Science update: How fermented foods help your tummy
Fermented foods are trending in the health food world, although they’ve been with us for millennia. Find out which ones can help, and why.
The art of fermentation, which began as a way to preserve food, has sparked our modern interest in probiotics as a way of keeping our gut microbes happy. Fermented foods are in no way new. Before refrigeration and canning methods, food had to naturally sour and ferment to last longer. In recent years, many traditional fermented foods have made their presence
felt from cultures far and wide.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live micro-organisms which, when consumed in adequate amounts, can benefit your health. Mention probiotics, and your mind probably goes to yoghurt, but there are more probiotic foods out there you can make part of your diet.
Sauerkraut and kimchi
Sauerkraut and kimchi are two very well-known fermented foods with cultural ties to Germany and Korea respectively. These cabbage-based dishes use lactic acid fermentation. Sauerkraut is made with brine, while kimchi is served with condiments such as chilli, garlic, pepper and fish sauce.
Several studies have found that kimchi may help lower cholesterol and control blood glucose levels.
This fermented milk drink is similar to yoghurt. Kefir is made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk, but is fermented with a different strain of bacteria to yoghurt.
A scientific review has found good evidence for kefir’s antimicrobial activity. It improved gut health, helped control blood glucose and cholesterol, and contributed to improved immunity.
Another popular probiotic food is the Japanese staple natto, which forms the base of miso soup. Natto is made by fermenting of soybeans with the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. It offers health benefits similar to soy foods (fibre, B vitamins, calcium, omega-3), while its probiotic properties provide added value for gut microbes.
Kombucha tea is one of the trendier fermented drinks, made from a sweet tea base that has been fermented with a colony of bacteria and yeast. It’s also called ‘mushroom tea’, taking its nickname from the brown slimy crust that forms on the surface of the drink.
Claimed to be a super health elixir with an extensive list of health benefits, kombucha is one drink where science has yet to catch up, with no human clinical trials published so far.
Making sense of it all
The long list of health claims made about fermented foods certainly looks impressive, but the scientific evidence for some of them is still lagging behind. We have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years and they certainly have a role to play in any diet. While not a silver health bullet on their own, fermented foods do have the potential to help make a varied diet even healthier.
Put probiotics on the menu!
Buy the unpasteurised version so that the probiotics are still alive. Better still, try making it at home.
Made from the fermented paste of soybeans (natto) mixed with tofu and green onions, this soup is a favourite in Japanese cuisine.
Go for plain, unsweetened Greek-style varieties, and add some fruit for natural sweetness.