If you’re at all interested in health or nutrition, you’ve probably heard people raving about the benefits of fermented foods. Though I’m a fan of ferments (things like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, pickles and miso), I’ve never felt like I had a good, thorough understanding why fermented foods are so good for you. Sure, they contain probiotics, which are good for the immune system—but what does that really mean? How, exactly, do fermented foods benefit your health?
Fermented foods undergo a chemical process called (you guessed it!) fermentation. In this process, sugars and carbohydrates are converted into an acid or an alcohol. Fermentation naturally occurs in some foods and is a process that’s been used by humans for thousands of years; Early people used fermentation as a way to preserve food. Everyone is familiar with some fermented foods like beer, sauerkraut and pickles, but there’s been an increased interest in less common ferments, too, like kefir.
Most people have a general idea that ferments pack a healthy punch because they’re full of probiotics: good, living bacteria that support optimal function in our digestive tracts. It’s common to hear that probiotics supplements are important and that you should eat yogurt to replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are thought to be important for all kinds of aspects of our health, including our immune system. Some scientists say up to 80% of our immune system is contained within our gut, so having a good balance of probiotics can help with everything from staving off illness to healing from infections.
Casey Seidenberg of the Washington Post has an interesting way of explaining the relationship between fermentation and digestion:
Imagine a fermented food as a partially digested food. For instance, many people have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk. When milk is fermented and becomes yogurt or kefir, the lactose is partially broken down so it becomes more digestible.
She also provides some insight on how fermentation fits in with overall health:
When our digestion is functioning properly and we are absorbing and assimilating all the nutrients we need, our immune system tends to be happy, and thus better equipped to wage war against disease and illness.
To learn even more about fermented foods and how they help us, I contacted Alex Lewin, a fermentation expert and author of the book Real Food Fermentation. Here’s what he said:
Fermented foods derive their health benefits from the action of microbes. They are beneficial for a variety of reasons, including the live microbes themselves (which can fortify our digestion and immune function, for example); by-products of the fermentation (certain vitamins and enzymes are created); improved digestibility and nutrient bioavailability; increased storage life and safety; and elimination of any perceived need to use industrial preservatives. To that, add all the benefits of raw foods without the drawbacks.
Wow, right? Kinda makes me want to go and buy up all the kombucha at my local Whole Foods. But I also wondering how often we should be eating fermented foods to reap their benefits. I eat yogurt most days, but is that enough? Alex explained:
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how often we should eat fermented foods, but eating something fermented every day is a good goal. This can be some yogurt, some fermented vegetables, a fermented sauce of some sort, or a shot of kombucha or home-made fermented soda.
So should you buy fermented foods, or make them? Making them is very easy, but lots of people don’t necessarily want to spend the time and energy doing so. If you prefer to buy them, Alex recommends going for local ferments when at all possible:
Look for ones that are produced locally and in smaller batches. These are likely to be better than big national brands. And be careful–it’s easy to buy things that sound fermented but are not, like many kinds of sauerkraut and pickles. Live fermented foods in a supermarket will always be in the refrigerator section. So if it’s not refrigerated, either it’s not live or it’s not fermented.
If you are interested in making your own ferments, there are basically a billion awesome resources on the internet, ranging from kombucha starter kits you can buy on Etsy to fermentation Facebook groups, as well as lots of websites and blogs. Personally, I recommend Alex Lewin’s book or a The Art of Fermentation by fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz.
Photo: Flickr user The Delicious Life