Fast Facts on Fermented Foods
The Surprising Health Benefits of Fermentation
When you think of superfoods in the health world, pickles and sauerkraut probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. Yet, thanks to numerous studies, we now know that those who regularly include fermented foods in their diet can reap some serious health benefits.
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods are foods and beverages that have been produced through controlled microbial growth, where some of the food’s components are converted into other compounds. The process of fermentation not only naturally preserves foods, extending their shelf life, but it also gives the food a unique taste and texture. While most foods can be fermented – everything from vegetables and fruits to meat, fish, eggs, and nuts – here are a few of the most common fermented foods and drinks you’ll see at your local grocery store:
Many of these foods are considered nutritious in their original forms; however, the process of fermentation offers additional health benefits.
What Are the Health Benefits?
Fermented foods are often – but not always – ripe with probiotics and have been linked to benefits such as better digestion and stronger immunity.
Improves digestive health.
Probiotics that are produced during the process of fermentation can help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut and could alleviate certain digestive problems. For example, research suggests that probiotics may help reduce uncomfortable symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Other digestive issues such as diarrhea, gas, bloating, and constipation can also be improved with the addition of fermented foods in the diet.
The bacteria that call your gut home also affect your immunity. Fermented foods with a high probiotic content can help strengthen your immune system, reducing your risk of infection. If you’re already sick, you might find that symptoms improve more quickly when you consume probiotic-rich foods. Plus, many fermented foods are also high in vitamins and minerals – think vitamin C, zinc, and iron – that are proven to support a healthy immune system.
Makes food more easily digestible.
Fermentation naturally helps break down the nutrients found in food, making fermented food easier to digest than unfermented food. One example of this is milk versus fermented dairy. Fermentation breaks down the lactose in milk to simpler sugars (glucose and galactose), which means those who are lactose-intolerant can more easily digest yogurt and kefir.
Increases nutrient absorption.
There are some natural compounds in food that can actually interfere with nutrient absorption. Dubbed anti-nutrients, these include lectins (found in beans, peanuts, and soybeans) and phytic acid (found in whole grains, legumes, seeds, and some nuts). Fermentation breaks down and destroys these compounds, which makes the nutritional content in certain foods more available to you.
May support heart health.
Fermented foods have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Studies also point to modest reductions in blood pressure and improvements in cholesterol levels.
So, go ahead! Load up that parfait, pack on the pickles, and add tempeh to the menu for your next “Meatless Monday.” You can even experiment with making your own fermented foods at home! Just keep in mind that not all fermented foods are created equal – always check the packaging and look for words like “contains probiotics,” “contains live cultures,” or “naturally fermented” to enjoy the optimal health benefits.