Are Fermented Foods a Fad or the Future of Gut Health?
You’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of fermented food. What’s all the buzz about? Is it just another crazy food fad?
That’s not likely: people have used fermentation as a healthy and safe way to flavor and preserve food since ancient times. The signature sour taste of pickles, sauerkraut, and yogurt comes from a process called lacto-fermentation.
Lacto-fermentation occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast consume sugars in food and release organic acids. This happens under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) and results in an acidic environment that prevents harmful bacteria from growing on the food. At the same time, beneficial bacteria, such as lactobacilli, flourish. Fermentation not only preserves the nutrient content of food but is also an excellent source of healthy bacteria.
How can fermented foods benefit health?
Scientists estimate that there could be up to 500 species of bacteria living in our intestines at any one time. In fact, your body contains up to ten times the number of bacteria than the estimated 30 trillion human cells that make you, you. Sometimes called a microbiome, microbiota, or microflora, the healthy bacteria living in our gut are essential to health. Beneficial bacteria strengthen our immune system, help us to digest food, affect our mood, keep our organs healthy and metabolism strong. There is also a growing body of research to support the microbiome’s role in the prevention of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria that are essential to a healthy microbiome. Fermentation increases both the nutrient value of the food and the bioavailability of those nutrients. In other words, your body can absorb and use the nutrients more easily. Incorporating fermented foods is therefore a great way to boost your overall nutrition.
Probiotic supplements and fermented foods: Do I need both?
Just about everything in our modern lives works against healthy gut bacteria. As a result, many of us are deficient. Here are just a few of the common culprits damaging our gut biome:
- Tap water treated with fluoride and chlorine.
- Chemical-laden toothpaste and mouthwash.
- Pesticides, including glyphosate and similar chemicals, found in our food supply.
- Use of prescription antibiotics and other medications.
- Hand sanitizers and chemical household disinfectants.
- A diet high in junk, convenience and processed foods.
Eliminating or reducing these offenders will support gut health. At times, it may also be recommended to supplement with a quality probiotic to restore the proper balance of microflora in your gut. Talk to your health practitioner about whether supplementation is right for you.
What are some fermented foods that provide probiotics and boost gut health?
The lacto-fermentation process is a safe and healthy method of food preservation. But do fermented foods taste good? They sure do! Some of my favorites include:
Kefir: a thick, tangy beverage that tastes similar to yogurt. Kefir may improve lactose digestion, and its nutritional qualities can decrease inflammation and support bone health.
Tempeh: a high-protein meat substitute made from fermented soybeans that is firm, chewy, and can be baked, steamed, or sautéed before adding to main or side dishes. Tempeh’s soy protein may help to improve blood cholesterol and fight free radical aging compounds.
Kombucha: consumed in Asian countries for many generations, Kombucha is a slightly effervescent fermented tea made using a “SCOBY,” which is a combination of yeast and bacteria that gives the beverage its distinctive tart taste. Kombucha may be flavored with fruit or include other high-nutrition additives like herbs or ginger.
Sauerkraut: is finely cut cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid. It is a good source of vitamins B, C, K, calcium and magnesium. Its high nutrient profile, enzyme content and plentiful beneficial bacteria makes it even more nutritious than the original cabbage. Sauerkraut has a long shelf life and a pleasing, slightly sour flavor that has made it widely popular in many cultures as a highly nutritious side dish.
Adding fermented foods to your menu is a tasty way to support your overall health. Increasing the beneficial bacteria in your gut will boost your nutrition, support your immunity, digestion, metabolism, mental health, and can help in the prevention of chronic disease. Be kind to your gut biome and it will be kind back to you!