Photo courtesy of: @WrightKitchen
If you’re at all interested in health or nutrition, you’ve probably heard people raving about the benefits of fermented foods. We’re fans of ferments (things like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, pickles and miso), but like anything, it’s important to have a good, thorough understanding about why things are so good for you. Sure, they contain probiotics, which are good for the immune system—but what does that really mean? How exactly do fermented foods benefit your health?
Fermented foods undergo a chemical process called (you guessed it!) fermentation. In this process, sugars and carbohydrates are converted into an acid or an alcohol. This process preserves the food, and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, various strains of probiotics , and Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are a good source of lignans – compounds that may have a weak estrogen effect. When a weak estrogen-like substance takes the place of your body’s natural strong estrogen in a breast cell’s estrogen receptor, then the weak substance can act as a relative anti-estrogen. By acting in this way, lignans are thought to help work against breast cancer that depends on estrogen for its growth.
Fermentation naturally occurs in some foods and is a process that’s been used by humans for thousands of years; Early people used fermentation as a way to preserve food. Everyone is familiar with some fermented foods like beer, sauerkraut and pickles, but there’s been an increased interest in less common ferments, too, like kefir.
Most people have a general idea that ferments pack a healthy punch because they’re full of probiotics: good, living bacteria that support optimal function in our digestive tracts. It’s common to hear that probiotics supplements are important and that you should eat yogurt to replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are thought to be important for all kinds of aspects of our health, including our immune system. Some scientists say up to 80% of our immune system is contained within our gut, so having a good balance of probiotics can help with everything from staving off illness to healing from infections.
Casey Seidenberg of the Washington Post has an interesting way of explaining the relationship between fermentation and digestion:
“Imagine a fermented food as a partially digested food. For instance, many people have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk. When milk is fermented and becomes yogurt or kefir, the lactose is partially broken down so it becomes more digestible. When our digestion is functioning properly and we are absorbing and assimilating all the nutrients we need, our immune system tends to be happy, and thus better equipped to wage war against disease and illness.”
Cultures around the world have been eating fermented foods for years, from Sauerkraut in Germany to Kimichi in Korea and everywhere in between. It’s time to hop on the bandwagon and try out some of these probiotic powerhouses. Ready to see what these superfoods can do for you? Here are seven to try now:
A fizzy, fermented black tea that’s no stranger to New Yorkers, kombucha gives you a bang for your bacterial buck because of the variety of microorganisms it contains. “When you drink a bottle of kombucha, you’re drinking four to seven microorganisms all at once, building a really strong gut,” explains Michael Schwartz, the fermented-foodie founder of BAO Food And Drink. Just watch the sugar.
Turns out you should put sauerkraut, AKA fermented cabbage, on way more than your tofu dogs. It has a powerful impact on brain health, including depression and anxiety. “There’s a tremendous connection between gut and brain health,” explains Dr. Ramsey. If you’re the DIY type, try making your own. (Here’s an easy recipe!) Unlike non-refrigerated, store-bought varieties, homemade ‘kraut has no chemical preservatives or added sugar.
Pickles are the gateway ferment. Not only do they provide a healthy dose of probiotics, they’re a familiar food item and have a taste that many people already love—including those who may hold their nose at the idea of eating fermented foods.
Kimberley Snyder, celebrity nutritionist and author of The Beauty Detox Foods, loves coconut yogurt, because it’s a delicious, dairy-free way to work plenty of enzymes and probiotics into your diet. Though Greek and regular yogurt are also fermented foods, Snyder is less enthusiastic about them. “Dairy is extremely acid-forming in the body and difficult to digest,” she explains.
Jeff Cox, author of The Essential Book of Fermentation, loves miso for its nutritional profile. The paste made from fermented soybeans and grains is “full of essential minerals, like potassium, and consists of millions of microorganisms giving us strength and stamina,” he says. To make miso soup, just add a dollop to boiling water, along with some favorite vegetables, like onions, bok choy, or mushrooms.
Tempeh (fermented soybeans) is a complete protein with all of the amino acids, says Cox. He suggests using it as a yummy substitute for bacon in BLTs. Try flavoring organic tempeh with sometamari (also fermented), then add it to a sandwich with tomato, lettuce, and toast. Or eat it tossed in a bowl of steamed veggies.
Think of this spicy Korean dish—typically made from fermented cabbage—as a beauty food, as well as an energy-booster, says Snyder. It can help “enhance digestion and nutrient assimilation,” she explains. “You may also notice, with improved digestion, an improvement in the look of your skin.”