Kombucha, kefir, kimchi: these foreign-sounding fermented products are getting a lot of buzz for their health benefits. If you haven’t tried any of these yet, start now! A diet rich in fermented foods helps strengthen the digestive system and bolsters the immune system, perfect for this time of seasonal change. Here are some reasons to give fermentation a chance.
Alcohol, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt and cheese are just a few products that would not be possible without fermentation. Fermentation is the chemical process by which sugars are converted to alcohols and carbon dioxide. Humans have been fermenting everything from grapes to grains and dairy for over four millennia. One practical reason for doing this was that fermentation allowed various foodstuffs to store for months or longer at room temperature – no refrigerator necessary.
Another reason was health: fermented foods provide a host of beneficial bacteria in the stomach, helping to protect the body from harmful bacteria. Lab studies have shown that these probiotic – “for life” – bacteria have prevented animals from being infected with E. coli and salmonella.
Relish the Nutrients
Eating fermented foods, which have effectively been predigested by helpful microorganisms, is easier on the stomach than eating the same foods raw – contributing to better absorption of nutrients. Keep in mind: you can ingest tons of nutrients, but unless your body actually absorbs them, they’re useless to you. For instance, cabbage is extremely rich in nutrients, but in raw form, it can be difficult to digest and often causes gas. When cabbage is fermented in the form of kimchi, however, it is much easier to digest and thus, we can more readily assimilate its high amounts of vitamin K and C, as well as the polyphenols and antioxidants. Dairy and hearty vegetables are also made more nutritious and readily digestible by fermentation. Yogurt, kefir and cheese lose most of their lactose in the process of fermentation, which can contribute to easier digestion.
Also, fermentation actively creates several highly energizing and detoxifying vitamins, such as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, B complex vitamins, digestive enzymes, and immune system-enhancing beta glucans. Glutathione is also a byproduct of fermentation, and because it is the leading free radical scavenger in the brain. So, yes, everything from your stomach to your immunity to your brain and teeth can be improved by eating fermented foods.
By providing your gut with healthy bacteria or “cultures”, like L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and Bifidobacterium bifidus, your whole digestive system’s function may improve. The fermentation process gives your gut more of the necessary bacteria to effectively digest foods, and certain strains of these bacteria – particularly those from kefir – continue protecting and reproducing in the intestinal walls long after the food is consumed. The probiotics naturally found in such fermented foods have been incredibly beneficial in multiple studies focused around treating a variety of conditions, including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and high cholesterol.
How to Bring Fermentation into Your Diet
These days, commercially fermented foods are lacking the healthy bacteria benefits because they are made differently. Modern bread is usually made with commercial yeast instead of wild yeast, and pickles and sauerkraut are now made with vinegar instead of the traditional lacto-fermentation methods. However, you can tap into the real benefits of fermented food by choosing sourdough bread, kefir, and kombucha in the market. Look for naturally fermented pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce, and other naturally fermented versions of these foods in health food stores. Or get adventurous and make your own!