The Unexpected Glories of Fermented Foods for Health and Anti-aging

Dogs with stomach aches often graze on grass. My stomach was a little addled recently and as I browsed Fairways aisles my eyes lit upon Sunja’s spicy cabbage Kimchi. My gut yelled “grab it” and I did. I’ve always been fond of kimchi but it is not a snack food that leaps immediately to mind. However, I noticed that whatever was troubling my stomach disappeared pretty quickly post kimchi. Was kimchi the equivalent of grass for humans? Later that day, I was on a play date in Central Park with an old Korean girlfriend who expounded on the miraculous properties of fermented foods. “Probiotics, probiotics, probiotics,” she yelped.  How could I have missed this?

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Dating back millennia, fermented foods are among humanity’s oldest attempts to preserve food. But today these foods are newly popular for their purported health benefits. Fermented foods, ranging from sauerkraut to yogurt, are increasingly being seen as a boon to the gut—and in turn to benefits not only for digestive health but possibly also for allergies and even weight loss.
GOOD FOR YOUR GUT: It makes sense that fermented foods might improve digestive health. In fermentation, whether for yogurt or beer, bacteria or yeast feed on the natural sugars in foods. These microorganisms create compounds such as lactic acid or alcohol, which help preserve the foods. The fermented foods also wind up filled with “friendly” bacteria such as those touted in probiotic products, as well as helpful enzymes.
The bacteria “predigest” certain food components, making them easier for your gut to handle and for nutrients to be absorbed when you eat them. People who are lactose-intolerant usually tolerate yogurt or kefir, because the lactose sugar in these products has been partly broken down by the bacteria in them. Even vegetables can benefit from fermentation: Making cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchi increases glucosinolate compounds believed to fight cancer.
Because the gut is the largest component of your immune system, introducing friendly bacteria into your digestive system may also help keep illness away. Evidence suggests that gut health could affect inflammation, allergies and autoimmune disorders in the body as a whole.

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A study published in the International Journal of Obesity even found that some types of probiotics promoted weight loss. But the jury’s still out, and the same research found that other probiotic strains can actually contribute to obesity.
CONSUMER CAUTIONS: Before you start stocking up on pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented staples, however, be aware that not all traditionally fermented foods still contain probiotic bacteria. And even those that do often come with downsides, such as high amounts of added sugars or sodium.
Most fermented foods you can buy in supermarket jars or cans have been pasteurized and cooked at high heat, killing any friendly bacteria. You’ll have to make your own pickles or sauerkraut to retain those products’ bacterial benefits. (If you take basic precautions in fermenting your own, there’s little risk.)

Sunja
You can also make your own yogurt, of course, as well as the similar fermented milk product called kefir. But commercially available fermented dairy foods do typically contain probiotics; check the label for the words “live cultures.” Yogurt and kefir can also be a good source of calcium; not all yogurt is made from milk fortified with vitamin D, however—check the Nutrition Facts panel. Beware, too, of added sugar and calories in flavored yogurts. Plain, low-fat yogurt can easily and healthfully be flavored with fresh fruit as well as whole grains.
High levels of sodium are the downside to savory fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and soy sauce. Opt for low-sodium products when possible, or make your own to control added salt; in any case, use in moderation. Tempeh, which like miso and soy sauce is made from fermenting soybeans, is low in sodium and makes a good protein alternative, similar to tofu (which is not fermented).

But where are all the Fermented Foods Nowadays?

The amount of probiotics and enzymes available in the average diet has declined sharply over the last few decades as pasteurized milk has replaced raw, pasteurized yogurt has replaced homemade, vinegar based pickles and sauerkraut have replaced traditional lacto-fermented versions…the list goes on.

Even grains were safer to eat in earlier times since their preparation included soaking, sprouting and fermenting, which largely reduces the anti-nutrient content and makes them less harmful (I still didn’t say good!).

Instead of the nutrient rich foods full of enzymes and probiotics that our grandparents probably ate, the average diet today consists mainly of sugar laden, lab created dead foods.

Besides the fact that they taste great and really grow on you, there are several great reasons to start making and eating fermented foods:

  1. Probiotics– Eating fermented foods and drinking fermented drinks like Kefir and Kombucha will introduce beneficial bacteria into your digestive system and help the balance of bacteria in your digestive system. Probiotics have also been shown to help slow or reverse some diseases, improve bowel health, aid digestion, and improve immunity!
  2. Absorb Food Better– Having the proper balance of gut bacteria and enough digestive enzymes helps you absorb more of the nutrients in the foods you eat. Pair this with your healthy real food diet, and you will absorb many more nutrients from the foods you eat. You won’t need as many supplements and vitamins, and you’ll be absorbing more of the live nutrients in your foods.
  3. Budget Friendly– Incorporating healthy foods into your diet can get expensive, but not so with fermented foods. You can make your own whey at home for a couple of dollars, and using that and sea salt, ferment many foods very inexpensively. Drinks like Water Kefir and Kombucha can be made at home also and cost only pennies per serving. Adding these things to your diet can also cut down on the number of supplements you need, helping the budget further.
  4. Preserves Food Easily– Homemade salsa only lasts a few days in the fridge- Fermented homemade salsa lasts months! The same goes for sauerkraut, pickles, beets and other garden foods. Lacto-fermentation allows you to store these foods for longer periods of time without losing the nutrients like you would with traditional canning.

So go ahead and join the fermented-foods trend, enjoying the benefits of a process almost as old as civilization itself – while making yourself look younger than your own generation!

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