Health Benefits of Fermented Foods (And Why You Absolutely Should Eat Them)
The long history of fermented food in nearly every country around the world proves that these foods and drinks are popular because they’re so delicious, because they help preserve foods for longer storage, and because they have so many health benefits. Even if modern science is only now doing controlled studies using the latest technology to analyze the exact effects of the microorganisms in fermenting food, and the results of adding those foods to our diets, people worldwide have known for thousands of years that if you eat fermented foods regularly, you just feel better.
The Microorganisms Behind Fermentation
Natural fermentation is done by many different types of microorganisms, including yeasts and bacteria. When you make kombucha at home you’re harnessing the power of the tiny creatures that make up the SCOBY, the Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. The three main bacteria “families” in a SCOBY are the gluconacetobacter, acetobacter, and lactobacillus bacteria. These bacteria are responsible for producing the organic acids and probiotic compounds that make kombucha tea so good for you. The bacteria work with the Zygosaccharomyces yeasts that make up most of the rest of the SCOBY. The yeasts do the work of breaking down most of the sugars, and the bacteria take the ethanol that the yeasts produce and use it as food.
Lactic acid bacteria, mostly from the lactobacillus family, play a key role in turning fresh raw milk into things like cheese, yoghurt, and kefir. There are also yeasts in kefir grains, though generally yeasts are not found in large quantities in cheeses or yoghurt.
In order to make fermented vegetables, you need lactobacillus bacteria alone. The salty brine used in fermentation and the organic acids produced by the bacteria prevent most other bacteria, yeasts, and molds from growing. These lactobacillus microorganisms are naturally present in the vegetables and brine, and you don’t need to add a culture to the vegetables, like you do with kombucha (the SCOBY) and kefir (the grains).
Here are some examples of other cultured foods that use yeasts, bacteria, and/or salt to create the fermented finished product:
- bread (especially sourdough varieties)
- ginger beer
A History of Health Benefits
The history of kombucha goes back at least two thousand years, and many fermented foods like soy sauce and pickles date back even further. Consumption of fermented dairy products like cheese and yoghurt are as old as the history of milk itself. When left at room temperature, milk naturally ferments, and any herder who milked a cow or a goat and who didn’t use the milk right away would be left with a lightly-curdled drink. In fact, the first pot of yoghurt was probably made entirely by accident! Once people saw how easy fermentation is, and how delicious the results, they probably started doing their fermentation of dairy products, fruits, and vegetables deliberately.
The health benefits of fermented food probably took a bit longer to realize, but it’s likely that these benefits were obvious fairly quickly. Fermented foods help regulate the digestive system, help improve the immune system, and help speed up the metabolism. People who ate and drank fermented foods would have been healthier, faster, and stronger than people who didn’t. Once families started their own traditions of making fermented foods, both the recipes and the cultures began to be passed down from generation to generation.
Hippocrates recommended drinking a mixture of herbs, honey, and vinegar for health. Some people credit fermented dairy products like yoghurt and kefir as the reason why people in Northern Europe tend to live longer than people in countries around them. The fermented milk called airag (also known as kumiss) is one reason why the nomadic peoples in Mongolia are so healthy, even though they have traditionally not eaten any fresh fruits or vegetables. The probiotics in fermented foods support the body’s functions in many different ways, and lactic acid fermentation plays an important role in making these probiotics available.
What Is Lactic Acid Fermentation?
Although it sounds like it involves milk, lactic acid fermentation simply means the action of a particular group of bacteria called lactobacillus as they convert sugar and starch into lactic acid. In fact, when these bacteria work on dairy products, they actually reduce the amount of lactose (a type of sugar found in milk) in the final food. That’s why yoghurt and kefir are often easier for people to digest.
When these bacteria go to work on the sugars and carbohydrates found in vegetables, the lactic acid they produce helps to preserve the nutrients in the vegetables. Along with the salt used to soften the vegetables, the lactic acid creates a brine that keeps the vegetables from molding and rotting. Fermented food lasts longer than fresh food, without refrigeration (though refrigeration still makes fermented foods last longer overall).
Fermented Foods are More Nutritious
The fermentation makes more of the nutrients in the food available for use by your body, because it breaks down certain compounds to make them easier to digest. The byproducts of fermentation also generally add nutrients like vitamins to the mix. When milk is fermented, there are more B vitamins available than there would be if you just drank that milk by itself.
Fermented vegetables generally have more vitamin C and vitamin A when compared with the raw vegetables themselves. There are more amino acids in the fermented product, which your body uses to repair cell walls and build new muscle fibers. L-lysine is one of these essential amino acids, and it’s one that your body can’t produce by itself. You need to get L-lysine from the food you eat, and fermented foods will give you a good supply.
Some vegetables, grains, and legumes contain what scientists call “anti-nutrients” like phytic acid. This particular acid will bind to the minerals in those foods, and prevent your body from absorbing them. When you ferment these foods first, there is less phytic acid and more lactic acid, which helps your digestive system process the maximum amount of nutrients from the food you eat.
Fermented Foods Help You Stay Healthier
In fact, fermented foods are good for your gut in general. Whether it’s kefir, kombucha, or fermented vegetables, the organic acids work with the microflora in your digestive system to help keep them healthy and to help keep a good population of these microflora active and alive. The bacteria that are normally present in your intestines play a key role in digestion by producing the enzymes that break down the food you eat. If there are not enough good bacteria in your system, you won’t be able to digest that food. You’ll be eating, but you won’t be getting enough nutrition from the things you eat.
When your gut is happy, you’re happy too. The channels of your lymphatic system, where the white blood cells that make up your immune system live, are wrapped around and part of all twenty-plus feet of your digestive tract. This means that anything that negatively impacts your gut will have an immediate negative impact on your health and your immune system. One of the things that puts your entire body out of balance is an inflamed digestive system, something that is often caused by a lack of good bacteria. Your body will see this inflammation as an attack, and create more white blood cells to fight it off. When you have a constantly high level of white blood cells in your body, you risk developing a long-term serious illness like an autoimmune disease.
There are more immediate problems caused by poor digestion, like “leaky gut syndrome” in which small holes actually appear in the walls of your intestines, letting some of the undigested foods out into your abdomen. This can lead to immune disorders, rashes, and even food poisoning. Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis have both been linked to problems that start in the digestive system. People with poor digestion are also more likely to develop allergies and skin problems.
Homemade Fermented Foods Are Better
Although there are a lot of products on the market that promise all of the probiotic wealth of natura fermented foods like kefir, fermented vegetables, and kombucha, you might not be getting all of the benefits that are advertised. Many commercially-produced products have been pasteurized, and that means all of the living microorganisms that provide the probiotic boost have been killed off. If you’re going to buy your fermented foods in the store, look for unpasteurized and raw products.
Your local farmer’s market is another good place to look for fermented foods, if you don’t have the time or space to make them at home. (Though you probably do – making kombucha, kefir, and fermented veggies takes very little time and not a lot of equipment or storage space.)
Be careful when you’re buying these foods, though. Not only are most store brands already pasteurized, but some foods that you might associate with traditional fermentation techniques, like sauerkraut, is made more often by vinegar-based pickling than by lactic-acid fermentation. That means you’re not even getting the nutrients that natural fermentation provides.
Check the labels as well for added ingredients like sugar and salt. When you make your own fermented dairy products like kefir and yoghurt, you can control the amount of sugar you use. You can even brew up a batch of sugar-free kombucha if you want. And you can experiment with adding less salt to your fermented vegetables, though in general you don’t need a lot of salt to start with. Because commercially-produced pasteurized fermented products don’t have the natural tangy flavors of real homemade fermented foods, manufacturers often add other ingredients to boost the flavor.
How to Add Fermented Food To Your Diet
Because the microorganisms in each type of fermented food are slightly different, with different health benefits, it’s a good idea to eat a little bit of a lot of different kinds, rather than just large quantities of one variety.
- Have yoghurt for breakfast, drink kefir, or make a smoothie using kefir.
- Drink a glass of kombucha tea for a mid-morning boost of energy.
- Pull out a jar of fermented vegetables to add to your salad at lunchtime
- Top a piece of sourdough bread with cheese for your afternoon snack.
- Serve pickles and miso soup for a Japanese-style dinner
Remember to start slowly, if you haven’t been eating or drinking these foods before. All of the different types of fermented foods will affect your digestion. While the end result will be a better-functioning digestive system, your body does need to adjust.
When you first start drinking kombucha and kefir, and eating fermented vegetables, the probiotic compounds and helpful bacteria will go to work right away in your intestinal tract. If your system is currently out of balance, you may be full of undigested food particles and toxins, and your improved digestion is going to start kicking those out of your system. You might find that you feel worse before you get better, in other words. Don’t go overboard with your first few weeks of using fermented foods. Take it slow, and start with small quantities. If you feel like you’re having a particular reaction to any type of fermented food or drink, stop using it for a while until you feel that your digestion has leveled out. If one type of food or drink doesn’t work for you, try another. For example, you might find the organic acids in kombucha easier to process than the organic acids in a dairy product like kefir or yoghurt.
Once your system has normalized, you can make fermented food a regular part of your daily diet. Of course, once you start eating and drinking more of these foods, you’ll probably want to start making them yourself! It’s easy to make kefir at home and when you’ve made your first batch of homemade fermented vegetables you’ll want to experiment with more ingredients and flavors. You and your digestive system will be happy for years!