Why bacteria might be the secret for ultimate health.

By Laura Fisher
October 09, 2019
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Let’s get this out of the way: put simply, fermentation is the process of transforming food by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms. Wait! Before you close your computer in disgust, there are a few things you should know about the process of fermentation and the incredible health benefits it can offer.

Fermentation is used to produce some of our most beloved and common foods, including alcohol, yogurt, and sourdough bread. Not so scary, right? Fermentation is a natural phenomenon that humans have been using for culinary benefits for centuries. All over the world, fermented foods play key roles in diets. Whether it’s kimchi in Korea, Kefir in the Middle East, or sauerkraut in Germany, people all over the globe have long recognized both the deliciousness and potent nutritional benefits. In the past 15 years, fermented foods of all types have begun to gain popularity in the U.S. for these same reasons. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to tap into the ancient wisdom of fermentation.

Benefits of fermented foods

Fermentation occurs naturally when bacteria is given the chance to transform the carbohydrates in food into more elemental forms, such as alcohol or acid. In the case of fermented foods, the live, lactic-acid producing bacteria pre-digest the food, making the nutritional elements more readily available for the body and producing probiotics. Probiotics have been shown to support a healthy gut microbiome, making fermented foods one of the most powerful ways to support your digestive health. And, since gut health is often tied to improving health conditions from heart disease to arthritis, consuming fermented foods regularly could be a big boost to your overall well-being.

An important distinction is that these purported health benefits are tied to naturally fermented foods, as opposed to pickling with vinegar. While both methods are ancient food preserving techniques, only fermentation with live organisms will give you the boost of probiotics you’re seeking for digestive health. You’ll always find fermented products in the refrigerated section of your market and they should have a label stating that they were fermented naturally.

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Best fermented foods for a healthier gut

There are a lot of fermented foods out there, so how to know where to start? Below is a list of the five fermented foods that are commonly found in grocery or health food stores that support a healthy digestive system. It’s important to remember that more is not always better when it comes to consuming fermented foods. In the New York Times bestseller The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz states: “Enjoy fermented foods and beverages in moderation. They have powerful effects and strong flavors and need to be respected. Eat them often rather than in large quantities.”

Kefir

Kefir is a cultured, fermented drink that tastes like an extra tangy yogurt. It has more probiotics and protein than typical yogurt, and can be made with dairy milk or alternatives like almond or coconut milk.

Sauerkraut

Most people are introduced to this German superfood at a summer BBQ as a hot dog topping. What you might not realize is that naturally fermented kraut, which is essentially just cabbage in a saltwater brine, is chock-full of gut-friendly probiotics, fiber, and vitamins.

Kimchi

This Korean superfood is sauerkraut's distant relative. With many of the same health benefits plus a fiery kick from the traditional mix of ginger, garlic, and gochujang (korean chilli paste), kimchi provides a flavorful addition to any meal.

Tempeh

Most people are familiar with tofu, the mild-flavored form of soft soybean. Tempeh, the fermented version, is a whole different experience. The soybeans are fermented and then formed into a dense cake that can be marinated, baked, grilled, or stir fried. The fermentation process breaks down the bean’s proteins into amino acids our bodies can more readily use, making tempeh a nutritional powerhouse.

Kombucha

This is many people’s favorite way to consume fermented foods, and for good reason! Kombucha, essentially sugar and tea that is partially fermented, is delicious, easily found at most stores, and comes in a variety of fun flavors. It can even be used as a cocktail mixer! In addition to probiotics, kombucha has additional health benefits due to the polyphenols present in the green or black tea it’s made from. Polyphenols are present in all tea, but the fermentation process increases their potency, making kombucha the best source for these powerful antioxidants.

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