From kimchee in Korea to kvass in Russia to dosas in South India, fermented foods are enjoyed almost daily in traditional societies, and now health professionals and enthusiasts are taking interest in the unique health benefits these foods offer.
It was once thought that ferments were used merely as a means of food preservation. For example, in the absence of modern refrigeration, cabbage could be preserved well beyond the growing season in the form of sauerkraut. However, as research on the human microbiome (the ecosystem within the body) progresses, scientists are coming to realize that fermented foods, which are rich in “good” bacteria, also play an important role in maintaining and optimizing our health.
We now know that our bodies are not sterile—far from it. In fact, our bodies contain more foreign bacteria than our very own cells (combined, it is estimated that the bacteria in our bodies could fill a half-gallon jug!). When the microbiome is balanced and this bacteria is present in healthy proportions, these organisms can affect our weight, immunity, mental state, and more. They help us better digest our food, and even synthesize nutrients, such as vitamin K, in our intestines.
Fermented foods act as natural probiotics, or “good” bacteria that support digestive health, and serve as an often delicious means of replenishing the bacteria in our gut. They come in an array of different forms such as both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (such as kombucha), animal products (such as pla ra, a Thai fermented fish sauce), vegetables (such as sauerkraut), dairy (such as kefir), and legumes (such as miso, which is made of fermented soybeans). In his book, The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz states that, “fermented foods, as a group, are highly nutritious and digestible. Fermentation pre-digests foods, making nutrients more bioavailable, or easier for the body to absorb, and in many cases fermentation generates additional nutrients or removes anti-nutrients or toxins. Ferments with live lactic-acid-producing bacteria intact are especially supportive of digestive health, immune function, and general well-being.”
The research surrounding fermented foods has shown that they should certainly play an important role in a healthy and balanced diet. For example, a study has revealed that a higher intake of fermented milk products can decrease one’s risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease. Fermented milk has also been determined to improve glucose metabolism and exercise-induced muscle damage in young men. Interestingly, some individuals who are sensitive to dairy under normal circumstances are nonetheless able to digest fermented dairy products such as whey and kefir with ease. This is probably due to the decreased lactose concentration in these products.
Kimchee, a Korean staple that is becoming increasingly popular in the West, has been linked to a decreased risk of obesity and cancer as well as a reduction in cholesterol levels. It has also been shown to be especially beneficial in blood sugar regulation among prediabetics. In a study, prediabetic individuals were asked to consume either fresh or fermented kimchee. The results showed that amongst those who consumed fresh (unfermented) kimchee, 9 percent experienced improved glucose tolerance. However, up to 33 percent of those who ate kimchee that was fermented for 10 days experienced a positive increase in glucose sensitivity—quite a difference!
“Fermented foods, as a group, are highly nutritious and digestible. Fermentation pre-digests foods, making nutrients more bioavailable, or easier for the body to absorb, and in many cases fermentation generates additional nutrients or removes anti-nutrients or toxins,” Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation.
As we are learning more and more about how a healthy microbiome can support our health, we are also discovering that a depletion of beneficial bacteria can often result in serious health consequences. For example, dysbiosis (an abundance of “bad” bacteria as opposed to beneficial bacteria that is often present in fermented foods) can make us more likely to be obese, increasingly prone to digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, and more insulin resistant. In fact, diets such as The Body Ecology Diet have achieved much success by addressing this imbalance. Donna Gates, the creator of this diet argues that ingesting cultured foods helps one reestablish one’s “inner ecosystem” and also improves digestion, helps control cravings, and provide an alkalinizing effect on the entire body.
In the world of today’s fad diets, many people find it refreshing to learn that there are such a wide variety of foods that we should be adding to our diet rather than restricting. In his book, The Microbiome Diet, Raphael Kellman, M.D., states that, “what I like about fermented foods is that they turn the whole concept of dieting upside down. Instead of focusing on what you must restrict and remove from our diet, we focus on how you can enrich your diet and improve your health”.
For those interested in diving into the wonderful world of homemade fermented foods, Katz’s book, The Art of Fermentation, has an abundance of information regarding the benefits of fermenting along with delicious (and easy) recipes to follow from around the world. For those of us who might be less ambitious, fresh fermented products are becoming increasingly common in health food stores. However, when shopping, ensure that you pick up your ferments from the refrigerated section of the store, and not from the aisles. Ferments that do not require refrigeration have been pasteurized, and are hence depleted of the beneficial bacteria discussed in this article.