Simply delicious and easy to make—and so good for your health.
When most of us decide to add “good” bacteria to our diet, we typically turn to probiotic supplements and yogurt. Good choices to be sure, but not the only ones available. Look beyond the dairy aisle to fermented foods, which teem with healthy, good-for-you bacteria.
Why focus on bacteria-rich foods? Because they do everything from helping to promote optimal digestion to allowing our bodies to absorb more vitamins and minerals from foods. Digestive issues affect an estimated 60 million to 70 million Americans, and fermented foods can help combat problems like irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance. “Good digestion is a key part of overall health and immunity,” says Nancy Lee Bentley, a holistic health expert and author of Truly Cultured, a fermented-foods cookbook. “And fermented foods can help set the stage for healing.”
How? It’s the classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys scenario: Our digestive tract is chock-full of bacteria, and if the good kind don’t balance out the bad, we can get sick—think constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome.
“We have more microorganisms inside our digestive system than we have cells in our body,” says Daemon Jones, ND, a naturopath in Washington, DC, and author of Delicious! Recipes for Vibrant Living. “The probiotics in fermented foods actually reproduce themselves in the digestive tract, crowding out the bad bacteria.”
But there’s more. Not only do fermented foods work to offset the bad bacteria in our gut, they actually help unlock important nutrients within the food they inhabit—vitamins and minerals that might otherwise pass through our system unabsorbed. For example, the bacteria in the starter culture of sourdough bread weaken the walls of the starch cells in the wheat, setting free a healthy dose of vitamins for the body to absorb.
In fact, because of the way these bacteria unlock nutrients, most nutritionists agree that the fermented version of any given food is generally more healthful than its progenitor. Take fermented cabbage or sauerkraut as an example.
“Cabbage has a lot of nutrients and fiber, plus glutamine, which is good for the digestive tract,” says Jones. “But once cabbage is fermented, it’s more easily digested, because it’s predigested by microorganisms.” Sauerkraut also increases the healthy flora in your digestive tract, has more isothiocyanates (anti-cancerous substances) than regular cabbage, and helps you better absorb vitamin C. “So cabbage is good for you,” says Jones, “but sauerkraut is a stronger health food.”
A surprising number of foods have fermented alter egos, each with its own healthful properties. For example, kefir, a fermented milk drink popular in Eastern Europe, may fight allergies and improve lactose intolerance in adults. Fermenting black beans reduces flatulence and increases nutrient absorption. Yogurt that contains live cultures can help relieve constipation in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, boost overall immunity, and help prevent vaginal infections. Studies show that the isothiocyanates in miso help prevent breast cancer, and in moderation, alcoholic beverages protect against heart disease and decrease the risk of stroke, some cancers, and diabetes. The message, say nutritionists, is clear: Incorporate a wide variety of fermented foods in your diet to take advantage of all the good things they have to offer.
Make Your Own
Not all fermented foods are created equal, however—nor do they all contain the full range of health benefits. “There’s a difference between homemade fermented foods and commercial fermented foods,” says Jones. “One big concern is that the healthful qualities—the good bacteria—are diminished in commercial fermented foods because of mass production.” Some commercial products, like sauerkraut and cheese, undergo pasteurization, which kills the good bacteria as well as the bad. And some also contain loads of sugar, the perfect food for trouble-causing yeast bacteria.
To avoid these issues, check product labels for the words organic and contains live and active cultures, says Bentley. They give you the best shot at getting a pure, unpasteurized product. Even better: Make your own. “Culturing is easier than you might think,” says Bentley. “Some recipes—like hard cheese or artisanal beer—are complicated. But many fermented foods, like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha tea, are simple and convenient to make at home.”
Making your own generally costs less, too. Homemade yogurt or sauerkraut costs a fraction of the amount you can spend each month on good probiotic pills. “People are intimidated by the idea of culturing their own food,” says Bentley, “but most fermenting is really about waiting. The process takes care of itself.”
Finding Fermented Foods
Many fermented foods—cheese, pickles, microbrewed beer, wine, sauerkraut, prosciutto, and yogurt—are easily found at the grocery store. Want to make your own or track down a hard-to-find item? Try our resources here:
- Kefir: A fermented milk drink; buy the grains at www.happyherbalist.com.
- Kimchi: A spicy Korean fermented cabbage; make your own or buy a fresh jar in your grocery store or Asian market.
- Kombucha: A fermented tea beverage; buy a starter at www.happyherbalist.com.
- Miso: A Japanese soy paste that takes 6 to 12 months to ferment; buy it at Asian stores. A rule of thumb: the lighter the paste, the less pungent the taste.
- Sourdough: Buy a starter at www.kingarthurflour.com.
- Tempeh: A fermented soybean staple in Indonesia; buy a starter at a natural or Asian store, or in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.
- Tamari: A fermented soybean sauce similar to soy sauce; find it in the soy sauce aisle in your grocery store.
By Gretchen Roberts