Our ancestors began fermenting foods thousands of years ago as a way of natural preservation, and the process has made a serious comeback in recent years due to it’s awesome health benefits and heaping dose of flavor. So, just what exactly are fermented foods and what’s the deal with all the hype? I’ll break it down and show you a list of the ones you should be eating.
What are fermented foods?
Examples of fermented foods you already know are yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, and beer.
It doesn’t sound very appetizing, but fermenting foods, simply put, means introducing good bacteria and yeast to what you eat. These bacteria and yeasts flourish by letting the food sit and steep over time. The words “pickled” or “aged” often come to mind. This process provides the food with microorganisms, or live active cultures called probiotics.
Why are probiotics so good? Because they promote a healthy digestive tract and immune system, and help our bodies to better absorb nutrients. Look up “good gut health” on any search engine, and the words “probiotics” or “good bacteria” are sure to top the list.
Don’t be freaked out by the word “bacteria.” I know when I was a kid and heard that there were bacteria in my yogurt, I didn’t touch the stuff for years! We often think of it as a bad thing, but our bodies are host to trillions of bacteria, and we simply could not survive without them. Probiotics are the friendly, good little guys that clean and protect our digestive tract. When an abundance of these good bacteria are in our bodies, it’s harder for bad bacteria to take hold and make us sick.
Another benefit of fermented foods – they are pre-digested. During the fermentation process, the microorganisms break sugars and starches down into lactic acid, so it’s easier for your body to finish the job when you consume them.
Common fermented foods you should be eating
Yogurt is probably the most consumed and top-of-mind probiotic food. Any yogurt with a “Live and Active Cultures” seal guarantees at least 100 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing. It’s also a good source of calcium and protein.
Kefir is similar to yogurt in that it’s a fermented milk product, but it’s texture is much smoother and thinner, making it a drinkable smoothie or milkshake-like beverage. It’s also loaded with probiotic cultures and calcium.
Sauerkraut is made up of only two ingredients: finely chopped cabbage fermented with salt. It’s loaded with probiotics, fiber and vitamins A, C and K.
Kimchi is a Korean side dish that is made up of fermented cabbage and a range of spices and seasoning. Like sauerkraut, it’s loaded with probiotics, fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, but it packs a more powerful punch of spicy flavor.
Pickles make for a wonderful snack or lunch-time side. They’re loaded with probiotics, and are easily assessable. Pick yours up from the refrigerated section of your grocery store, rather than the stocked aisles, as these usually contain the most natural ingredients and best benefits… or opt to make your own!
Miso is a paste made from fermented rice, barley, or soybeans. It’s most often used as an ingredient in soup – think miso soup. Miso is a good source of probiotics and antioxidants, but it also has a high sodium content, so consume in moderation.
Kombucha originated thousands of years ago in ancient China and has become a trendy beverage as of late. It’s fermented black or green tea in combination with sugar and a colony of bacteria. The fermentation process causes the tea to become fizzy and carbonated, and even produces a bit of alcohol.
You may be ready to go out and stock your cupboards with fermented foods, but use caution when you buy. It’s easy to add fermented foods to your diet…. but you want to do it in the best way so you actually get the probiotic benefits. Commercially bottled, jarred and packaged goods in grocery stores are likely to have been pasteurized or cooked at high heat, killing the probiotic bacteria. They are also likely loaded with added salt or sugar. The best way to make sure you are consuming live-cultured fermented foods is to make your own, or buy from your local farmer’s market or natural food store.
Interested in learning more? Check out these books on fermented foods for an in-depth explanation and recipes for DIY:
Do you have experience making your own fermented foods, or want to share ideas not listed above? Feel free to comment below 🙂