Fermented foods and beverages are trending. But many of their biggest fans aren’t aware that they’ve been around for thousands of years.
Before refrigeration, people cultured dairy products and fermented meat, fruits, and vegetables to prevent spoilage. As a food ferments, naturally occurring antimicrobial compounds block the growth of organisms that can cause foodborne illness.
“Fermentation can affect food flavor and texture, as well as nutrient content and digestibility,” says Rachelle Mallik, RDN, a registered dietitian and owner of The Food Therapist, a virtual nutrition counseling practice specializing in reproductive health. “Some fermented foods like yogurt and kefir contain live microorganisms while others, like sourdough bread, do not.”
Worldwide, people use the process of fermentation, both to preserve foods and beverages, and to add unique flavors, textures, appearances, functionality, and economic value. Fermentation can also increase the nutritional content of foods and reduce some of the problem substances. For example, olives would taste inedible without fermentation that removes bitter compounds.
Fermented foods and the gut
Many cultured foods contain active bacteria and yeasts, called probiotics, which may have beneficial effects in the gastrointestinal tract.
“They work to alter gut content or microbiota, modify macronutrient breakdown and absorption, change how your gut absorbs nutrients or ‘gut permeability’, and [may] even enhance the gut immune cell function,” says Kristin Gustashaw, clinical dietitian at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Beyond probiotics, other aspects of fermentation may be beneficial as well. For example, Mallik says, “The culture used to make slow leavened sourdough bread consumes fructans in wheat, which can make it easier to digest for folks who may be sensitive to fructans, like those with irritable bowel syndrome.”
One small study of 36 participants showed that when people eat a diet rich in fermented foods, they have increased diversity of gut microbes and decreased signs of inflammation in just 10 weeks. “Fermented foods can support a healthy gut microbiome and may improve inflammation,” Mallik says.
There may be even more health benefits: Research has shown that fermented foods may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, as well as help with weight management.
Common fermented foods
Nutrition experts agree that eating fermented foods benefits overall health. But how do you start?
“I suggest people start to use fermented foods slowly because they do alter your gut content and even how your gut works,” Gustashaw says.
Common examples of fermented foods include:
• Cottage cheese
• Sourdough bread
It can take a few days to adjust to new microogranisms, so try introducing one new product at a time. “Check the ingredient label to make sure there are no added sugars, sugar alcohols, or preservatives that may outweigh the benefit of the fermented product itself,” Gustashaw adds.
Experimenting with different fermented foods can be fun and help you figure out which ones you like. “Yogurt, whether dairy or a non-dairy alternative, is one of the easiest fermented foods to include in everyday meals and snacks,” Mallik says.
She also suggests drinking kombucha for a bubbly, lightly sweetened drink; mixing kimchi with rice, tofu, and veggies; blending frozen fruit with kefir for a smoothie; or topping avocado sourdough toast with sauerkraut.
Whatever you try, know that even if it’s new to you, you’re joining a long history of people who have enjoyed fermented foods.