Why? Because they taste good and, as our ancestors knew, they’re good for us.
One of the big benefits of fermented foods is the healthy bacteria content and its ability to improve the health of our gut, which is critical to overall health. Gut flora is a major part of our immune system and an unhealthy gut can lead to more health issues than just digestive upset.
Did you know that about 90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive system? Serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of mood, sleep, learning, and the constriction of blood vessels. So taking care of our digestive systems can positively impact so much of our lives!
Without going into too much detail about gut health (because that could be a whole post on its own) I want to share some of the top benefits of fermented foods. I've been learning more about their importance and I think everyone should be eating more of them. Here's why:
- Better Digestion
Fermented foods are partially digested foods. That means the fermentation has done some of the heavy lifting for your digestive system and digesting these foods is easier. The fermentation in yogurts and kefir, for example, help lactose-intolerant people digest dairy foods.
- Nutrient Absorption
Try a dill pickle or sauerkraut. These two fermented veggies (cukes and cabbage) are made with lactic acid bacteria. Eating these enzyme-rich foods helps the body absorb nutrients more easily while keeping naturally occurring plant toxins at bay.
- Boost the Immune System
Because fermented foods are bacteria-based, they support the beneficial bacteria already in our digestive tract. These good bugs strengthen the immune system and help us ward off disease and illness.
- Increased Vitamin Content
Fermented dairy products, such as kefir or yogurt, release more of the vitamins in foods that our bodies rely on to stay healthy, such as folic acid, B vitamins, riboflavin, and biotin.
- Longer Shelf Life
Leave a cucumber or quart of milk in your refrigerator and it will go bad in a week to 10 days. Fermented foods, however, last much longer. Refrigerated pickles, salsa, and sauerkraut, for example, will keep for months.
- Save Money
Whether you can or pickle it yourself (a great hobby most anyone can do, especially with the kids on a summer day, rain or shine), fermented vegetables can lower food costs and stretch your budget while keeping healthy veggies on the plate—in season or out.
- Tastes Great
It may seem counterintuitive given our propensity for sweet, but that pungent pop you get from fermented foods tastes great.
- Relieves Constipation
The bacteria in fermented foods stimulates peristalsis (fecal elimination) and thus wards off constipation.
- Improve Neonatal Health
When a mother has a healthy amount of good bacteria in her own system, those benefits transfer to her fetus and can help prevent neonatal infections.
- Weight Loss
Some fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, are high in choline, which can help lower blood pressure and metabolize fats more quickly.
If you're looking to increase your consumption of fermented foods, here are a few things to try: tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, natto, and/or miso. You don't have to eat a whole meal of fermented foods to get the benefits. Most are used as condiments and a few tablespoons a day is perfect.
High levels of sodium are the downside to savory fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and soy sauce. Opt for low-sodium products when possible, or make your own to control added salt; in any case, use in moderation. Tempeh, which like miso and soy sauce is made from fermenting soybeans, is low in sodium and makes a good protein alternative, similar to tofu (which is not fermented).
When buying fermented foods, just be sure that they are lacto-fermented and/or stored in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Items that are shelf-stable (like some sauerkraut varieties) have been pickled using vinegar or pasteurized and canned, which kills much of good bacteria you want. You can also easily make your own fermented foods at home.
If you’ve been thinking about adding more of these foods to your diet, but are unsure of exactly how to accomplish this, here are few suggestions for including fermented and cultured foods into your meals and snacks that may help you out.
- Cultured dairy (yogurt, kefir, buttermilk) are naturals for breakfast. Add yogurt, kefir or buttermilk to your morning smoothies or top granola or oatmeal with fruit and homemade yogurt.
- For the more adventurous, make breakfast bowls with yogurt and cooked beans and grains.
- Top your scrambled eggs with fermented salsa.
- Have a small portion of raw sauerkraut with dinner. It pairs well with almost everything. Start with a tablespoon and slowly increase the amount to avoid gastro-intestinal discomfort. When you are ready, experiment with different kinds of sauerkraut such as:
- If you are having soup, let the soup cool a bit before stirring in some homemade sour cream or juice from any lacto-fermented vegetable.
- For salads, try making your own ranch dressing using lacto-fermented mayonnaise and cultured buttermilk or Italian dressingmade with kombucha.
- Serve some fun lacto-fermented chutneys with dinner entrées.
- Make tacos and top with sliced fermented jalapeños and cultured sour cream.
- Experiment with a new kind of vegetable salad.
SNACKS AND EXTRAS
- Pair your favorite chips with a cultured dairy ranch dip.
- Serve cut-up veggies with a kefir dill dip.
- Slice and dry sourdough bread and use to dip in fermented hummus.
- Snack on an old-fashioned lacto-fermented dill pickle.
- Make fun and fizzy water kefir sodas or lacto-fermented ginger-ale.
- Make some fun-shaped dairy-free gummies.
- Serve a probiotic-rich dessert like a kefir-gelatin, fresh fruit with yogurt sauce, or a kefir soft-serve ice cream.
So go ahead and join the fermented-foods trend, enjoying the benefits of a process almost as old as civilization itself. But make sure you're really getting those friendly bacteria - and not too much unfriendly sugars and sodium.
Do you eat fermented foods on the regular? What's your favorite?