Fermented foods are making a resurgence in the modern diet. A recent scientific review attests to their importance in the promotion of dietary wellness. The authors of the paper note that fermented foods have been a valuable part of the human diet for thousands of years. In recent times the health benefits of these traditional foods have become a popular topic of discussion. These days, prominent doctors and nutritional experts frequently sing their praises. Still, there’s plenty of work to be done as many food guides and textbooks have yet to embrace fermented foods in a prominent capacity.
Historically, fermentation has been used as a means of natural preservation. Each region of the world features different forms of fermented foods which are prepared in a variety of ways. Typically, they involve the inclusion of active cultures (probiotics) and/or salt and, most importantly, the passage of time.
The resulting products are foods such as kefir, kimchi, natto and sauerkraut. If you don’t care for any of the previously mentioned options, don’t worry! Homemade fermentation allows almost anyone to create cultured treats from produce of all kinds. Think beets, carrots, kombucha and pickles.
In Europe and the United States, a large percentage of commercial fermentation and scientific research has been focused on cultured dairy products. Part of the reason is that a growing body of evidence now draws a connection between beneficial gut bacteria and numerous health conditions. Perhaps that’s why adding fermented dairy to one’s diet has been linked to a decreased likelihood of gastrointestinal and psychological symptoms, such as relief of constipation, neuroticism and social anxiety. In addition, fermented dairy has been shown to improve immune response to the flu vaccine in seniors while promoting insulin sensitivity in non-diabetics and healthier, long-term blood sugar (HbA1C) in type 2 diabetics. If you don’t react well to dairy, rest assured. Currently, there are several viable options on the market. My favorite is cultured coconut i.e. coconut kefir and yogurt. Although, almond and soy-based alternatives are also available.
Kimchi, a traditional Korean staple, is another non-dairy alternative made from cabbage and/or other vegetables and spices. Modern research reveals that this fermented side dish positively alters gene expression and gut microbiota in ways that benefit the cardiovascular system and lower diabetic risk.
When considering kimchi, it’s important to look for products that have been adequately fermented. This ripe form of kimchi, often referred to as “live” or “raw”, must be stocked in the refrigerated section as it is "alive" and perishable. How else is it different? Simply put, it boasts greater antioxidant content and is teaming with probiotics, which possess therapeutic potential. Please note that kimchi can be spicy, so be sure to read product labels carefully for added ingredients such as chili peppers that bring the heat!
Fermented foods play an important role in my own diet and would likely benefit most people. Still, there are a few noteworthy caveats. The fermentation process can render foods more digestible. A common example is the use of fermented baby formula in sensitive infants. But that doesn’t mean that fermented foods are necessarily hypo- or non-allergenic. In fact, it’s possible to have a negative reaction to a fermented version of a food even if you do fine with the unfermented version. As a general rule, I would suggest starting off slowly, using small amounts of fermented foods and avoiding any questionable ingredients.
Practically speaking, if you don’t do well with dairy, be careful with kefir or yogurt. A similar parallel can be applied to soy in the form of miso and natto. Remember that there are many choices when it comes to fermented foods. If dairy or soy isn’t right for you, fermented papaya, sauerkraut and even fermented sauces can help introduce this valuable class of food into your diet without any unnecessary risk.
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
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