Fermented foods seem to be all the rage these days. From probiotic yogurts, kimchi and lassi to sauerkraut, kefir and fermented soybeans, these typically tangy, sour ‘superfoods’ have been positively associated with digestion, immunity, weight loss and a host of other benefits.
But fermented foods are not a 21st-century fad. In fact, the earliest record of humans eating cultured food is over 8,000 years old. This is not such a surprise when you consider that bacteria, after all, were the first inhabitants on Earth – the underlying living entities from which life flourished.
In this article, we shall summarise the main evidence-backed health benefits of consuming fermented foods. In our view, everyone should look to include fermented foods in the diet – the same way we prioritise vitamin- and mineral-rich vegetables, nutritious fruits, healthy fats and lean proteins.
What is Fermented Food?
Fermentation is a process which sees microorganisms consume sugars and produce acid, alcohol and gases. The majority of ferments are activated by bacteria, yeasts and moulds, and fermentation has been used throughout history as a means of preserving food.
Remember, refrigerators were only invented in the 19th century!
Lactobacillus is the most well-known and well-studied species of bacteria responsible for fermented dairy and vegetables.
Indeed, Lactobacillus is the first kind of bacteria we come into contact with when we are birthed, and it has a huge say in our long-term bacterial composition.
Another species is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is the most common yeast in fermenting.
Yogurt is one example of fermented food. It is made by adding choice bacteria to milk, a plentiful source of the sugar lactose. The bacteria cleverly ferment said lactose, turning it into lactic acid – a natural probiotic preservative.
By producing lactic acid, the microbes deplete the yogurt of its simple sugars and ensure a longer shelf life.
And the probiotic bacteria in the yogurt? They get to interact with your resident microbes when you eat it. Sure, the probiotic content in the vast majority of yogurts is insufficient to promote a meaningful difference in the gut, which is positively teeming with trillions of ingrained microbes – but the science is neat.
Bread is another example – the yeast converts sugar to carbon dioxide, which causes bread to rise. Alas, bread is not a probiotic.
The best fermented food sources, in addition to those included in the introduction, include tempeh, natto, kombucha, miso, Chinese pickles, kvass, raw cheese, apple cider vinegar with “the mother” and sourdough bread.
10 Benefits of Fermented Foods
It’s worth noting that significant cohort studies conducted throughout northern Europe have shown that fermented milk products are significantly associated with decreased disease states, including heart disease, bladder cancer and periodontitis.
In this section, we’ll highlight 10 meaningful benefits of fermented foods.
1. Food preservation
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of fermenting food is that you’ll be able to keep your edibles viable for longer. The conversion of starch and sugar into alcohol or acids has a powerful preserving effect, and also lends fermented foods their quintessentially tart flavour.
2. Better digestion (including for IBS)
One of the most notable advantages of eating fermented foods, including probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods, is improved digestion, since the sugars and starches in food are broken down during the fermentation process. And yes, this benefit even applies to those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.
One 2018 study found that lacto-fermented sauerkraut reduced the IBS-Symptom Severity Score (IBS-SSS) among Norwegian patients. Researchers attributed the results to the sauerkraut’s prebiotic content, rather than lactic acid.
That said, probiotics are important. A paper published the same year, entitled The Role of Bacteria, Probiotics and Diet in Irritable Bowel Syndrome, noted that based on current evidence, “multi-strain probiotics, at a concentration of 10 billion CFU/day or less, offer the best chance of improving abdominal pain, global symptoms, and crucially, quality of life in IBS sufferers.”
3. Nutrient creation
Microbial cultures present in fermented foods are terrific nutrient drivers, helping to synthesise short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), vitamin K, and B vitamins such as niacin, biotin and thiamine. These are produced from non-vitamin precursors due to the actions of various enzymes from microbial species.
What’s more, fermentation enhances the antioxidant capacity of phenolic compounds.
4. Toxin removal
One of the great things about fermentation is that it can eliminate naturally-occurring toxins present in some foods, rendering them safe to eat.
Due to its low cost, household fermentation has been used extensively in impoverished regions of he world to make foods such as cereals, legumes, fruit and vegetables safe to consume.
5. High energy and nutrient content
Fermented foods often boast a higher quantity of convertible energy than non-fermented foods of the same weight. Adding such energy-dense foods to your diet is an indubitably good idea.
The nutrient content of fermented foods is also considerable, with a healthy assortment of vitamins and minerals common in most options.
Sauerkraut, for example, is rich in fibre, brimming with vitamins A, C, K and several B vitamins, and also a source of iron.
6. Great for diabetes
One of the reasons fermented foods are often recommended for diabetics is because the carbohydrates therein have been broken down or pre-digested. As such, they do not overload the pancreas, unlike regular carbs.
It goes beyond that though: dysbiosis (an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut) has been repeatedly associated with insulin resistance in studies.
We do not yet know if an imbalanced microbiome is cause or effect, but it certainly exposes a link between the state of the gut and diabetic markers.
In a 2018 paper entitled A Mini Review on Antidiabetic Properties of Fermented Foods, researchers noted that “not all fermented products have antidiabetic properties. Several factors such as the fermentation process, the microbial strain involved in the fermentation, and the raw materials used play a critical role in the bioactivity of the finished product.”
The paper highlighted impressive antidiabetic effects achieved by fermented legumes, fermented soybeans, fresh Jerusalem artichoke, kombucha, kimchi and kefir.
7. Bolsters gut health
Aside from the general benefits to digestive health, fermented foods can also stimulate a positive change in the microbiome, by boosting the numbers of health-promoting bacteria living there.
When consuming probiotic-rich fermented foods, you are introducing friendly microbes and enzymes to your resident intestinal flora, thereby increasing (even temporarily) gut diversity.
8. Improved nutrient absorption
There is some evidence to suggest that fermentation increases the bioavailability of iron, specifically by reducing the phytic acid content which disrupts our ability to absorb iron. Phytic acid also reduces our absorption of zinc, so that’s another nutrient we’re maximising when we eat fermented food.
Certain fermented foods have their own unique benefits and yogurt is a good example. The number of available amino acids in yogurt are increased with fermentation due to the pre-digestion of milk proteins by microbial cultures – thereby facilitating better absorption.
Amino acids, of course, are key building blocks of muscle and they are commonly taken in supplement form by strength-based athletes and bodybuilders.
9. Stronger immunity
Around 70% of your immune system is in the gut. As such, promoting better conditions here is vital if you wish to keep your immunity tip-top.
Reinforcing the immune system via fermented foods is a no-brainer, and in 2019 we took a step closer to understanding why, when researchers discovered that humans (and great apes) “possess a receptor on their cells that detects metabolites from bacteria commonly found in fermented foods and triggers movement of immune cells.”
According to study author Claudia Stäubert, “this receptor very likely mediates some beneficial and anti-inflammatory effects of lactic acid bacteria in humans.”
10. Improved flavour and texture
Fermented foods look and taste different, and given how tough it can be to stick to a healthy diet, fermented foods can help to ‘spice’ up an otherwise boring eating regimen. Don’t take our word for it, though: try it for yourself.
Just remember that not all fermented foods are equal. You want the kind that contain lovely health-promoting probiotics, so look for the words “naturally fermented” on the product label. The natural fermentation process using live organisms is what you need, but some fermented foods are heat-treated – which kills off the good stuff!
What About Fermented Supplements?
It is quite clear that fermented foods, at the very least, can have a positive impact on our health – one that can be attributed to more than just the nutrients they contain.
Supplement manufacturers have recognised the transformative potential of fermentation to pioneer novel food products which may provide similar effects to those outlined above.
By traditionally fermenting ingredients which already have a great deal of supportive evidence behind their therapeutic use (turmeric, mushrooms), the belief is that the antioxidant, probiotic or general nutrient content of the ingredients is amplified.
Fermented supplements comprise grab-and-go snacks such as health bars, as well as capsules and powders which are mixed with water. With digestion and nutrient absorption key considerations when selecting any supplement, fermented products represent a smart choice.
Is it any wonder the ancient Egyptians consumed fermented products over 8,000 years ago? Absolutely not: they were definitely on to something!
In light of its historic usage, it is amusing to hear people refer to fermented foods as a fad or some sort of scam “trend”. But it’s true that the research into fermented foods, and gut health more generally, has piled up in recent years.
Whether you’re an avid fermentation enthusiast or a newcomer to the possibilities of fermented foods, we commend your interest in the topic. Hopefully you’ve learned something useful from our article. Go spread the word!
Water for Health Ltd began trading in 2007 with the goal of positively affecting the lives of many. We still retain that mission because we believe that proper hydration and nutrition can make a massive difference to people’s health and quality of life. Click here to find out more.
Fermented foods are not a 21st-century fad. In fact, the earliest record of humans eating cultured food is over 8,000 years old.