Fermented foods are helpful for your digestion because they are full of good bacteria to help support our gut health. Sometimes, when I mention fermented foods to clients, they are initially hesitant about trying them. This is understandable, as many people are not used to eating fermented foods! I find that understanding the process that goes into making fermented foods can make eating them a little less intimidating.
The good bacteria in fermented foods develop during the fermentation process. Fermentation is an anaerobic process (meaning it doesn’t use oxygen) that converts sugar to acids, gases, alcohol, and other byproducts. This process helps preserve food and was the reason people started fermenting foods way before they knew about the benefits of the good bacteria that result from the process! Personally, I noticed positive changes in my gut health after incorporating fermented foods.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Pickles (fermented cucumbers)
Pickles are my all-time favorite fermented food! The simple pickle can often be forgotten about due to how many unique fermented foods are on the market, and because all pickles are not truly fermented. Real fermented pickles have a cloudy brine and are often found in the refrigerated section. These fermented pickles contain the helpful bacteria. Pickles found on the shelf, with a clear brine and made with vinegar, do not contain the good bacteria. Fermented pickles are a great starter fermented food for kids!
2. Miso (fermented soybean)
What is miso?
Miso is a popular Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a type of fungus, and sometimes involves rice, barley or seaweed. It makes a thick paste that is used for sauces, spreads and soups.
How does tempeh differ from miso?
There are a lot of different soy products. Tempeh is often confused with tofu and miso. Tempeh is brick-shaped like tofu, but a fermented soy product like miso. The difference lies in the preparation. To make tempeh, whole soybeans are fermented into a dense chewy cake that has a nutty, earthy flavor. Miso is ground into a paste.
Both products improve the nutrition availability of soy because the fermentation process lowers the level of phytic acid, a compound naturally present in soybeans that impairs the absorption of some minerals like iron and zinc. Careful though, as soy is a common food sensitivity. If you feel you don’t tolerate soy, then avoid fermented soy too, and it’s best to buy organic soy to reduce pesticide exposure (is a heavily sprayed crop).
3. Kombucha (fermented tea)
Kombucha has grown in popularity over the last couple years. It’s made from black or green tea and is fermented with bacteria and yeast. Kombucha is often used as a sweet drink after a meal, or for an afternoon pick-me-up. If you notice increased itching with kombucha, it’s best to limit intake or avoid all together. It comes in a wide range of flavors and can be found in most grocery stores!
4. Kimchi (fermented cabbage or other vegetables)
One of my favorite ways to eat vegetables is to ferment them myself! One excellent example of fermented vegetables is kimchi. Kimchi is a spicy Korean side that is typically made from cabbage and is flavored with a lot of tasty seasonings that can really add to a dish (like tacos). Fermenting vegetables is really easy. All you have to do is add 1.5-2 teaspoons salt per pound of vegetable, and make sure the vegetables stay submerged under the brine. Sandor Katz has a great book that talks in detail about how to ferment vegetables (and other foods). It’s called “The Art of Fermentation”.
A note about yogurt (fermented milk)
Yogurt is often encouraged for its probiotic benefits, but it’s important to know that many yogurts don’t contain many probiotics. Yogurt is usually heat treated and unless the company
adds the bacteria back in, the bacteria won’t survive this process. When shopping for yogurt make sure to look for the label that says, “Contains Active Cultures”. Finding a yogurt with 6 strains is ideal. A lot of brands add a large amount of sugar to the products, too, so try to find a yogurt with no added sugars (read the ingredient list and look for unsweetened). When buying unsweetened yogurt, you can always add your own berries and nuts to make it more enjoyable.