Podcast # 97 – Nutritional benefits of fermented foods
Fermented foods are all the rage right now with health nuts switching from coffee to kombucha, serving lunch with a side of sauerkraut and a breakfast smoothie with a dollop of kefir. Some of you might be thinking this is just another food trend to make its mark on the healthy industry and you’re right. But fermented foods are not a new concept and there are some amazing nutritional benefits of consuming fermented foods products worth knowing about.
A brief history of fermented foods
Fermented foods go a long way back in our ancestor’s diet. Evidence suggest that the fermentation of wine and beer (yes, you heard correctly) dates back to around 7,000 – 8,000 years ago. There is evidence fermentation in the making of bread dates even earlier. The process of fermenting was not only used as a way to preserve food but also to support intestinal and overall health.
You may have already consumed pickled fermented delights like cabbage, cucumbers and carrots while enjoying Asian cuisine. Dating back centuries, various cultures within Asia consumed these foods along with fermented turnips, eggplants, onions and pumpkin and they play a large role in their diet still today.
In ancient India, the refreshing yoghurt drink, lassi, was consumed as a pre-dinner beverage for the probiotic quality. The Romans consumed sauerkraut, the Bulgarians ate a high amount of fermented milk and kefir and the Ukrainians were known to enjoy raw yoghurt, sauerkraut and buttermilk in their traditional diets.
Depending on the culture, the food fermented and the process differs, but it is evident this way of preserving and enhancing the nutritional profile of foods is deeply rooted in tradition. Unfortunately over time with the advances in technology and food manufacturing fermented foods were out and microwavable TV meals were in! Pasteurisation replaced raw milk and yoghurt and even the process of soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains is no longer a common practice especially on a commercial scale.
What does fermenting actually do?
Fermenting actually takes place when the food is submerged into a salty brine and harmful bacteria is destroyed, but the healthy bacteria, Lactobacillus, survives. This is an essential bacteria for the health of our gut.
Lactobacillus then starts converting the sugars (glucose, fructose and sucrose) in the food into cellular energy and a metabolic by-product known as lactic acid. The lactic acid is what helps preserve the foods by creating an acidic environment and gives the product that classic tangy flavour which many can’t stand! Believe me, it takes some getting used to.
The lactic acid also produces the important digestive enzymes, amylase and protease. These enzymes become active as we chew helping us predigest the food, which is particularly beneficial for those of us who have digestive issues. The micronutrient profile of foods is also enhanced. These foods become alive and dynamic, making them a powerhouse of probiotics, vitamins and minerals.
Health benefits of fermented foods
All the good bacteria and probiotics in fermented foods have made them a pretty desirable product to include in your diet. Here are a list of some of the health benefits you may experience through eating fermented foods:
Increase in nutrient profile:
As mentioned earlier, the lactic acid in fermented foods enhances the levels of important nutrients including vitamin K2, A, B and C, depending on the type of food utilised. Cheese curd for example, is a great source of vitamin K2 which has been linked to the prevention of arterial plaque build-up and heart disease. It also has been seen to exhibit cancer-fighting properties and may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Vitamin C found in sauerkraut, is integral to the strengthening of the immune system and fighting infections. Not only that, it helps make collagen essential for strong bones, skin and joints and can protect us against cancer and heart disease. Vitamin A will help produce healthy skin, protect against infections and give our immune system a boost, while vitamin B is essential for producing energy from food and for our brain function and digestion.
Restore gut health:
The health of your gut will directly affect your ability to fight disease as it is estimated up to 80 percent of your immune system is located here. The lactic acid in fermented foods promotes the growth of healthy flora within the intestines. Probiotics aid in the production of antibodies and play a crucial role in the development of the mucosal immune system located in our digestive tract.
A healthy gut means you have a robust immune system and better equipped to fight invaders against all disease. Not only that, there is evidence to suggest that gut health could affect allergies, inflammation and autoimmune disorders in the body.
Balance stomach acid production:
Too much or too little stomach acid has been associated with digestive discomfort which is experienced by many. Fermented foods can increase the acidity of gastric juices when the production of hydrochloric acid by the stomach has decreased. When the stomach produces too much of the hydrochloric acid, fermented foods protect the stomach and intestinal lining from damage.
Typically when we age, we see a decline in the production of the digestive juices and enzymes in the stomach. This affects are ability to digest food, hence the reason we experience discomfort such as abdominal pain and bloating. By including fermented foods such as sauerkraut and pickled vegetables our bodies can make up the loss and bring our stomach acid back into balance.
Helps with detoxification
A build-up of toxins in our system can have a drastic effect on our health. During the fermentation process good microorganisms help break down nutrients in the food and create natural chelators. Chelators are small molecules that bind to toxins and heavy metal ions drawing them out and removing them from the body.
If you are first starting to include fermented foods in your diet, it is important to introduce them slowly and not too many at once. This is due to its efficiency at detoxifying the body. Too much and you will experience pretty strong detox symptoms. You need to give your intestinal microbes a chance to adjust to the new environment.
Helps inhibit the growth and destroy pathogenic bacteria
‘Bad’ or pathogenic bacteria are often sensitive to acidic environments making it hard for them to grow and flourish in your system. During a European typhoid fever epidemic in the early 1950’s, fresh sauerkraut was seen to be an effective agent in killing off the typhoid bacteria. Recently in Germany, researchers have discovered a particular strain of lactic acid found in sourdough bread can be extremely effective in destroying unwanted microbes. Although the studies are in their infancy period, results are showing this strain of bacteria can quickly destroy super-bugs that have become resistant to many antibiotics.
As we gain more and more knowledge into the power of good bacteria for our health, we are seeing more and more ways the state of our gut contributes to our overall health. Dysfunctional gut microbiota can impact us in the following ways:
The challenge for us is optimising the healthy bacterial population in the gut to help nourish our bodies and fight invaders capable of causing disease.
A warning before consuming fermented foods
There are some downsides to consuming fermented foods particularly those commercially made. This is that they often contain high amounts of added sugars and salt (sodium).
A lot of the fermented foods you purchase at a supermarkets have been pasteurised and cooked at a high heat. This kills off the good, friendly bacteria defeating the purpose of consuming them in the first place.
Commercially fermented dairy foods do not always contain live cultures of probiotics. You want to be consuming those products with the term ‘live cultures’ on the label to get the full nutritional benefits. Look out for products that include added sugar or flavourings as these will have much higher calories than the plain varieties and should be steered clear off.
Most savoury fermented foods such as pickles, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut contain a pretty high amount of sodium. Try stick with low-sodium products if you are purchasing commercially made fermented foods or better yet, make your own. This enables you to control the amount of salt you add.
Fermented foods you should incorporate in your diet
Clearly, there are some pretty amazing benefits to including fermented foods in your everyday diet. And while, yes they are trendy, it is for good reason. One of the other things I love about fermented foods is that these are truly an inexpensive superfood! Kombucha, kefir, whey and sauerkraut are all cheap to make at home and could be one of the ingredients that give you the biggest bang for your buck! This is because fermented foods can contain up to a 100 times more probiotics than a supplement.
So, here are a list of fermented foods that you should try. Just remember start off with small quantities and listen to your body as fermented foods really do pack a punch!
Kombucha – a great drink containing a variety of microorganisms. If you purchase Kombucha rather than making it yourself, just watch the sugar content.
Sauerkraut – literally fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is one of the simplest fermented foods to make yourself. It has seen to improve brain health including depression and anxiety.
Pickles (not the ones from McDonalds!) – are an easy one to add to a meal and not as harsh on the nose as some fermented foods.
Coconut yogurt – this dairy-free yoghurt is delicious and is packed with enzymes and probiotics. It is a great alternative for those wanting to limit their dairy intake.
Miso – made from fermented soybeans and grains, miso is an awesome fermented food because of its nutritional profile. This is an easy one to add to vegetables or soup.
Kimchi – have a spicy kimchi dish and you will see a boost in energy as well as a noticeable improvement in your skin.
So what do you think? Are you going to join the fermented foods trend?