20 Second Summary...
- Fermented foods have been a part of the human diet for centuries and can be found all over the world
- They are foods that have been produced or preserved by the presence and action of microorganisms
- The result is nutrient-dense foods high in bio-available vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and probiotics necessary for proper digestive function and overall health
- Making fermented foods such as sauerkraut at home can be an easy way of incorporating them into your diet
- Many stores now also carry a wide selection of quality fermented foods
It's pretty hard to miss these days: kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir... Fermented foods are a hot topic, appear on almost every healthful menu, and are part of almost every wellness protocol. But it’s not just some new trend! Fermentation has been around for as long as us humans have stored and saved our grub. It’s a convenient way of preserving otherwise spoil-prone foodstuffs and has long been part of our evolutionarily advantageous dietary habits. Lassi in India, kimchi in Korea, miso is Japan - fermenting foods is as universal as it is ancient. And clearly our ancestors knew what they were doing, because fermented foods are some of the most nutrient-dense and nourishing things out there!
What is fermentation?
So what exactly are fermented foods? They're basically foods produced or preserved by the action of microorganisms. Technically fermentation refers to the change in chemistry to carbohydrates (whereas fats rancidity and proteins putrefy), and as a result relies on the presence of sugars in a food for the process to occur. But fermentation can also involve the use of bacteria such as lactobacillus, which is most commonly found in yogurt, and even non-dairy delights like cashew cheese. Fermentation can even occur simply as part of the pickling or souring process using vinegar, brine or lemon juice.
Why is it good for you?
No matter how it comes about, that fermentation process produces a wealth of healthful bonuses. It often makes the enzymes, vitamins and minerals contained within the food more bio-available (meaning your body can more easily process and assimilate the nutrients), and of course fermented foods are stacked with beneficial bacteria. Probiotics such as these are insanely important for our health. They protect our digestive system from bad bacteria, and work hard to break down food and clean-house for a happy, healthy GI tract! Our gut houses 80% of our immune system, so a well balanced micro-biome is integral for immune support, as well as cognitive function, mental health, and even weight balance. More and more research is coming out on the many important roles a healthy digestive system plays in our overall wellness, and the integral part our micro-biome and consuming adequate probiotic-rich foods has in the process.
How to Incorporate fermented foods into your diet
Getting these probiotic-rich foods into your diet has never been easier! Grocery stores are bursting with rows of kombuchas and sauerkrauts, and many restaurants are starting to incorporate fermented foods into their menu staples. Of course, I’m also a big fan of getting into the habit of making fermented foods at home. You don’t have to dive head-first into the wacky world of kombucha mothers – starting with a simple sauerkraut recipe is a fantastic way to get some simple fermented foods into your daily routine. Also, if you hammer down a killer sauerkraut recipe, it makes for a great housewarming or holiday gift!
Below is a small list of some more commonly found fermented foods you can try experimenting with…
Sourdough Bread: Grains are coated in a toxic layer of phytic acid, tannins, goitrogens etc. that make them not only hard to digest, but also impede your body’s ability to absorb and utilize various vitamins and minerals. This is not good. Luckily the fermentation process that sourdough goes through helps with all this as the lactobacillus basically pre-digests the grains for us, ultimately neutralizing the potentially harmful outer coating. So convenient hey?
Cod Liver Oil: Fun fact, Cod liver oil was originally manufactured by filling a wooden barrel with fresh cod livers and seawater and allowing the mixture to ferment for up to a year before removing the oil. Yum! These days it’s more commonly fermented in a bit of a different manner, but is still a tried-and-true health tool that I’m sure your grandparents swear by. High in Vitamin A, D and omega-3’s, CLO has been linked to the prevention and treatment of diabetes, the prevention of heart disease, reduced risk of osteoarthritis, the treatment of depression, lowered risk for autoimmune diseases, diminishment of eye disorders like glaucoma, and so much more. Of course, not all CLO's are created equal, so really make sure you’re getting a quality product when adding this to your fermented food rotation.
Kombucha: This “living health drink” is made by fermenting tea and sugar with the kombucha culture or scoby (“symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts”). When making kombucha, the culture is placed in sweetened black or green tea and yields a symphony of nutrients such as health-giving organic acids like glucuronic acid, gluconic acid, lactic acid, acetic acid, butyric acid, malic acid and usnic acid, as well as vitamins B and C, and amino acids and enzymes. And of course there are all the benefits of the probiotic microorganisms themselves. The result can taste like something between sparkling apple cider and champagne depending on what kind of tea you use, and of course companies and home-kombuchers jazz it up with all sorts of funky flavours like ginger, schisandra berry, and rose water.
Kefir: Traditionally made from cow or goat's milk that has been fermented with cultures of yeast and lactobacillus (aka kefir “grains”), this powerful elixir of life originated from parts of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, and the name is derived from the Turkish word keyif, which means “feeling good” after eating. Quite fitting, don’t you think? Although it’s a tad sour to taste, kefir is a nutrient powerhouse with glorious amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, Vitamin B12, B2, magnesium and Vitamin D. Of course it’s a rich source of probiotics, and many people who have a hard time drinking milk, find themselves totally cool with kefir. Now, if you’re completely dairy-free you can make kefir just with water and the “grains”, which has a similar vibe to kombucha, but with a much faster ferment and more mild flavour (kombucha takes about 5-14 days to ferment, whereas water kefir is ready within a day or two.). Also, just like kombucha, it can be bottled to increase carbonation, and flavoured with whatever infusions your heart desires!
Miso: Miso has been a staple in Chinese and Japanese diets dating back approximately 2,500 years. Today, most of the Japanese population begins their day with a warm bowl of miso soup believed to stimulate digestion and energize the body. Miso is a paste made from soybeans, sea salt, and koji (a mould starter), whereby the mixture is allowed to ferment for 3 months to 3 years. This process produces a super healthful enzyme-rich food that aids in detoxification of industrial pollutants, radioactivity, and harmful chemicals in the soil and food systems that we are so constantly bombarded with. However, when purchasing miso, avoid the pasteurized version and spend your money on the live enzyme-rich product, which like all the other foods mentioned in this post, is also loaded with beneficial microorganisms.
Tempeh: Another soy-based fermented food is tempeh. In fact, high quality miso and tempeh really are the only two ways I will personally consume soy. Said to be originated in Indonesia, tempeh is made through both a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that includes adding a tempeh starter (basically a mix of live mould). It’s then left to sit for about two days, at which point it becomes a nutty-flavoured cake-like product high in vitamin D, K, niacin, manganese, amino acids, and you guested it, probiotics! These lovely nutrients have been shown to increase bone density, regulate menopausal symptoms, and even fight cancer.
Sauerkraut/Kimchi: There are many variations of this fermented cabbage dish, but no matter what you call it or how you flavour it, it’s one of the easiest and most delicious ways to incorporate fermented foods into your diet. Methods range from simply culturing the cabbage in brine to adding lactic acid bacteria, including Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. For a more eastern European flavour, people often add caraway seeds, dill, even beets, and for more of that Korean vibe you can throw in green onion, radish, ginger, garlic, red pepper flakes etc. Making it is super simple, and many stores now carry an impressive variety of raw, organic sauerkraut and kimchi-like goods. Just remember that you do want it to be “raw” - if the manufacturer is cooking the cabbage beforehand, you’re losing that enzyme-rich nutrient density!
Yogurt: Of course one of the most common ways to get your probiotic hit in north America is via yogurt. Whether you’re going for Greek, cream-top or Balkan, yogurt is a solid way of adding some heavy hitting nutrients to your dressings, desserts, and smoothies. Just remember to always go for organic varieties from a grass-fed source so that you’re actually getting all the wonderful nutrients promised to you. Also, I recommend staying away from most flavour options and just adding your own raw honey and/or fresh fruit if you need a little extra sweetness to cut the sour.
Some things to be careful about:
I’ve already mentioned the importance of quality when it comes to fermented foods. If you’re going for a store-bought sauerkraut, only choose the raw varieties. If you’re reaching for some dairy kefir or yogurt, make sure its from grass-fed/pasture-raised animals. With any of the soy-based ferments, it’s integral that you’re getting it from an organic source as conventional soy is often heavily sprayed with seriously toxic chemicals. And if you’re going for a kombucha, try to avoid any brands that add a tonne of extra sugar to the mix. Yes, some form of sugar is needed for the fermentation to occur, but adding unnecessary amounts of sweetness turns a once healthful drink into a pop-like blood sugar rollercoaster. Finally, some people find that when they start incorporating more fermented foods into their diet, they’re met with some uncomfortable gas, bloating and even irregular bowel movements. This is a completely natural healing reaction whereby the influx of good bacteria is waging a little bit of a “war” on the overgrowth of bad that have been over-populating your gut for who knows how long. I suggest easing into it gently, and trying if you can to push through the discomfort. With regular ingestion of probiotics-rich foods, it should subside within a week or so, at which point you will have a much stronger and healthier digestive system as a result. If it is going on for two weeks or longer, that’s when I might recommend dialing it back and scheduling an appointment with your trusty nutritionist. You could have a digestive situation whereby fermented foods are aggravating the problem (ie. SIBO), or you might have a sensitivity to something you’re ingesting. Either way, it’s always important to take note, and even do a little food journal when starting new foods, supplements and protocols.
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What about probiotic supplements?
If any of the above-mentioned foods don’t tickle your fancy, or you’re nervous about digestive reactions with any of them, often simply taking a high quality probiotic supplements can be the way to go. Note that there are so many different ones out there, many with a variety of purposes. Some probiotic strains are more geared towards immunity, some more towards energy and cognitive function, some more towards mental wellness. Furthermore, you may want to look into populating your gut with probiotics from a number of sources, such as soil-based varieties. Many health stores have extremely knowledgeable staff on hand who will point you in the right direction for probiotics supplements. Once again, keep in mind that there’s always a risk of a healing reaction when starting a new supplement, so don’t be surprised if you’re seeing some rumbling in your gut at the beginning. Just like with the probiotics rich foods, this is often called a "die-off reaction" whereby the beneficial bacteria are waging a wee bit of a war with the bad, and cause side effects such as gas, bloating, cramping, and/or irregular bowel movements. Once again, if you feel you can, try and persevere as the results on the other end are well worth the temporary discomfort. If of course, it persists for more than a couple weeks it's likely you're actually having a true reaction to the probiotic strain you have chosen, and you might want to try a different brand or focusing on a more comprehensive digestive healing protocol like GAPS.