What Is the Healthiest Fermented Food or Drink?
If you are wanting to consume fermented foods to increase your gut health, and through that your overall vitality and well being, you probably want to know which one is the healthiest. Which one should I start with?
Well, this is kind of a loaded question. All fermented foods hold benefits, and they are all probiotic. All fermented foods contain probiotic microbes unless they are pasteurized by manufacturers. The exact composition of species that are present in different ferments does vary however.
Another way in which fermented foods vary is in their prebiotic content. Prebiotics can be just as important as probiotics. And different ferments contain them in varying levels.
Then the other thing that differentiates the health benefits between ferments, are the foods that they are made out of. Fermented vegetables will contain the health benefits of the vegetables which they are comprised of. Milk kefir and yogurt will contain the inherent nutrition that is present in the milk they are made out of. Ginger beer will contain the health benefits of ginger, and so on.
So, as you can see, it is not 100% clear cut which fermented food or drink is the healthiest. Some contain higher diversities of probtiotic bacterial strains, which makes them a more potent probiotic. Some will contain higher levels of prebiotics. And then there are the inherent health benefits of the foods they comprise of. Whether beet kvass or milk kefir is healthier for you in terms of their nutritional value, will really come down to what your personal nutritional needs are. If you are in need of calcium, then kefir may be healthier. However, if you want a daily iron boost, then taking kvass would make more sense.
There isn’t actually that much info out there on this topic, so if you have been hunting for some clarity on which ferment is the healthiest for you to take, you are in the right place.
For clarity, we are going to select a winning ferment in the three categories of most potent probiotic, ferment with the most prebiotics, and ferment with possibly the most nutritional value.
Then we also have some bonus ferments, which have specific health benefits/uses.
Most Potent Probiotic Ferment: Milk Kefir
As far as we know, kefir is supposedly the fermented food that contains the most probiotic strains. Research has measured it as having up to 61 strains of yeast and bacteria. This makes it a very diverse and rich source of probiotics.
Research says that kombucha, on the other hand, contains roughly 4 main species of bacteria and yeast, with lesser yeasts totaling to an unknown number. However there is very little published researched available, and it might be that more detailed analysis of kombucha reveals that is has a wider diversity of microbes than what has been identified at present.
Also, the specific microbial makeup of ferments can vary greatly from one batch to another. Kefir in one place may have a slightly different set of bacteria and yeasts than kefir somewhere else. Fermented vegetables rely on the bacteria that is present on the surface of vegetables to colonize the ferment. So fermented vegetables will contain the microbes specific to the vegetables they contain.
Therefore these numbers are subjective. However, from the data that is available, kefir stands out as having higher levels of probiotic strains.
Ferment With The Most Prebiotics: Sauerkraut or Fermented Garlic
Prebiotics are compounds that act as a food source to probiotics. Supplementing with prebiotics or eating prebiotic-rich foods can boost healthy gut bacteria levels. The beneficial bacteria already present in the gut, feed on the prebiotics and utilize them to increase their population levels. Therefore, eating foods that contain prebiotics is ideal if you want to support your gut ecosystem.
A food which contains both probiotics and prebiotics is called a synbiotic food.
The fermented foods which are highest in prebiotics tend to be the food items rather than fermented drinks. Dairy ferments such as kefir, lassi, and yogurt contain prebiotics, as does sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, however, does not contain any live probiotics, thanks to having been baked.
Prebiotics commonly occur in the highest amounts in vegetables, particularly alliums. Garlic is a potent source of prebiotics. Therefore fermented garlic has some of the highest levels of prebiotics.
Fermented garlic is however not to everybody’s taste – although we think it is delicious! So if that doesn’t toot your horn, you have another alternative. Cabbage is another vegetable which contains decent levels of prebiotics. And cabbage happens to make up a widely known and popular ferment. Sauerkraut!
So, if you are looking to boost your intake of prebiotics along with your probiotics, take your pick between these two.
Ferments With Highest Nutritional Values
This is a tricky one, because the nutritional values of fermented foods vary widely, based on what they are made from. And while the nutritional values of certain nutrients vary, there is no one ferment which is the most nutritious. However we can take a look at which nutrients different ferments have good levels of.
Which ones are most healthy for you, is ultimately up to you and your body, and what it needs most.
Calcium: Kefir & Yogurt
Kefir, lassi, yogurt and many other dairy ferments are high in calcium. The exact levels will depend on the milk from which they are made, but generally they top the charts when it comes to calcium.
And, there is an additional reason why eating milk ferments can boost your calcium levels. Research has revealed that during fermentation, the calcium levels in the milk rise, ranging from 20%-100%! And, the lactic acid that develops during fermentation, makes the calcium in fermented milk products more bio-available. So, if you are seriously looking to supplement your calcium levels through functional foods, fermented dairy is where it is at.
Once again kefir stands out ahead of the pack. When it comes to protein, milk kefir does not always contain gram for gram the same amount as yogurt. However, the proteins in kefir are complete proteins, which makes it them a complete package!
Kefir also contains B vitamins, and more probiotics than yogurt.
Technically there are fermented foods out that have higher amounts of protein. Such as some salamis, and fermented fish. However, as these fermented foods are not as common as kefir and yogurt, we will leave them out of the line up.
Iron: Beet Kvass or Fermented Beets
Beets are a decent source of plant based iron. However the thing with plant based iron is that it can be difficult for the body to absorb. Which is why fermented beets, and beet kvass is such a great source of iron. Studies have been conducted which show that the iron in food becomes more bioavailable if the food is fermented.
Fermented beets and kvass is also a great way for one to enjoy the health benefits of beets, while avoiding their sugar content. Not that beets are overly high in sugar, but if you are limiting sugar intake for whatever reason, fermented beets may be a great way for you to eat them.
Vitamin C: Kombucha
If you are looking to get in daily doses of vitamin C, and other micronutrients, then kombucha is a great choice. One would think that orange juice, the vitamin C king, would be preferable to kombucha if you are really serious about vitamin C supplementation.
But it turns out that kombucha actually has more vitamin C than store-bought orange juice. According to analyze, kombucha contains 1.15 mg per mL. According to other research, store-bought orange juice, on the other hand, contains roughly from 0.22 to 0.54 mg mL.
Kombucha also contains micro amounts of certain minerals and vitamins. While being present in very small doses, these could be useful to the body, thanks to their highly bio-available form.
Vitamin B12: Kefir & Yogurt
While kombucha contains microdoses of B vitamins, kefir and yogurt again top the charts for vitamin B12 values. One cup of kefir contains 0.4 micrograms of vitamin B12, which is just over 16% of the average person’s daily requirement. Yogurt provides similar or higher amounts of vitamin B12.
Certain elements such as taking the contraceptive pill, weight loss surgery, or following a vegetarian or low meat diet can deplete the body of vitamin B12. Which makes kefir and yogurt valuable sources of this important nutrient.
Ferments With Specific Properties
Besides the probiotic qualities, prebiotic qualities, and nutritional qualities of the different ferments, certain ferments also have specific properties. Knowing about these can allow you to leverage them in optimizing your health or combating a particular health issue.
Immunity: Ginger Beer
Ginger beer is an ideal fermented drink to consume if you wish to strengthen your immunity. Fermented foods in general are scientifically proven to significantly and powerfully boost one’s immune system. Because 80% of our immune system lies within our guts, ingesting probiotic bacteria is a sure fire way to support strong immunity.
Therefore, any fermented food or drink that you consume will play a big role in immune support.
Where ginger beer comes in is that not only is it fermented, it also contains high amounts of ginger. Studies have shown ginger to be very effective at boosting the immune system. It has a positive effect on the production of antibodies and thyroid hormones.
If you are keen to learn how to make your own ginger beer, check out our guide for all of the details.
Circulation & Metabolism: Kimchi
If you are unfamiliar with kimchi, it is a fiery ferment originating from Korea. Kimchi is generally comprised of cabbage, daikon radish, and lots of chili, garlic, and ginger. Like ginger beer, it also makes for a great immunity booster.
Besides being an immune strengthener, kimchi is also a great fermented food for one to eat if you wish to promote circulation and ramp up your metabolism. The chili in kimchi is responsible for these effects. Chili has been proven to have a stimulating effect on the body. Studies have shown that ingesting chili can lead to increased levels of circulation.
Research has also shown that cayenne pepper has the power to assist in weight loss. The way it does this is by increasing the rate of metabolism in one’s body. Most of us want to have a fast metabolism, as the benefits go beyond that of weight loss. A fast metabolism also increases energy levels!
Anti-inflammatory: Lacto Fermented Tomatoes Or Ketchup
A number of diseases and health problems have been linked by the medical world to increased levels of inflammation. The result is that more and more people are following anti-inflammatory diets. Fermented foods in general have been shown by science to have anti-inflammatory actions. If you want to enhance this, then choose a fermented food which is of another anti-inflammatory food.
Tomatoes rank high up on the list of anti-inflammatory foods, and it so happens that tomatoes are delicious when you ferment them.
Fermented tomatoes on their own are good, or you can puree them to make a fermented version of ketchup. If you like ketchup, then this is a great anti-inflammatory substitute.
If you want to find out how to make lacto fermented ketchup, head on over to our guide on how to do it. There you will find all of the details. And do not worry if you have not done any fermenting before. It is a super easy process!
Antioxidant: Rooibos Tea Kombucha
If you want a total powerhouse of an antioxidant, then rooibos kombucha tea is your baby.
Fermented foods in general have been proven by science to be a major source of antioxidants. So any fermented food you eat will bring decent levels of antioxidants to the table.
And if you want to up the antioxidant levels even further, simply make the kombucha with an antioxidant-rich tea. Green tea is commonly thought to contain the highest levels of antioxidants, a benefit for which many people drink it. However, there is a tea which contains up to 50% more antioxidants than green tea. And that is rooibos tea.
Rooibos tea is native to South Africa, is reddish in color, and has a mild and inherent sweetness. Which makes it ideal to use as a kombucha tea.
So in summary, put these two powerhouses together and you have a serious antioxidant drink on hand.
If you want to make some rooibos kombucha, it is easy to do. You simply brew the tea in the regular way, with the same amount of sugar as for regular kombucha. However, do be aware that your SCOBY will need to go back into black tea after it has fermented the rooibos tea. While SCOBYs can ferment other teas, they do need the tannins in black tea, if they are used to fermenting black tea.
If you want to know more about the best practices associated with fermenting alternative teas with kombucha SCOBYs, check out this guide. If one is clever about it, you can even adapt your SCOBY to live off of a new tea full time.
So Which Ferment Wins?
As you can see, there isn’t a ferment that one can say is a clear cut winner when it comes to providing the most health benefits. They all have different attributes and health benefits.
However, once you know what these individual attributes are of the different ferments, you can decide for yourself which are best for your needs.
Having said that, there is one ferment that does stand out a little, especially in terms of probiotic qualities. And that is kefir! Kefir is considered to contain the highest amounts of different probiotic bacteria. And many of us consume fermented foods, or turn to them, specifically for the probiotics.
Kefir also has decent levels of protein, calcium and vitamin B12, making it a super valuable ferment to make and consume.
So, because of these factors, we will declare it our overall winner.
Want to start making your own kefir asap? If so, go and check out on in-depth guide for all of the details.
And there you have it. The overall healthiest ferment revealed, and a comprehensive list of the properties of a number of other ferments. Armed with this information, we think that you will find selecting out a fermented food or drink for your needs, a whole lot simpler.
And remember, if you make them yourself, you can save a ton of money. And time! Fermented foods, while available, are not common in all places. Especially not unpasteurized versions.
And, what’s more, fermenting is easy! Ask anybody who ferments things. It is dead simple. So go on over and check out some of our guides if you want to get started.
That’s all for now folks. Happy fermenting!