The Benefits of Fermented Foods
In nutrition world, there are tons of opinions over the “best” way to eat or “benefits fermented foods.”
Some say: “Low fat, whole grains!” Others say, “High fat, low carb!”… “Grassfed meat!” Or “No meat!” … “Fresh fruit!” “No sugar (including fruit)!”… “Butter coffee!” “Caffeine free!”
There are very few universal nutrition “laws” everyone can agree on, except for these:
- Water is essential
- Veggies are good for you
- Fermented foods are REALLY good for you
Fermented Foods 101
Fermented foods are a “code name” for probiotic-rich foods.
Fermented foods are vegetables, fruits, condiments, meats, beverages, dairy and even some grains and nuts that are “cultured” or “preserved” and then transformed into natural sources of probiotics (healthy gut bacteria).’’
Humans have consumed fermented foods since the beginning of time. Without knowing anything about gut bacteria, our ancestors recognized the therapeutic qualities of these foods for staying healthy. Additionally, practically all contemporary hunter-gatherers that have been studied also consume some kind of fermented foods—even without a Whole Foods’ cold case full of kombucha accessible.
What Are Types of Fermented Foods?
Most people think about beer or wine when they hear the word “fermented.”
However, unlike beer and wine, the probiotic-rich fermented foods we are talking about here are “lacto-fermented,” meaning these foods contain a specific species of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus (the type of bacteria packaged in many supplements on shelves and common to the digestives system, mouths, and vaginas of humans).
Some examples of fermented foods include:
- Condiments: ketchup, mayo, mustard, relish
- Dairy: Cheese, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt
- Pickled Cucumbers/Pickles
- Kefir (coconut, water, milk)
- Soy: miso, tempeh, and natto
- Vegetables & Fruits (carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, green beans, apples, pears, and any other veggie or fruit that’s specially prepared)
CAUTION: NOT all veggies, dairy, soy, fruits, sourdough or even kombuchas are fermented or contain probiotics! Most fermented foods sold in grocery stores or cans have been pasteurized and cooked at high heat, killing any friendly bacteria.
The best bet? Make your own, or check out my favorite recommended brands below.
Why Are Fermented Foods “Good” For You?”
Four words: Healthy gut. Healthy YOU.
A healthy gut is a happy gut.
Since fermented foods are like nature’s probiotics of lactobacillus strains, eating fermented foods promotes healthy gut bacteria and more bacterial diversity in the gut for most people.
10 Benefits of Fermented Foods
Here are 10 benefits of eating fermented foods for most people* (13, 14):
- Help boost digestion
- Make your skin glow
- Decrease allergies & boost your immune system
- Help with nutrient absorption
- Boost metabolism & hormone balance
- Boost your mood & brain clarity
- Regulate your appetite & reduce sugar cravings
- Decrease inflammation
- Give your body energy
- Help your body cleanse and detox
How Does Fermented Food Get “Good Bacteria?”
The process of fermentation involves allowing the fresh foods of choice to sit at room temperature in a jar or fermentation container, along with a “starter” of choice, like sea salt, whey from grass-fed dairy or brine (water and salt).
Over time (3 days to 4 weeks), bacterial cultures begin to accumulate in your fermented food products. In fact, the longer a fermented food sits to ferment (2-4 weeks), generally, the more bacterial rich your foods are.
Remind Me…Why Good Bacteria So Important Again?!
Your gut microbiome is home to over 100 trillion gut bacteria. We are more bacteria than we are human.
Without gut bacteria you would cease to exist, and our gut bacteria are responsible for dictating how the processes of how every system, cell, organ and function in our body work.
The overall health of your gut influences the health of every other body system that comprises you , including:
- Cognitive funciton (1)
- Blood sugar (2)
- Digestion (3, 4)
- Energy levels (5)
- Hormone balance (Fertility, PMS, PCOS, Menopause) (6)
- Immune function (Allergies, autoimmune conditions, colds, flus, illness) (7)
- Metabolism (8)
- Skin health (9)
- Thyroid health (10)
- Weight (11)
- And more! (12)
Your gut bacteria metabolize nutrients from food, supplements and certain medications; govern your immune system function to protect your body against infections and disease; produce hormones; and send signals to the brain.
If your gut bacteria is healthy, than these processes work as they should. If your gut bacteria is unhealthy, than these processes are not in tip top shape.
How Do Gut Bacteria Become Unhealthy?
A lot of the bacteria in your gut is “good” (“healthy”), but some of the gut bacteria is “bad” (or pathogenic). Collectively, the good and bad gut bacteria make up the “gut microbiota.”
Ideally, you want more good bacteria (i.e. a healthy gut microbiota), than pathogenic bacteria (unhealthy gut microbiota). In addition, the MORE diverse your gut bacteria (i.e. different types or “strains” in your gut microbiota), the happier, healthier gut environment overall.
Unfortunately, thanks to our modern day lifestyles, the health of our gut bacteria are constantly threatened.
Some common stressors and triggers to unhealthy gut bacteria include:
- Antibiotic use
- C-section baby or formula fed
- Chronic stress
- Circadian rhythm dysfunction (screen exposure all day; light pollution; erratic sleeping habits)
- Eating the same thing most days
- Environmental toxins (cleaning, beauty, hygiene supplies; air pollutants; GMO’s, etc.)
- Food poisoning
- High sugar and carbohydrate consumption
- Illness and infections
- Industrial seed oils (frequent restaurant eating)
- Lack of sleep
- Longterm medication use
- Long term low fat diets
- Low pre-biotic fiber diets
- Nutrient deficient diet
- Oral contraceptives
- Packaged, processed & refined foods
- Poor food hygiene (eating fast, on the go)
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Standard American Diet
- Surgical procedures
- Travel to a different country
Although your body and immune system is strong to combat some stress, the more stress thrown your gut’s way, the worse off it is in the long run for bacterial balance. Your gut bacteria just can’t keep up.
Eventually gut bacteria may become “imbalanced” or “dysbiotic”—reflecting an overpowering of more bad bacteria than good. You may also suffer from conditions like: small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), parasitic infection, yeast or fungal overgrowth, bacterial infection, IBD (autoimmune bowel disease) and the side effects that come with an unhealthy gut microbiome.
How Do I Know if My Gut Bacteria is Bad?
Common side effects or signs that you have “unhealthy” or “imbalanced” gut bacteria include:
- “Adrenal fatigue”
- Blood sugar control issues
- Difficulty losing or gaining healthy weight
- GI discomfort (constipation, bloating, gas)
- Heart disease markers
- High cholesterol
- Hormone imbalances (infertility, PMS, PCOS, “crazy” menopause symptoms)
- Poor appetite
- Poor immune function (get sick often)
- Skin problems
- Slow or super fast metabolism
- Thyroid problems
What to Do About Unhealthy Gut Bacteria?
Back to eating fermented foods!
Fermented foods are one of the essential weapons to arming your gut for healthy gut bacteria success.
Aim to eat 1-2 condiment sized portions of fermented foods each day, with meals. Incorporate a variety of these foods.
The cheapest and easiest way to get in your fermented foods?
Make them yourself!!
3 Easy Steps to Make Fermented Foods at Home
Making fermented foods at home is a “cooking” practice as old as time. It is super easy to do!
Here’s all you need to know:
Here are a few most popular at-home ferments:
- Fermented Veggies/Fruits
Different foods require a bit of a different process and supplies.
- Fermented Veggies:
- tightly sealed large mason jar(s)-quart sized
- sea salt
- fresh vegetables
- spices of choice: 1 tbsp. caraway, cloves &/or mustard seeds for veggies
- Optional: starter culture
- Fermented Fruits
- tightly sealed large mason jar(s)-quart sized
- sea salt
- fresh fruits of choice (peach, pear, apples, diced)
- Lemon juice (5 lemons juiced or 1/4 cup lemon juice)
- spices of choice: 1 tbsp. cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves
- Optional: starter culture
- tightly sealed large mason jar(s)-quart size
- 1-2 tbsp. “starter” (kefir grains or cultures, buy HERE)
- grass-fed, organic and/or raw milk (cow or goat)
- A breathable cover for the jar such as a tight-weave towel, butter muslin, paper towel, or paper coffee filter
- large glass container with a wide bottom
- 1/2 cup mature acidic kombucha (like Health-Ade brand)
- 1 quart/liter filtered water
- black tea- 1 tbsp. Loose or 2 tea bags
- organic cane sugar- 1/4 cup
- Cloth to cover top of bottler
- mason jar with tight cap
- 16 oz. coconut milk or grass-fed, organic milk (cow, goat)
- 2 quality probiotic capsules (like these)
- Fermented Veggies:
No long meal prep time needed. Click on each ferment for the recipe and follow the directions:
- In a large, bowl, mix grated/shredded veggies, 2 tbsp. Sea Salt
- Pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer for about 5-10 minutes to release juices
- Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices come to the top of the veggie or fruit. The top of the cabbage should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
- Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 3 days before transferring to the refrigerator. The veggies or fruit may be eaten immediately, but it improves with age.
- Combine the chopped fruit, sea salt, lemon juice, and spices together.
- Place the mixture little by little in your fermentation jar, pounding it vigorously to
release the juices.
- Make sure the mixture fills the jar up to no more than 1 inch below the top (because of the expansion) and that the extracted water covers the mixture. If not, create a brine of filtered water with a few pinches of salt to cover the mixture.
- Press the fruits and keep them under the brine by placing a plate or a lid on top weighted down by a boiled rock, plate, or a jug of water. Cover with a clean towel if needed to keep out fruit flies.
- Place the fermentation jar in a warm spot in your kitchen and allow the fruit to ferment for 2 to 4 days.
- Check on it from time to time to be sure that the brine covers the fruit and to remove any mold that may form on the surface.
- . A good way to know when it’s ready is to taste it during the fermentation process and move it to the refrigerator when you’re satisfied with the taste.
- Pour milk into jar along with starter cultures (kefir grains)
- Cover with a cloth
- Let sit at room temp for 24 hours in a cool, dark place (like a turned-off oven)
- After the milk changes texture and culturing is complete, separate the kefir grains from the finished kefir.
- Place the kefir grains in a new batch of milk.
- Cover lid and store in fridge
- Mix water and sugar and bring to a boil in a small cooking pot.
- Turn off the heat; add tea, cover, and steep about 15 minutes.
- Strain the tea into a glass container with a wide bottom
- Allow the tea to cool to body temperature.
- Add the mature acidic kombucha.
- Place the SCOBY in the liquid, with the firm, opaque side up.
- Cover with a cloth and store in a warm spot, ideally 70 to 85 degrees F.
- After a few days to 1 week, depending on temperature, you will notice a skin forming on the
surface of the kombucha. Taste the liquid. It will probably still be sweet. The longer it sits, the more acidic it will become.
- Pour milk of choice into jar along with probiotic powder from capsules
- Cover with a lid
- Let sit at room temp for 24-48 hours in a cool, dark place (like a turned-off oven)
- Store in fridge
Lazy Chef Route
Don’t feel like making your own? No sweat! Here are some of the top brands to check out with that “just right” fermented taste and consistency :
- Local farmer’s market
- Fermented Veggies: Farmhouse Culture’s
- Kombucha: Health Ade
- Kefir: Maplehill Creamery
How Long Do Fermented Foods Last?
Fresh fermented foods are best consumed within 1-3 months of making them or buying them, and you can tell if they’ve lost their good bacterial properties based on 3 factors:
- Do they smell stinky?
- Is there mold on them?
- Have they changed colors?
- Do they taste “flat” (non-acidic)
To ensure your fermented foods last as long as possible, here are few factors that extend the life of ferments:
- Temperature – When a ferment is to your taste liking, this is why it gets moved to the refrigerator. The cold temperature slows down the decomposition process and keeps it from fermenting further.
- Acid – When most homemade ferments reach their best level, acid is formed that helps to preserve them. This is what makes fermented foods taste sour.
- Anaerobic Environment – Keep out the oxygen by keeping your ferments tightly sealed! Mold loves oxygen.
Essential Fermented Foods Resources
Want to dive in more? Check out these websites to find recipes and all you need to know!
Equipment & Starters
*Question: Why Do Fermented Foods Make Me Feel Bad?
Fermented foods are healthy for most people. However, some people find they cannot tolerate fermented foods.
This is often because they have an underlying gut bacteria imbalance or dysfunction to begin with. For instance, if you have SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or a yeast infection, like Candida, you may find fermented foods make you feel worse—not better.
Fermented foods contain natural sugars and bacteria strains that can further perpetuate bacterial imbalances if you already have a lot of gut bacteria (SIBO) or yeast that LOVES to feed off sugar.
In these cases, it’s advised you FIRST address the underlying gut pathology (like SIBO or Candida) and integrate fermented foods on a per-food, as-you-feel basis.
For instance, kombucha has quite a bit of sugar in it, so it typically is not advised for those with yeast infections. Sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar on the other hand, in condiment-sized servings, may be better tolerated due to the low sugar and gentle digestive natures of these foods.
It’s all about finding what works for you. Fermented foods can still do a body good, but it is crucial to fix the underlying gut issue in conjunction.
How Do I Eat Fermented Foods?
How Do I Easily Make Them at Home?
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