Have you caught the fermented foods fever? I’d eat sauerkraut over cabbage any day and Greek yogurt over milk most days! And of course wine over grape juice every day. What do all these foods have in common? Fermentation! For years, around the world, fermentation has been utilized to preserve vegetables (like sauerkraut and kimchi), dairy (like yoghurt and kefir), grains & legumes (like miso, tempeh, natto, and sourdough bread), and to make alcoholic beverages (like beer and wine).
Why Ferment Foods?
Originally fermentation was used mainly as a preservation technique to extend shelf-life. Now it’s all about creating new, tastier foods with surprising health benefits. I started writing about fermentation this time last year, with a special emphasis on food safety and health. Worldwide, as home cooks, it is fairly easy to do and it’s inexpensive. In Korea, just about every family has a big crock of kimchi, or pickled vegetables, fermenting outside their door. To this day, traditional flavors added to kimchi, aside from the cabbage and salt, include hot peppers, garlic and ginger. Now in North America the hobby of fermentation has grown over the past 10 years with fermentation workshops popping up all over!
What Happens During the Fermentation Process?
Fermentation occurs when micro-organisms convert carbohydrates (such as the sugar lactose) in foods to alcohol or acids. Nearly all food fermentations are the result of more than one micro-organism, either working together or in a sequence, usually growth initiated by bacteria, followed by yeasts and then molds. Fermented foods may provide both probiotics and prebiotics (check out my HuffPost blog Five Things You Should Know about Probiotics) that help maintain gut and immune health.
Health Benefits linked to Fermented Foods
Research has shown, the lactic acid bacteria found in fermented foods (Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in particular) can help balance the gut microbiota (ecosystem), enhance the immune system and increase the bioavailability of some micronutrients including B vitamins (1).
- What is your gut telling you about fermented foods? Do they improve digestion? In general they should but as we know from research our gut ecosystem is specific and individualized to each person. It is like a fingerprint.
- When you think about it, fermenting our foods before we eat them is like partially digesting them. For example, the lactose in milk is broken down when it is fermented to yogurt. So if you’re lactose intolerant, yogurt may not affect you due to the decreased level of lactose compared to milk.
- Some fermented dairy products have been shown to decrease constipation, regulate bowel motility in patients with ulcerative colitis and IBS, and may be helpful during treatment of H. Pylori infections, such as gastric ulcers (2).
- Consuming fermented dairy products can help stimulate the body’s natural immunity. In a 2005 study, individuals who drank 150g of fermented milk daily for 3 weeks showed an improvement in overall blood antioxidant activity (3).
So enjoy the fermented foods fever frenzy. However, there are some cautions about fermented foods! I’m not sure if it was a recommendation from Gwyneth Paltrow (definitely not Martha Stewart) or Food Babe but don’t drink large amounts of vinegar straight up. It can erode tooth enamel and irritate tissue in the mouth and esophagus (1)!
Why not catch a bit of the fermented foods fever? With Oktoberfest around the corner you can turn cabbage into sauerkraut!
Here is an easy to follow, step-by-step sauerkraut recipe from thekitchn.com
- Rural Infrastructure and Agro-Industries Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Diversification booklet 21: Traditional fermented food and beverages for improved livelihoods; Rome 2011. Cited Sept 15 2014 Available from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2477e/i2477e00.pdf
- Cousin FJ, Mater DDG, Foligné B, Jan G. Dairy propionibacteria as human probiotics: A review of recent evidence. Dairy Sci & Technol. 2011;91:1-26.
- Ebringer L, Ferenčík M, Krajčovič J. Beneficial health effects of milk and fermented dairy products – Review. Folia Microbiol. 2008;5:378-394.