The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods, Explained
In case you haven’t noticed, fermented foods are trending, hard. Sauerkraut, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, kimchi, kefir, sourdough, and kvass, Oh My! The thing is, unlike some other trends out there, these guys totally deserve the credit and attention they’re getting. They are so fantastic, it has been suggested to include fermented foods in national dietary recommendations, just as fruits and vegetables are, according to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics. We love our ferments! Once you read this and try some for yourself, I am willing to bet you’ll love them too.
This article will discuss the history of fermented foods and their resurrection in recent times, the brief science behind fermentation, what makes them so great for your health, and ways to add them to your daily diet.
What is Fermentation?
Lacto-fermentation occurs when beneficial bacteria (lactobacillus) that is naturally found in the environment, like in the soil and on your vegetables, interacts with food in the right controlled environment – like your ferment vessel. The lactobacillus converts the foods starch and sugar into lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Don’t worry, they’re good guys! Rather than using vinegar (as you would in a traditional pickling process), a light salt solution is used. This encourages the beneficial bacterial reactions, lowers the pH, and prevents growth of harmful bacteria.
In kombucha brewing, slightly different bacteria and yeasts are at play. The result is the formation of gluconic and acetic acids instead of lactic acid, but the concept and benefits are basically the same! Acetic acid is the good stuff in apple cider vinegar too. If you want to learn more about all the different types of fermentation and their origins, I highly suggest watching the “Air” episode from the Cooked series on Netflix. Good stuff right there!
The History of Fermented Foods
Despite the recent hype, fermentation is actually an age-old practice. It has been used by various cultures around the world to safely preserve food for centuries. Although the German culture is most associated with the creation of sauerkraut, Chinese laborers were consuming cabbage fermented in rice wine vinegar as a main staple in their diet while building the Great Wall of China 2,000 years ago! The concept was brought to Germany 1,000 years later, where they adapted to salt-curing it instead of using vinegar.
As our modern society and industrial (cough, disgusting…) food systems have advanced with time, pasteurization and processing replaced the “need” for traditional preservation methods. This put fermented foods in the back seat for many years. Decades even. Thankfully, the recent surge in demand and popularity for living fermented foods is making them more and more commonly available for consumers. I say “living fermented foods”, because they are just that… Alive! They’re full of probiotics – another term for beneficial bacteria. Foods that are processed and preserved in other ways, such as pickling in vinegar or through canning, are not.
Fermentation on the Modern Homestead
I am proud to admit that we too jumped on the ferment bandwagon here at home! We have been happily making and consuming our own fermented foods and beverages for about 6 years now. I will also admit that when we got started, while we did recognize the benefits of consuming kombucha, we were pretty clueless about the health benefits of fermented vegetables. That was not the motivator for us to start fermenting. Instead, it arose out of a need to preserve our homestead harvests.
One day, I posted a photo of a big fat carrot harvest on Instagram and asked the community for their ideas to preserve them. Amidst the dozens of suggestions for pickling, canning, and freezing, just one person spoke up and said we should make fermented carrot sticks. At first we were like “Uhm, what?”. But after looking into the process, we decided to give it a go. That first batch was pretty terrible to be honest. We didn’t have our recipe down right, and used way too much salt and garlic. But the seed of curiosity had been planted. We tried again, and the addiction began!
This is that first batch of fuuuuunky fermented carrots! Ha!
Fermenting quickly became one of our favorite ways to preserve excess goodies from the garden. This includes everything from hardy leafy greens, radishes, carrots, turnips, beets, peppers, to apples. We eat something fermented pretty much every day… because beer and wine counts, right? (I kid, I kid…. Sort of.)
It has been really exciting to see this trend explode over the years, particularly with other homesteaders and gardeners sharing their recipes and ideas on Instagram. While fermenting may not be quite as popular as canning yet, I have watched it go from a totally foreign concept to a fairly well-known option for preservation!
No homegrown produce to preserve? No problem.
Even if you don’t garden or have a “need” to preserve food like we do, you can totally still join in the fun! Head down to your local farmer’s market and pick up some fresh cabbage, bok choy, beets, carrots, radishes, or whatever tasty local veggies are in season. If you can’t make it to a farmer’s market, the next best thing is your local natural foods store.
If you opt to make fermented foods at home, whether they’re homegrown or purchased veggies, always always start with organic ingredients! Inorganic produce has been treated in a way that can interfere with a proper and safe fermentation process.
If making your own isn’t your thing, that’s okay. But I still would keep my eye out at the grocery store for live fermented foods. You will probably want to consider increasing your consumption of fermented foods, one way or another, after reading the following health benefits explained!
7 BENEFITS OF CONSUMING FERMENTED FOODS
1) It is one of the easiest & healthiest ways to preserve food
Fermentation isn’t only a tasty, easy way to preserve food. It is also one of the healthiest ways to preserve! The process of fermenting raw food doesn’t just retain it’s nutritional value ~ it vastly increases it. This cannot be said about any other food preservation method, including canning, freezing, or dehydrating. Those methods can sometimes instead reduce the nutritional value of food. Plus, in the heat of summer, fermenting is far less cumbersome and dreadful than the ordeal of laboring over a session of hot-bath or pressure canning in the kitchen.
The reactions that take place during the fermentation process produce beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics. The process also helps to increase the bioavailability of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are already in the food you’re fermenting. This means you can better absorb and benefit from those nutrients.
2) Fermented foods fight disease
The beneficial enzymes and peptides created by the fermentation process are known to do amazing things, from lower blood pressure to fight cancer! They help to prevent blood sugar spikes (acetic acid especially), reduce inflammation and autoimmune disorders, balance stomach acid, improve bowel health and metabolism, and reduce IBS and allergy symptoms. The consumption of fermented foods plays a role in enhancing your overall immunity, due to their antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal properties.
Additionally, fermentation can result in the removal of toxic or undesirable food constituents. For example, it can reduce phytic acid – a compound found in plants that can impair the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium and may promote mineral deficiencies. Who wants that with their veggies, right? Well, the fermentation process removes most all of it.
3) Fermented foods combat fungal & yeast overgrowth
I am sure you’re familiar with traditional feminine “yeast infections”, but did you know that yeast (Candida albicans) can overtake other parts of your body? This is referred to as a systemic candida infection. It is when an imbalance in bacteria, pH, sugars, or other factors makes your belly and body more hospitable to yeast than it does to the good guys. Then the candida grow and overpower the beneficial bacteria in your system. I have struggled with intestinal candida overgrowth a lot over the years. I suspect a big contributor is because I am Type 1 Diabetic, so my blood sugars and pH can bounce around a lot. Enter: fermented food to the rescue! I haven’t had serious GI symptoms or needed to do a “candida cleanse” since we began routinely eating fermented foods.
The regular introduction of beneficial bacteria into your diet (and gut) via ferments help to create a better balance in your GI. In turn, this helps reduce or prohibit an “overgrowth” of pathogenic bacteria and microorganisms that can cause disease and discomfort, including candida. When you have systemic candida overgrowth, they can line your intestines in a way that prevents your body from absorbing the nutrients in the food you’re providing it. So even if you are eating a super healthy, well-balanced, organic, all around kick ass diet, you could feel like shit. Symptoms include brain fog, exhaustion, sore throat, mood swings, the works. That is because you aren’t feeding your body anymore. You’re feeding the yeast instead.
4) Fermented foods are easier to digest…
… including those that may usually make you feel sick – like dairy or bread!
Fermented foods ward off the bad guys like candida, increase digestive enzymes, and aid in digestion – meaning you’re able to better extract and absorb the nutrients from ALL the foods you are consuming, not just the ferments! One way this occurs is when bacteria produced during fermentation helps “pre-digest” your food, thus making them easier for you to stomach.
For example, those who suffer from lactose intolerance usually do better with yogurt, kefir, or aged cheese (all fermented) compared to their reactions with milk or ice cream. Similarly, many people with mild to moderate gluten sensitivities or IBS can often eat artisan or homemade sourdough with little to no issues.
I am one of those people. I haven’t been diagnosed with anything formally, and I can handle beer with no issues, but I will tell you this: commercial store-bought bread makes me bloated and gassy like a mother. Even nice seedy organic whole grain breads. So we pretty much avoided bread for years. But then a new artisan bakery opened in a nearby town; one that practices long, traditional, slow fermentation of their dough. I got a loaf. No bloating! No issues! We knew we had to start making our own sourdough.
The (brief) science behind it is this:
Wheat or rye in their raw state contain certain types of carbohydrates that are indigestible for some people. When fermented, those particular carbs are transformed and vastly reduced. Therefore, the bloating, gas, and discomfort associated is also reduced, if not totally eliminated. For dairy products, most people have issues digesting the lactose component, hence “lactose-intolerance”. Lactose is a milk sugar. As it enters your GI tract, your intestinal bacteria will start to digest and ferment it. This is when most of the symptoms of lactose intolerance appear and start to bother you. By pre-fermenting the lactose outside of your body (such as through the yogurt-making and aged-cheese processes), much of the lactose is reduced which makes it easier on your belly.
5) Ferments make your gut microbiome happy
So let me get this straight. Already healthy foods like carrots, cabbage or whole grains, can be transformed into even healthier superfoods, and then they’re injected straight into some of the most important organs that drive your overall health: your gut!? Heck yes, that is right. You know how they say “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”? Well I say:
“The way to whole-body health is through your stomach”.
The “gut microbiome” is a term for the vast array (100 trillion or so!) of microorganisms living in your digestive system, namely in your intestines. The condition of your microbiome directly impacts health and disease outcomes. Researchers are beginning to link these tiny creatures to all sorts of health conditions from obesity to neurodegenerative diseases, says the Harvard Health Blog.
A scientific paper on integrative medicine explained:
“The human gut microbiome and its role in both health and disease has been the subject of extensive research, establishing its involvement in human metabolism, nutrition, physiology, and immune function. Imbalance of the normal gut microbiota have been linked with gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and wider systemic manifestations of disease such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and allergies – including asthma, environmental, and food allergies ”-Matthew Bull and Nigel Plummer, from “Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease”
Interventions to improve and balance the gut microbiota have been proven to help prevent, treat, or even reverse these conditions. One such “intervention” is the introduction of probiotics through fermented foods! Can we get a: Get in my belly!?
7) Fermented foods are delicious & interesting
Let us not overlook the fact that fermented foods are downright delicious! The process of fermentation adds a wonderful flavor complexity to them, and usually results in a far better texture than other preserving methods. Fermented vegetables stay much more crisp compared to canning and freezing.
Fermenting foods at home also allows you the creativity to enhance and add additional flavors. For example: adding ginger, turmeric and garlic to a ferment of cabbage and bok choy; throwing some fresh dill in with chopped carrots, beets, or radishes; or changing up each batch of kombucha with seasonal fresh fruit juice or puree.
WAYS TO ADD FERMENTED FOODS TO YOUR DIET
Go pick some up at the store!
Try some good “living” sauerkraut, or grab a bottle of kombucha. Don’t forget the raw apple cider vinegar! Oh man, ACV is SO good for you. If you have access to a natural foods store, they’ll probably be more likely to carry high-quality fermented foods than your average grocery store. Not all fermented food products out there are created equal though! Some may not contain the good probiotic bacteria you’re after, depending on their processing.
A Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter tells consumers to exercise caution before going out to stock up on “fermented” goodies from the store: “Most fermented foods you can buy in supermarket jars or cans have been pasteurized and cooked at high heat, killing any friendly bacteria.”
Check the label for the words “live cultures”, or “naturally fermented”. Then you’ll know if it’s the good stuff. To clarify, foods pickled and preserved in vinegar are NOT fermented. They’re still tasty, but not nearly as good for you.
Make some at home
Don’t be nervous! I realize “bacterial growth” may not sound all that appealing, or maybe even downright scary when you’re making your first fermented food concoction at home. Don’t worry, when done right, it is 100% safe. The addition of salt to veggies, along with other steps taken during fermentation (like keeping food submerged in the salt brine and not in contact with air, or using an air-lock lid) creates the perfect environment to let the good bacteria thrive while not allowing harmful bacteria to develop.
In all our years fermenting, we have never gotten sick. We’ve never even had mold develop in a ferment vessel! If you follow our simple instructions in the recipe ideas below, it’s pretty hard to “mess up”. I do owe a good deal of our success to the wonderful Kraut Source fermentation lids we use too. They make it pretty foolproof!
Ways to Ferment at Home
There are two core methods used most when making fermented veggies at home. One way is to make a shredded sauerkraut-style ferment, left dry and massaged with salt, which creates a natural brine. I would suggest starting with a super simple kraut recipe of just cabbage and a little salt. Or, to spice it up a little bit, try this super green kraut with garlic, turmeric and ginger!
The other is a more chunky style of chopped veggies, where a light salt water brine is poured over them. Try this easy and delicious fermented dilly radish recipe to get started. You don’t need to be a fan of radishes to enjoy this one! The fermentation process totally changes their flavor profile – to less spicy, and much more zesty and tangy, like pickles. Or maybe you’ll like these fermented dilly green beans.
We also make many types of fermented hot sauces. Sometimes we only use chilis; other times we add other vegetables like carrots or tomatillos too! Aaron will put that stuff on just about anything: eggs, soup, veggies, chips, lentils… the list goes on!
Kombucha & ACV
Kombucha is a tasty fermented tea beverage that is full of probiotics and antioxidants, and helps promote gut health. It also happens to be really easy to make at home, and SO much more affordable than buying it regularly at the store! Check out our Kombucha Brewing 101 tutorial to get started.
Apple cider vinegar has a lot of the same benefits as kombucha, if not more. We use apple cider vinegar daily as salad dressing, and also to make fire cider. Some doctors even recommend to take a small daily dose of ACV – taken like a shot, or added to water. We make our own apple cider vinegar in the summertime, as an awesome way to preserve the glut of apples from our backyard tree. Learn how to make homemade apple cider vinegar here, either using whole apples or apple scraps – like skins and cores!
Not into all that tangy stuff? Then perhaps homemade sourdough is for you! As we’ve already discussed, fermented sourdough is significantly easier to digest and better for your health than standard bread. And don’t let the name fool you… Homemade sourdough isn’t actually all that sour in flavor. It is mostly called that because of the process it is made. It is also pretty simple to make once you have a starter and get your routine down.
You can find instructions on how to start your own sourdough starter here, and the recipe for a simple sourdough loaf here.
That’s not even getting into all the ways we want to start fermenting but haven’t yet tried! Ginger bugs. Yogurt. Feta. Beer. Do you make those things?
Fermented foods with meals
So, we now have this homemade or store-bought fermented food in the kitchen, ready and waiting. How exactly do we go about using them? Well, I bet figuring out how to use kombucha, sourdough, or yogurt is pretty obvious… But what about something like fermented beet slices?
We really enjoy adding all sorts of chopped-style fermented vegetables to the top of quinoa and green salads for lunch, or served as a side or condiment with dinner. Both the chopped types and shredded krauts make for a great addition to brown rice and bean dishes, with lentils, on top of sauteed veggies, in sandwiches, or with veggie burgers! Really, the options are endless.
So, what do you think? Are you feeling it?
I hope you enjoyed reading this post, learned a little something new, and maybe feel the urge to try something new as well! Let me know if you have any questions.
Cheers to happy, healthy bellies!
Where do you store all your fermented goodies? It seems like a lot of jars to store them all in the fridge
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Naomi, it absolutely is a lot to store! We have a mini fridge in our garage that is full of jars of extra fermented goodies. We actually need to get a larger second refrigerator but that is what we are working with right now. Thanks for reading.
Do you use the same dilly radish recipe for beets?
Yes you can! So good!