Every day we wash our hands. We use hand sanitizers. We sneeze into the crook of our elbows, and during flu season we try not to shake hands. We do all this to avoid bacteria because everyone knows bacteria is bad for you, right? Not always. Along with a rise in the sale of hand sanitizers, recent years have also seen a resurgence in the consumption of fermented foods. These foods include things like kefir, yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi.
So what are fermented foods exactly, and are they really any good for you?
In fermented foods, the sugars and carbohydrates interact in such a way that the chemistry of the food is completely changed. Grain turns into bread, fruit turns into wine, and plain cucumbers turn into pickles. Think of this change as the food being partially digested by the compounds in the vinegars, yeasts, or healthy bacteria that are working the process of fermentation.
Once this “partially digested” food hits your stomach, your body has less of a job to do. Because the chemistry of the food actually changes, in some cases fermentation may help some people digest foods to which they were previously sensitive. Kefir is a yogurt drink where the lactose is broken down almost completely by fermentation, which means that lactose-intolerant people may be able to get the benefits of dairy with less lactose.
Help with digestion means that the body can more readily absorb the nutrients in food instead of having to work so hard to break it down. And if getting adequate nutrition from partially broken down foods isn’t enough reason to try them, fermented foods also support beneficial bacteria. This beneficial bacteria is crucial for digestion, but we eliminate it constantly with our anti-bacterial soaps and foods loaded with antibiotics (which don’t know how to distinguish good bacteria from bad). Fermented foods like kefir and kombucha contain probiotics, which are those healthy bacteria in your gut. So are fermented foods actually good for you, or are they another case of trendy food hype?
The research on this one is very clear: fermented foods have tremendous health benefits.
Here are some of the fermented foods that are great for your health, and why.
Yogurt and kefir
Some fermented foods contain probiotics, beneficial bacteria that are found in fermented milks like yogurt and kefir (pronounced “kuh-FEAR”). Research has shown that consuming kefir has been linked to lower incidence of allergies, lower incidence of lactose intolerance, and a reduced risk of some kinds of cancers. This same research showed improvement in the overall health of the intestinal tract.
Other studies indicate that not only do the probiotics found in fermented foods successfully treat intestinal upset due to traveling or antibiotic use, but they also help soothe inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s and colitis. In addition to causing pain, inflammation has been linked to everything from diabetes to depression. Probiotics seem to have a pacifying and healing effect on this type of illness in the gut.
It is important to note that the probiotics Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain GG and Saccharomyces boulardii are the ones with the most researched and proven benefits.
Kombucha is a fermented and sweetened black tea that has been in use in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory for over 2,000 years. This fermentation process seems to increase the level of antioxidants present in the black tea, and studies have indicated that it shows great anti-diabetic properties and seems to heal tissue damage in laboratory animals. There is some indication that kombucha lowers stress and anxiety, and the good microbes in this fermented tea perform the same probiotic functions as yogurt and kefir.
Kimchi (a.k.a. kimchee)
Kimchi is a spicy, fermented cabbage that originated in 7th century Korea. This method of preserving was a way to store crops (cabbage specifically) over the winter, but now it is popping up all over the world as a spicy addition to sandwiches, fried rice, and soups. But is it any good for you, or is it just delicious?
In preliminary studies it seems that not only does kimchi have anti-obesity properties, but the Lactobacillus present in the fermented cabbage also lowers cholesterol and fights hard against the bad microbes in the gut (like those that cause food poisoning). Kimchi may even make your skin healthier.
A note of caution: one study did find an increase in the risk of gastric cancer. Moderate consumption should not pose a problem, but, as always, check with your doctor first.
Starting out with fermented foods
Pain patients or patients under a doctor’s care for another health condition should always talk to their doctor before making any major dietary changes. If you are interested in adding fermented foods to your diet, here are some ways to start.
Seek out a reputable supplier: Talk to your local health food store to get more information on fermented foods. As with all food, different companies use slightly different processes, and the taste can vary. You may need to sample several different kinds to find which suits your taste best.
Start slowly: While yogurt and kefir are fairly innocuous ways to incorporate fermented foods into your diet, kombucha and kimchi can cause stomach discomfort in the beginning. This is due, in part, to the die-off of bad bacteria in your stomach, bacteria that is replaced by the healthy microbes in the food. Intestinal discomfort should be mild and should only last for a day or two.
Fermented foods are more than just a food trend. They have research-proven benefits to your health and can be a healing part of your diet. Which will you try first?
Image by Chloe Lim via Flickr