The fermentation process uses microbes, such as bacteria and yeast, to preserve foods. These beneficial microorganisms eat sugars and can support gut health.
Proponents of fermentation argue that it is an easy way to add beneficial bacteria and other organisms to the gut to promote a healthy gut microbiome. Some research has linked a healthy gut to better overall health.
In this article, read about some of the most popular fermented foods and their benefits.
The fermented foods in this list are rich in healthful nutrients and easy to incorporate into a balanced diet.
Kombucha is a type of sweetened black tea that uses fermentation to promote the growth of good bacteria.
The bacteria turn the sugar in the tea to alcohol. As a result, kombucha contains a low level of alcohol but not enough to cause intoxication.
The authors of a review article on kombucha conclude that it may promote immune system health and could also counter some metabolic disorders.
The chemicals that kombucha bacteria produce include antioxidants. Antioxidants counter the effects of free radicals, which experts believe play a role in a wide variety of illnesses, including cancer and chronic inflammation.
Kefir is a fermented dairy product that is similar to yogurt but has a thinner consistency. Some people drink it, while others prefer to top cereal with it or mix it into other foods.
Kefir is high in protein, making it a good option for vegetarians. Protein can also help people feel fuller for longer, which can help support weight loss efforts.
According to a 2017 analysis, kefir offers probiotic benefits, such as improved digestive health. It may also help lower blood pressure and act as an anti-inflammatory agent, but more research is necessary to confirm these effects.
Miso and tempeh
Miso and tempeh are soybean-based fermented foods that are popular in Japanese cooking.
Miso is best known as the primary ingredient of miso soup, while tempeh is a popular meat substitute similar to tofu. Soybeans are rich in protein, so tempeh and miso are excellent choices for people who do not eat meat.
Research from 2016 suggests that the process of fermenting soybeans may release beneficial peptides, which are amino acids that help regulate the body's functions. These bioactive peptides may:
- reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer
- fight infections
- lower blood pressure
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a popular folk remedy that can also add flavor to salads, recipes, and some teas.
In addition to its fermentation benefits, the authors of a 2014 review noted that research in animal models and test tubes suggests that apple cider vinegar may have the following properties:
Pickles and sauerkraut are among the most popular fermented foods. These foods are easy to add to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.
Many vegetables are high in fiber and contain important vitamins and minerals. Vegetables that people commonly ferment include:
All fermented foods contain potentially beneficial bacteria, and some contain other organisms, such as yeast. These microbes act as probiotics, supporting gut health.
The benefits of fermented foods may include treating or reducing the symptoms of:
- Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection
- diarrhea due to antibiotics
- infectious diarrhea
- ulcerative colitis
- irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn's disease
As an imbalance in the gut microbiome can allow yeast to multiply, probiotics may reduce the risk of yeast infections and thrush, especially following treatment with antibiotics.
Weaker evidence suggests that beneficial gut bacteria may play a broader role in overall health. Probiotic-rich foods, such as fermented products, might reduce the symptoms of numerous conditions, including:
- urinary tract infections
- respiratory health issues
- hormonal disorders
- kidney and liver dysfunction
Any food made with beneficial bacteria potentially offers these benefits, so people who want to try probiotics can choose from among a wide variety of options.
Not all pickled foods are fermented. It is best to check the label to look for the mention of "live bacteria," "fermented," or "probiotics."
Fermented foods that contain a wide range of bacteria are more likely to offer extensive health benefits. If possible, choose fermented foods that list several different bacterial strains.
Some fermented foods, such as pickles, tend to be high in sodium. People concerned about their sodium intake, especially those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, should check the sodium content that the label lists.
Homemade fermented foods are unregulated and may not have labels. People seeking specific health benefits from fermented foods should choose store-bought options with clear nutritional information.
There are several different methods of fermenting foods. The taste of the food can vary depending on the chosen method, so it is important to research which process is best for each specific food.
In general, people can ferment foods by following these steps:
- Prepare the vegetables by chopping or shredding them. Some vegetables may taste better when a person ferments them whole.
- Make a brine. The easiest method is to use a starter brine that already contains a culture. Alternatively, a mixture of either sea salt and water or sea salt, water, and whey can also work. Use between one-half of a tablespoon (tbsp) and 1 tbsp of salt per cup of water depending on taste preferences.
- Put the vegetables in a sealable jar, such as a mason jar. Completely cover them in the brine. It is important to submerge the vegetables fully to prevent them from molding.
- Leave the jar in a location with a stable room temperature for several days. When the mixture begins bubbling or smells like pickles, it is ready. Move it to the refrigerator. The food is now ready to eat.
As with many health foods, fermented foods are not suitable for everyone. People with weakened immune systems due to health conditions, such as HIV, or certain medications should avoid homemade fermented foods and check with a doctor whether it is safe to eat store-bought fermented foods.
Even good bacteria can affect some medications, so it is best to talk to a healthcare professional about specific health concerns before making any significant dietary changes.
For most people, however, fermented foods are a safe and healthful addition to a balanced diet. They may be the perfect antidote to gut bacteria problems.
The fermented foods in this article are available to buy in health food stores and online.