In 2021 a Stanford University research team found that a diet rich in fermented foods increased subjects’ microbiome diversity and reduced signs of inflammation that resulted from rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and stress. Those are big health benefits from just a little jar of sauerkraut. Of course, there’s more to fermented foods beyond that favorite German side dish. Probiotics can be found in a number of fermented products and can aid not only in reducing inflammation, but in boosting the immune system and aiding in weight reduction, too.
What is fermentation?
Though different cultures across the globe had been making and eating fermented foods for centuries, it was French chemist Louis Pasteur who offered up the first scientific description of this process, used to preserve food with a short shelf life like dairy or certain fresh vegetables. Fermentation occurs when yeast and bacteria break down the natural sugars in a substance — it’s also the process used to make wine, beer, and cider. This anaerobic activity (meaning that it occurs in the absence of air) encourages the growth and activity of healthy microbes that live on the starches and sugars contained in the food which in turn produce organic acids that help to keep the food from rotting.
What fermented foods can do for your health
The bacteria involved in fermentation are often referred to as probiotics and studies (like this one from the scientific journal Nutrition) show that they can have a positive impact on gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, inflammatory bowel diseases, and liver diseases. In a study published in The Lancet, probiotics demonstrated an ability to enhance weight loss. Benefits to the immune system were also reported in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.
Types of fermented foods to work into your diet
Dairy products like kefir, yogurt, labneh, cottage cheese, certain types of sour cream, and acidophilus milks like Bio-K are all fermented and easy to work into meals. Breakfast smoothie bowls that feature low-sugar probiotic-rich yogurts as the star ingredient are a great way to start off the day. Lunch time options are just as easy: add a scoop of cottage cheese to a salad or have labneh alongside hummus and raw vegetables.
Fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut (be sure to avoid the canned variations and shop the brands in the refrigerated section) are another path to good gut health. Treat yourself to a Reuben sandwich piled with sauerkraut or add kimchi to a grilled cheese or a burger to spice up your dinner — though this Korean fermented cabbage and radish dish is delicious on its own. In search of more flavor? Miso is a fermented paste that adds an umami savoriness to everything from glazes to broths to salad dressings. And if you’re looking for a way to reduce the amount of meat in your diet, then Tempeh is the perfect substitute — it offers a ton of protein and it’s a fermented food.
Finally, sipping on kombucha, a fermented tea, is one of the easiest ways to include fermented foods into your diet — just be sure to seek out a low-sugar variety in your favourite flavor.
What to look for on the label
In terms of their health benefits, not all fermented foods are created equal. In order for them to have a real impact on gut health, the items you choose should be very low in added sugar (your gut’s microbes aren’t a fan of too much sugar) and should be uncooked (since heat can kill the beneficial microbes you’re looking for). Look at labels and scan for the words “live active cultures” to be sure that you’re getting the health benefits you’re paying for.