Why Are Fermented Foods Good For You?
I get this question all the time, but it comes in a few different flavors:
Are fermented foods really good for you?
Why do you believe fermented foods are an important part for overall health and wellness?
Why are they good for you/What's the secret?
First of all, yes!!
Fermented foods are really good for you! I have worked with people who have all different kinds of ailments - psoriasis, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), depression, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) to name just a few - resolved by switching over to a diet full of fermented foods.
Growing up in Ukraine, fermented foods are part of everyday life, and often taken for granted. I know I did until I came to America where the usage of fermented foods is very limited. Beyond yogurt, it is hard to find foods that are fermented here. Sure, kombucha is growing in popularity, but there are so many ways to incorporate fermented foods in your diet, which you can check out some yummy recipes here.
A Fermented Past
Before we dive into the why it's good for you, let's talk some history. Before the 1920s when refrigeration became readily available, there were only a few methods to preserve foods:
Can/Jar it - required a lot of equipment, time and space
Store foods in a cellar or an 'ice house' packed with sawdust and ice chunks imported from colder climates - again, space was tough and had to access to ice.
Salting, smoking, or drying out of foods - but this also reduced some of the nutrients present in the fresh food.
Lastly, ferment the food in order to make it shelf-stable for a much longer time frame.
Fermentation is the only method of preservation where more nutrients are added to the foods. More on this later.
Depending upon culture and location, fermented foods come in a variety of forms. For example, outside of Korea, many people have heard of kimchi for its powerful smell and taste, but most may not realize that it's due to lactic acid bacteria being able to proliferate in its salty brine. For a fun twist on kimchi, try my cucumber kimchi recipe, as seen in the photo above. Not too far away from my homeland of Ukraine, in the Caucasus Mountains, kefir 'grains' produce a yogurt-like fermented product known as kefir. In my adult-aged classes, I do workshops on how to make and use kefir.
In America, adoption of refrigeration and other industrial practices reduced the prevalence of fermented products. By the 1990s, one of the only fermented products regularly eaten by Americans was yogurt. Even so, yogurt on the store shelves by and large lacked any live and active bacterial strains in it. However, as our diets became more constrained to processed foods, so did many of the problems associated with those types of foods. Americans began to search and demand better.
Cut to today, where we have more and more people who are realizing the importance of the microbiome - or the flora of bacteria and fungi that populate our intestinal tracts. Taking care of those microorganisms can mean everything from getting rid of excess weight to reducing the prevalence of depression. But the suppliment industry has become aware of the importance of microbiome, as can be seen from the hundreds of expensive pills, tinctures, and other mediums that promise easy transformation.
I do not believe in the need for expensive pill regimens. I believe there is a more natural, cheaper path towards wellness that involves using whole, non-processed foods, as well as fermented food products that you can do at home. The biggest sacrifice one has to make is time and a willingness to view food differently.
~ I believe there is a more natural, cheaper path towards wellness that involves using whole, non-processed foods, as well as fermented food products that you can do at home.
A Different Path
Fermented foods does not have to be weird, crazy food that you would never want to touch. I believe that so deeply that I created this blog to provide people with recipes that inspire and will delight your palette. There are lot's of small, profound changes you can make to your cooking habits to create lasting changes in your diet. Take a look at some of my recipes on fermented products like this soughdough almond butter rolls with pumpkin and cinnamon, and hopefully you'll see something you want to try.
So what are the health benefits of fermented foods? Here are some benefits of milk kefir, as pulled from a WebMD article:
Those friendly bacteria reduce flatulence, promote motility of the bowels (ahh, regularity!) and offer relief to upset stomachs. And the benefits continue well after you've polished off a serving. The bacteria and yeast in kefir -- unlike those in yogurt -- can actually colonize your gastrointestinal tract and stay there for a long period of time.
Research has found that kefir contains kefiran, a polysaccharide associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol in animal studies. It's also loaded with B vitamins and tryptophan, which fend off stress and produce a calming effect. Who doesn't need that?
If you're one of the 30 to 50 million Americans who struggle with lactose intolerance, kefir may be a good option for you. The fermentation process removes most of the irritating lactose from the milk.
As for kimchi, beyond the probiotic benefits that all fermented products have, nutritionists have found that kimchi may also:
Boost your immune health
Improve heart health
Support brain health
Lastly, Is it safe?
Fermented foods are safe to consume as long as you practice good hygiene. Use fresh ingredients! Try to source organic products, too. Fermented foods is not just a polite way to say, "rotten food," as I once had a workshop attendee tell me.
There are some potential issues of the bacteria and fungi present in fermented foods that might negatively affect those who are immunosuppressed, as referenced in this NYTimes article. Also, lacto-fermented products use a good amount of salt, so those with high blood pressure could be at risk. Therefore, as with anything related to diet and health, I urge you to speak with your doctor to make sure fermented foods can work for you.
If you're interested in experimenting with fermented foods, take a look at my recipes section. You can search specifically for fermented foods in the search bar. Also, if you're in the Beaufort, SC area, please come to one of my events! Lastly, you can also reach out to me by filling out a form on the contact page.