Are Fermented Foods Good for You?
People have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years and for good reason. These foods offer a variety of health benefits, particularly for gut health. As a registered dietitian, I am often asked about the potential benefits of fermented foods and whether they are worth incorporating into one's diet. In this article, I'll explore the benefits of fermented foods, the potential risks, and how to get probiotics into your diet.
Fermented Foods: How are they made?
Fermented foods are made by a process in which bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms break down sugars and starches in food. This process creates beneficial compounds like lactic acid, which is responsible for the sour or tangy taste in fermented foods. Fermentation can occur naturally or can be initiated by adding a starter culture. Common examples of fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sourdough bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and tempeh.
Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods
One of the primary benefits of fermented foods is their ability to improve gut health. The beneficial bacteria that are produced during the fermentation process can help improve the gut microflora, leading to improved digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function. There is promising research linking the consumption of fermented foods to a lower risk of certain chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
In addition to their probiotic content, fermented foods can also offer other health benefits. For example, soy-based fermented foods like miso and tempeh contain isoflavones, which have been shown to improve heart health and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. Kombucha, a fermented tea, contains antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that may help improve immune function and reduce inflammation.
Potential Pitfalls of Eating Fermented Foods
While fermented foods can offer numerous health benefits, it's important to note that they may also pose some risks. For example, some people may be sensitive to histamine, a compound that is produced during fermentation. Foods like sauerkraut and kimchi are high in histamines, and consuming large amounts of these foods may lead to symptoms like headaches, hives, or digestive upset. Additionally, some fermented foods may be high in sodium, so it's important to choose low-sodium options when possible. Kombucha is made from black or green tea and some brands have added sugar. It may also contain low levels of alcohol depending on the fermentation and storage process. Choose brands low in sugar and avoid Kombucha if you are immunocompromised, pregnant or breastfeeding or a child, especially if brewed at home.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are one of the primary health benefits of fermented foods. Probiotics are live microorganisms that can offer numerous health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. The amounts in these foods can vary and there is no recommended dose at this time. The strains of bacteria found in fermented foods can vary depending on the food and the fermentation process used. However, some of the most common probiotic strains found in fermented foods include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Getting Probiotics in your Diet
If you're looking to get more probiotics in your diet, there are several options. Yogurt and kefir are both excellent sources of probiotics, and they can be found in most grocery stores. Look for options that contain live and active cultures and choose plain varieties to avoid added sugars. Use plain yogurt in sauces, vegetable dips and salad dressings, add Kefir to smoothies, overnight oats or drink it as is. Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables can also be good sources of probiotics. Be sure to choose unpasteurized options, as the pasteurization process kills the beneficial bacteria. Finally, if you're looking for a convenient way to get more probiotics, you may want to consider a probiotic supplement. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to determine the best probiotic supplement for your individual needs. Be aware that the quality of supplements on the market can vary greatly.
The Bottom Line
Fermented foods are an excellent way to support gut health and offer a range of other health benefits. However, it's important to be aware of potential risks, such as sensitivity to histamine and high sodium and sugar content. Incorporating a variety of fermented foods into your diet can help improve the balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut and support overall health.