The health benefits of fermented foods

The health benefits of fermented foods and how to ensure you're consuming the right amount.
By Marni Wasserman
red miso soup Getty images

Did you start the day with kefir in your smoothie? Wash down your lunch with a glass of kombucha? How about pickles or kimchee for dinner? No? Chances are you didn’t eat anything fermented today. If you did, congratulations! Your gut says ‘thank you!’

What is a fermented food, you ask? Essentially, fermenting means converting a food's carbohydrates to alcohol (not the kind that gets you drunk). Examples include kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchee, vinegar, tempeh, miso, yogurt, kefir and pickles, to name a few. So why are these foods important?

Fermented foods have a lot of health benefits. They are rich in enzymes, which help speed up digestion and absorption in our system. They are also rich in good bacteria, specifically lactobacillus acidophilus, which is an extremely beneficial flora found in the gut. Consuming the healthy bacteria found in fermented foods can actually restore and balance the flora in your gut leading to better vitamin and nutrient absorption. Another plus is that fermented foods have a long shelf life without containing harmful preservatives, so you can enjoy your food longer without spoilage.

It’s important to note that food that has not been fermented properly can lead to botulism, making you really sick. Fermented foods also contain a lot of salt, so if you’re concerned with your sodium levels it would be wise to monitor your salt intake when consuming fermented foods. Let’s take a closer look at the health benefits of five fermented foods:

1. Kombucha (also known as mushroom tea, though there are no mushrooms in it) is a fermented drink made from tea, sugar, live bacteria and yeast. It’s readily available at health food stores and even some grocery stores. This fizzy, light and refreshing drink comes in a variety of flavours and is like drinking a healthier version of soda! Benefits include improvement in digestion and liver function, as well as stimulation of the immune system. Kombucha does not have a high salt or sugar content and can be enjoyed daily.

2. Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage. It's typically made with just two ingredients: salt and cabbage. Korea has a version of sauerkraut called kimchee, which is fermented spiced cabbage. Sauerkraut and kimchee contain beneficial bacteria that help with the digestive process and are a great way to naturally cure yeast infections. There’s also research linking kimchee with high antibiotic potency and longevity. Sauerkraut and kimchee can be used as a garnish or added to salads and sandwiches. The taste isn’t for everyone, but the health benefits are!

3. Miso is a thick paste made from fermented soybeans that is a great source of manganese and zinc — two important mineral antioxidants. Miso contains healthy bacteria that supports intestinal microflora, the amino acid tryptophan which is important for sleep and is a great source of dietary fibre. During the soybean fermentation process, grains like barley, rice, or buckwheat may be added to achieve a certain flavour, but in most cases soybeans serve as the basis. Miso soup is also often prescribed to patients undergoing chemotherapy as it’s believed by some to aid in absorption of essential nutrients. Miso can be used to add flavour to soups, sauces, marinades, salad dressings or vegetables dishes, but is high in salt so use cautiously.


4. Coconut kefir (similar to milk kefir without the dairy) is fermented coconut milk. It contains a host of probiotic cultures that support your intestinal system that are not found in yogurt. Coconut kefir helps to minimize sugar cravings and, because it’s not made from animal milk, people with lactose intolerance can partake minus the nasty side effects. Enjoy it on its own or in a smoothie or make it into a dip similarly to how you’d use yogurt.

5. Tempeh is made from cooked and fermented soybeans that have been formed into a patty. It’s an excellent and easily digestible source of vegetarian protein which, when combined with its fibre, helps keep blood sugar levels in control. It also contains a large amount of manganese and calcium which is great for the bones, brain and nervous system. Your gastrointestinal health with benefit from tempeh’s fibre and it can also work to reduce cholesterol. Similar to tofu, in that it absorbs whatever it’s marinated in, tempeh is great to barbecue or add to skewers.

My recommendation: Try to include at least 1-2 fermented foods in your diet every day. At the very least a few times a week. It can either be a small addition or condiment to your meal as with sauerkraut or miso or the main part of your meal such as tempeh or coconut kefir.

What's your favourite fermented food?

Marni Wasserman is a culinary nutritionist in Toronto whose philosophy is stemmed around whole foods. She is dedicated to providing balanced lifestyle choices through natural foods. Using passion and experience, she strives to educate individuals on how everyday eating can be simple and delicious.


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