries. Middle: Red Quinoa Porridge & Wholemeal Wheat Sourdough. All products are made in house at
Bread & Butter Bakery & Cafe.

There is a huge range of fermented foods, including:

  • sourdough bread
  • kombucha
  • kimchi
  • sauerkraut
  • yoghurt
  • kefir
  • tempeh
  • wine
  • beer 
  • cider

While a lot of the whole foods that are fermented are nutritious in their original form for some fermentation is absolutely necessary to make them digestible for us (try eating raw grains or flour!) and for other it gives them superpowers, especially when they contain probiotics and prebiotics, which you’ve probably heard about.

Probiotics are known as good or ‘friendly’ gut bacteria, and the two most well-known are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium however there may well be others that have not yet been isolated and sufficiently characterised in the lab. Experts believe these friendly gut bacteria support the body to be a happier, healthier place that is better able to stand up to disease.

Prebiotics are food ingredients that the microorganisms in your body, such as your gut bacteria, use to grow and live. The prebiotics with the most evidence-based health benefits in humans are the non-digestible oligosaccharides fructans and galactans as well as various short-chain-fatty-acids.

It’s easy to get confused about probiotics – there’s a bit of a misconception that fermented foods are the same thing as probiotics, but while they may contain probiotics, their actual microbial count isn’t defined. However, fermented foods and beverages do provide a spectrum of probiotics which encourage a varied microbiome, and the health benefits of this are becoming more and more clear.

Junk food, fast food and sugar: Burger, sweets, chips, chocolate, doughnuts, and soda. Derived from a small number of ingredients but containing large amounts of artificial additives.

Modern diets with large amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fat, and their generous helpings of artificial ingredients along with unhealthy lifestyles have seen an increase in inflammatory diseases, contributing to global epidemics of obesity and mental health concerns including depression and anxiety (see my previous post on Chemicals in the food chain) . Our microbiota is one of the hottest topics in scientific and medical research at present, and its influence on our health is becoming more clear. While our diet has long been seen as important for health, there is now strong evidence of the positive effect of fermented foods and beverages on the balance of the gut microbiota and on brain functionality. Our gut is the “control centre” for every aspect of our health and our digestion and food sensitivities are important – they are linked to our mood, behaviour, energy, weight, food cravings, hormone balance, immunity – in fact, they have a huge impact on our overall wellness.

As a species we’ve evolved over millions of years along with all our microorganisms, and each of us has a unique set of these that form our individual microbiota. These microorganisms, mostly bacteria, live on our skin, in our eyes, in our mouth, under our nails, and most importantly, in our gut. From the moment we are born there are lots of things that can affect them, such as caesarean section delivery, diet, antibiotics and the environment. Anything that harms our good bacteria upsets the balance in our gut, and this in turn causes health problems. There’s evidence that if your gut isn’t balanced, you can’t be in good health, and that a diverse and healthy population of gut bacteria is essential for wellbeing.

The progressive microbial colonisation of the human infant. On the right, factors that negatively impact on the natural development of our gut microbiota.
Image by Toh & Allen-Vercoe, University of Guelph, Canada.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that your gut microbiota even affect the genes that determine what happens in your intestinal tract, affecting your immunity, absorption of nutrients, energy metabolism and how strong the barrier in your gut is. It makes sense then that having a healthy and diverse population of microorganisms in your gut helps you get the most from your food, and this in turn improves general health and wellbeing. Interestingly, the benefits aren’t restricted to physical wellbeing, as some diseases previously thought to be strictly psychological, like anorexia, IBS, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder share a common symptom – a hypersensitivity to gut stimuli. The actions of fermented food on the gut microbiota, and corresponding benefits to overall health are certainly worthy of further research, but what can you do right now to boost the health of the good bugs in your gut?

Adding fermented foods to your diet is a great place to start – a little sauerkraut on your sourdough bread, add some corned beef, cheese and pickles and you have a pretty good Reuben sandwich. Or how about refreshing glass of kombucha, so tasty and really easy to make at home. You can buy your fermented foods, or have a go at making your own – you can ferment dairy, vegetables, legumes, fruit, meat and fish, and it not only benefits your gut, but your pocket too. Fermented foods last much longer than fresh, making it a great way to preserve the bounty from the garden or whatever is seasonal and freely available. 

Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that you can easily make at home. Check out my recipe for it in the recipe section.

So many great reasons to add fermented foods to your diet, but if you need another one, how about flavour? Fermented foods are some of the tastiest things you can eat, and are easy to introduce into your daily diet. Start your day with a couple of slices of sourdough, or a bowl of yoghurt. Add a little sauerkraut to your lunchtime sandwich or enjoy a cup of hot miso. For dinner, how about a spicy Korean curry with some kimchi on the side? All of this, accompanied by a glass of beer, wine or kombucha – how easy is that? Your gut bacteria will be as happy as your taste buds!

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