You might have heard about fermented foods. But there are so many crazy food fads going around these days — lemon juice detox, anyone? So how do you know this isn’t another one. Here are 10 reasons why fermented foods are not just hype.
1. Fermented foods have been around traditional cultures for aeons — they’re not a passing fad. Koreans have had kimchi, Japanese have had miso, Eastern European cultures have had sauerkraut, and Mediterranean/Caucasus regions have had kefir, and a bunch of other lesser-known fermented foods from India, South America, Vietnam and Africa. Fermentation really has been a worldwide traditional practice.
2. They provide a natural source of probiotics — healthful live bacteria. Probiotics promote a balance of ‘good’ bacteria to help elbow out the occasional unwelcome pathogenic visitor — and therefore stop you getting sick.
3. Fermented foods get down to the large intestine. While not all probiotic supplements can survive your stomach acid to get to the large intestine where they function best, the physical properties of food buffer the good bacteria against stomach acid. Plus, we’re not very good at consistently taking medications, but we don’t tend to forget to eat food!
4. They keep you regular. Lactic acid bacteria (in many fermented foods such as lactofermented vegetables) have shown reductions to constipation and diarrhoea. Medications to keep you regular tend to only do one or the other (laxatives or anti-diarrhoeals) so it’s pretty impressive that bacteria can balance it out in either direction.
5. Good bacteria helps your immunity. Your gut bacteria is a huge part of your immune system. Good bacteria has been shown to help protect against nasty bugs from taking hold in the gut by increasing intestinal mucin production — an important substance that helps your gut wall to be a tight barrier, and not leaky. Leaky gut causes all sorts of problems!
6. Fermented dairy products (e.g. kefir and to a lesser degree, yoghurt), can improve glucose metabolism. This is important to provide energy to organs in the body but also for the prevention of insulin resistance and diabetes.
7. Fermentation can improve the ‘value’ of your food, by increasing the bioavailability of vitamins, minerals and protein. Bioavailability is your body’s ability to absorb, recognise and make use of nutrients. As nutritionists will tell you, it’s not what you eat but what you absorb that’s important, and plenty of things can affect absorption and bioavailability. For example, you might have heard that vitamin C helps to absorb non-meat sources of iron (so lemon juice is good to have on spinach), and vitamin D helps to absorb calcium (which is why they’re in supplements together). Fermentation can reduce the phytic acid content in food, which in turn improves nutrient bioavailability.
8. Improve allergies. Allergies and related conditions such as hay fever, asthma, food allergies and eczema may be alleviated through a down-regulation of inflammatory processes. Fermented foods can bolster good bacteria, which have an anti-inflammatory effect both in the gut and also systemically in other sites around the body via changes to inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation has been linked to all kinds of disorders including cancer, obesity to depression, so anti-inflammation is a good thing wherever you can find it.
9. Reduce your risk of colorectal cancer, the 3rd most common cancer that affects an estimated 3.5 million people worldwide. At least one human study has shown reduce markers of colorectal cancer risk in those that were given fermented milk products. Prevention of cancer cells in other areas is considered possible with probiotic foods through a variety of plausible mechanisms including neutralising the harmful effects of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) environmental toxins, but so far there haven’t been enough studies on this.
10. Fermented foods might even improve brain function. In animals fed kimchi (lucky them), their learning improved and a protein important for growing new brain cells was boosted. In another study, mood-boosting neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin were also increased with fermented foods.
Now that fermented foods are popular, fermenting courses and recipes are available everywhere. Anyone can make these at home — cost and availability is no longer a barrier to eating nourishing food, wherever you are. Here are some of my faves:
There are also some great suppliers of fermented foods if you’re not ready to start making them. In Australia, I’d recommend:
I have included links to a lot of these research articles, but many are only available in full-text to people with university affiliations. If you would like PDFs for anything I have cited here, just get in touch via email or twitter.
Follow me on Instagram @mindbodymicrobiome for fermenting inspiration.