Fermented foods and beverages are another way to increase the probiotics in our gut, therefore increasing our gut and overall health. They are a great addition to taking probiotics.
Before I began immersing myself in the study of gut health, after my son was sick five years ago, I instinctively was having him take probiotics after his month long, heavy duty course of antibiotics. I tell the longer story in other places, but the short version is that my son began having severe behavioral issues after he came off the antibiotics that healed is Osteomyelitis (a staphylococcus
bone infection), just as he was beginning first grade.
When nothing I was trying made a signicant difference, I put him on a type of elimination diet I had come across. I also began feeding him sauerkraut, which he loved and began making homemade kombucha in addition to the homemade yogurt I had always made, which he also liked.
I'm sure that those foods and drinks contributed to the healing his digestive system and the "return" of my son.
What Exactly are Fermented Foods?
Fermentation is the process of the chemical breakdown of food by bacteria, yeast, or other microorganisms.
Of course, beer, wine, and liquor is made by the fermentation of sugars and there are some health benefits associated with some of these alcoholic beverages, the most well known being the antioxidants in red wine.
However, there is a separate group of fermented foods and beverages, that has been gaining popularity for it's health benefits. This group includes milk kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, kombucha, water kefir, and coconut milk kefir.
History of Fermented Foods
The earliest record of fermentation practices dates back as far as 6000 BC in the Fertile Crescent. Fermented foods were used as a preservation method before refrigeration.
Nearly every civilization since has included at least one fermented food in their diet. In fact, most of the so called "blue zones," areas studied for their longevity and healthy populations, seem to almost always consume some type of fermented foods.
Asians civilizations have a long history of fermented foods. For example, Japanese ferment soybeans (natto), Vietnamese ferment seafood (mám), Chinese ferment black beans (douchi, and fish sauce (Lao pa daek), and Koreans have many fermented side dishes (banchan) with kimchi being the most well known.
In West African countries, garri is made from cassava, which contains natural cyanides. If not fermented it can be poisonous.
In Tanzania, the fermented gruesome, toga has been found to protect against food born illnesses, which can be handy in areas where sanitation is limited.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Eating fermented foods or drinking fermented beverages increases the amount of probiotic bacteria in your gut. Some foods, such as yogurt contain transient probiotics, while others, such as kefir, colonizes the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
Depending on the type of fermented food or beverage, they may or may not contain a high number of probiotics (CFU's). The variety of bacteria, though, is unrivaled. Fermented foods collect bacteria from the air and whatever's on the surface of the food to do the fermenting.
Note: If you are on a low-FODMAP diet, have SIBO or Candida you may benefit from staying away from fermented foods until your gut is stronger. Check with you health provider if you have any questions about suitability.
Also, if you experience any gas or bloating, you may want to cut back on the amount of fermented foods for a few days to see if the symptoms go away. Sometimes there is a "die off" of the "bad" microorganisms.
Types of Fermented Foods
All of these fermented food and beverages have benefits far beyond the benefits of the probiotic bacteria and/or yeasts they contain. For the purpose of this article, I'm focusing mainly on the probiotic benefits.
Yogurt is probably the most common fermented food.
Yogurt dates back to more than 6000 years ago to Southern Asia as a way to preserve milk. Herdsman began the practice of milking their animals, then carrying it around in containers made from the stomachs of the animals. The natural enzymes in the skins fermented the milk making yogurt.
Yogurt can be made easily with various Lactobacillus cultures. When you buy it in the store, look for active and live cultures and try to find one that isn't full of added sugars.
Kefir is another type of fermented milk, although recently water kefir and coconut milk kefir is becoming popular. Traditional kefir is made from milk, using "kefir grains," a gelatinous, cauliflower looking culture, made up of beneficial bacteria, yeast, milk proteins and complex sugars.
Kefir has a great story to it. It originated in the North Caucasus mountains among nomadic sheperds. Although Marco Polo described tasting kefir during his travels, the method was kept secret until the 19th century. Because the different legends gave them religious significance and because of their health and healing properties, the grains were closely guarded and passed down through tribes and families.
Russian doctors began studying kefir's health properties at the end of the 19th century but still could not get possession of the grains. They weren't obtained until a Russian spy, Irina Sakharova, was sent in to charm a prince (which still didn't work immediately).
Kefir can still only be made from the grains that are grown and passed or sold from person to person. It's very easy to make and if you're buying it in a store, be sure it's made in small batches as most commercial kefir is not fermented long enough and is much less potent than homemade. Look online to buy kefir grains. The kefir grains grow as they are used and can be divided and passed along.
Kefir made from traditional grains has more than 35 beneficial bacterias and yeasts of the type that colonize the gut. Kefir also has the benefit that because the bacteria eat the lactose in the milk, many people that are lactose intolerant can eat or drink kefir.
Kombucha also originated in the East. Kombucha is made by the fermenting of black tea and sugar by a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The culture is often called a kombucha mushroom because it looks like a large portobello mushroom.
Kombucha has an effervescent property making it similar to soda, but much healthier! It's easily made at home if you have a SCOBY, taking only the time to make the sugary tea and then the time for it to go through two fermentations. Juice or other flavoring can be added in the second fermentation.
Kombucha contains several beneficial bacterias. If you buy it at the store, be careful that it isn't pasteurized as that kills off the bacteria and also watch the sugar content. Traditional kombucha shouldn't contain a lot of sugar.
Like kefir grains, the SCOBY is also passed around amongst friends, as it grows during use. You can also look online as they are being sold both from private people and commercially.
Traditionally pickled vegetables are also a great source of probiotics and sometimes prebiotics as well. Many types of vegetables can be fermented including: asparagus, cabbage, carrots, garlic, soybeans, olives, cucumbers, onions, turnips, radishes, cauliflower. and peppers. Lemons and berries can also be fermented.
Last week I listed some prebiotic vegetables that had more prebiotics when eaten raw such as, asparagus and onions.
Be careful not to confuse fermented vegetables with pickles processed with vinegar. They don't have the same benefits.
Vegetables are very easy to ferment at home! Click the link below for a downloadable guide to fermenting your own vegetables!
Kimchi is a fermented blend of cabbage, chili peppers, garlic, scallions and other spices.
Kimchi a traditional Korean side dish.
There are more than 300 different varieties of kimchi and family recipes can be a closely guarded secret.
Although most of us think of sauerkraut as a traditional German food, it's thought to have originated in the north China among Mongols and brought to Europe by migrating tribes. It is said to have been a staple food to the workers that built the Great Wall.
Sauerkraut is traditionally made of thinly sliced cabbage, salt, and caraway seeds, but there are many different recipes adding different flavors and herbs.
With all of the fermented vegetables, kimchi, and sauerkraut, it's important to either make your own or buy from people that make it in small batches.
Large scale food manufacturers wash vegetables and cabbage in diluted chlorine solutions, killing the existing microflora. Acetic acid in vinegar is used to ferment, instead of the traditional, and beneficial lactic acid fermentation. The resulting product doesn't have the same health benefits. Also, be sure the product isn't heat processed or pasteurized because that also destroys the beneficial bacteria.
Wow! There are so many options for including fermented foods and beverages in your diet.
I'll include one more interesting benefit. Someone mentioned to me that if you included sauerkraut in your diet, you would have fewer sugar cravings. Now I understand that because you are increasing the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, your are effectively reducing the number of sugar loving less beneficial bacteria.
That is how research and data often work, too. Food choices and traditions considered to be healthful are often being proven to be healthful by current scientific studies. The science often proves what we've known all along.
What's your experience with fermented foods or beverages? Do you love them, hate them? Share in the comments below.
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Hi, I’m Crystal!