They might have been grabbing all the headlines of late, but fermented foods are actually nothing new – in fact, fermentation has been used as a simple method of food preservation since prehistoric times. Yet, it’s only relatively recently that the millions upon millions of ‘friendly’ bacteria that they contain have been associated with such an increasing number of health benefits.
Curious about fermented foods and what can they do for you?
Below you’ll learn more about fermented foods and discover three fantastic health benefits that can be enjoyed simply by adding more of these yummy superfoods to your daily diet.
What are fermented foods?
Fermented foods are food products that have undergone a special process that encourages micro-organisms (such as bacteria, fungi and yeast) to feed on the sugar and starch that they contain. This process, known as ‘lacto fermentation’, produces lactic acid, which in turn preserves the food. Indeed, this ancient preservation technique was used long before the invention of the refrigerator and as far back as 6000 BC. Lacto fermentation also creates a number of beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and an impressive variety of probiotic strains to boot.
What are the most common fermented foods?
Lacto fermentation sometimes occur naturally, such as in the manufacture of certain types of cheese, or can be triggered intentionally, by the purposeful addition of one or more of the micro organisms mentioned above. And, although almost any type of food can be fermented, the most common are dairy products, beans, grains and vegetables. Some of the most popular fermented foods on our supermarket shelves today include:
A fashionable vegetarian alternative to meat that’s made from naturally fermented soy beans. Tempeh is a complete source of vegetable protein that boasts a slightly nutty flavour and is an excellent source of probiotics.
Sauerkraut is made by adding salt to finely sliced cabbage – this introduces airborne bacteria called lactobacilli, which kick-starts the process of lacto fermentation. A traditional German dish that’s often flavoured with juniper berries, sauerkraut is packed with fibre and probiotics.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made by inoculating cow, goat or sheep’s milk with kefir grains – a blend of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, suspended in protein, lipids and sugars. It has a similar flavour to yoghurt and is brimming with calcium and probiotics, making it an ideal alternative to ordinary milk, especially on your favourite breakfast granola.
Kombucha is a particularly refreshing type of tea that’s typically flavoured with fruit and herbs, and is utterly teeming with “friendly” bacteria. Once favoured by Chinese warlords and emperors for its unrivalled ability to boost energy and aid recovery, it’s still considered a valued source of Chi (the revitalising life energy that harmonises body, mind and soul) in traditional Chinese medicine. Kombucha is ideally consumed directly after exercise or as an accompaniment to your evening meal. Please note, however, that Kombucha drinks contain an extremely small amount of alcohol that’s naturally created during the fermentation process.
The health benefits associated with fermented foods
It wasn’t until 1837 that famous French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, finally discovered fermented foods contain living organisms that multiply rapidly during the fermentation process. Countless studies have since linked these bacteria or so-called ‘probiotics cultures’ to a number of important health benefits.
Three of the health benefits associated with the probiotic cultures found in many fermented food products, including kombucha drinks, are listed below.
1) Fermented foods help to strengthen your immunity
Enjoying fermented foods and drinks naturally introduces friendly bacteria to your digestive system, where they go on to play an essential role in both the development and function of your immune system. Approximately 80 percent of your immune system’s cells are actually located within the digestive tract, which is why healthy intestines are so important for your general health and wellbeing. In fact, if your digestive system isn’t working correctly, then you’ll not only feel under the weather; you’ll also absorb nutrients less efficiently, your immune system will suffer as a result, and you’ll be left at an increased risk of illness and disease (Steinhoff, 2005).
The friendly bacteria in fermented foods additionally aid in the production of antibodies that actively fight pathogens – the infectious agents that cause disease. In 1907 Nobel Prize recipient, Élie Metchnikoff, suggested that “the dependence of intestinal microbes on food makes it possible to adopt measures to modify the flora in our bodies and to replace harmful microbes with useful microbes”.
For example, during the 1950’s sauerkraut proved effective in killing the pathogenic forms of bacteria that were responsible for an outbreak of typhoid, and German scientists recently discovered a strain of lactic acid bacteria, which could possibly eliminate some of the super-bugs that are currently showing resistance to antibiotics.
Not only that, the carbohydrates in lactic acid–fermented foods have been broken down or “pre-digested” and, unlike ordinary carbs, don’t place a heavy burden on the pancreas, which is considered of special benefit to diabetics who’s pancreas struggles to produce enough insulin to keep their blood sugar levels down.
2) Fermented foods provide welcome protection against allergies
The probiotics in fermented foods and drinks, such as kombucha, enable your immune system to better distinguish between pathogens and harmless antigens, and thus respond to them appropriately. This is an important mechanism in preventing your immune system from reacting too strongly to harmless antigens, which is the trigger for allergies (Bjorkstén et al., 2004).
3) Fermented foods aid digestion
The ‘friendly’ bacteria in fermented foods help you to digest and absorb foods more efficiently and in particular, carbohydrates, such as starch, fibre and sugar. In fact, it is the good bacteria in your digestive tract that convert these carbohydrates into energy and important nutrients (Sears, 2005).
As they help balance the production of stomach acid, fermented foods and drinks also boast the unique ability to ease the type of digestive discomfort typically linked to either too much or too little stomach acid.
Lastly fermented foods aid in the production of acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter, which helps to facilitate the transmission of nerve impulses that increase bowel movement and prevent constipation.
Adding fermented foods to your daily diet
Fermented foods make a sensible addition to a varied and balanced diet. Try adding a small serving of sauerkraut to meals, swapping your usual milk for kefir or enjoying a regular kombucha tea, for optimal results. Please note that those suffering from a Candida infection are advised to temporarily abstain from fermented foods, as the natural yeasts that they contain may unduly burden a Candida infected gut.
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