Experts agree that fermented foods are a healthy choice. The importance of a healthy gut microbiome has resulted in an explosion of “health food” options on supermarket shelves; however, are all fermented foods good for you? There is good evidence that fermented foods can help in some ways, but you need to be careful when choosing which foods, you eat.
What are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods are defined as foods or beverages produced through controlled microbial growth, and the conversion of food components through enzymatic action. Fermentation usually takes place in an oxygen free environment. The beneficial bacteria eat part of the ingredients. Examples of common fermented foods and drinks include kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, and yoghurt.
Why are Fermented Foods good for the gut?
Fermented foods can be beneficial for four main reasons:
- Because fermented foods feed bacteria they usually use prebiotic ingredients. For example kimchi is made by fermenting high fibre vegetables.
- The bacteria used to ferment foods are usually probiotic. Traditional fermented foods keep these bacteria alive as part of the process. The live bacteria enter the gut when you eat the foods.
- When the ingredients are fermented postbiotics are produced. Apple cider vinegar for example has essential short chain fatty acids.
- Fermentation preserves food. Fermenting directly after picking allows gives the ingredients the highest level of micronutrients.
But is there any Proof?
A common criticism of fermented foods is that the bacteria used are not specifically known probiotic strains. This is true but not necessarily important. A diverse microbiome is known to have significant medical benefits outside of any specific bacterial content. In addition several studies have been performed on fermented foods for medicinal benefits. These studies show an improvement to outcomes for Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Fermented foods are also reported to alleviate symptoms of IBS and help ease the negative impact of antibiotics. On balance the benefits of adding naturally fermented foods to your diet are scientifically backed.
Fermented foods are not all created equal.
It is undeniable that naturally fermented foods are a healthy choice. They have little sugar when made properly and are a useful source of micronutrients. However, many commercial products trick consumers by hiding unhealthy choices behind a fermented food claim. They do this several ways:
- Fermented drinks that use filtering techniques or pasteurisation kills the active probiotic bacteria.
- Commercially pickled foods that use chemical pickling techniques. These foods not only have no beneficial bacteria but are often high in salt and sugar.
- Fermented drinks with added sugar, such as kombucha. Commercial operators add sugars and flavours to give the products a more “traditional” soft drink taste. Naturally fermented kombucha should taste sour, not sweet.
- Very few commercially available yoghurts have live bacteria strains, and most of them have either sugar and/or artificial flavours added to appeal to a modern palette.
Fermented foods can be good for you if selected properly but it is important to remember:
- Properly prepared fermented foods have a positive effect to the microbiome and your overall health.
- Many commercial products are “pseudo” fermented foods that are not prepared properly.
- Be aware that even fermented foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt can be unhealthy.
- Making your own fermented foods is a fantastic way to get this healthy choice.