Cultures around the world have been eating fermented foods for years, like sauerkraut in Germany, kimchi in Korea and kefir in Turkey. The average UK diet is definitely lacking in fermented food – unless you count cheap beer, of course. Even when we do eat foods that are traditionally fermented, like sauerkraut they’re often mass produced, processed versions from the supermarkets and preserved in vinegar instead of the traditional (and naturally occurring) fermentation juices.
What are fermented foods?
Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lacto-fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, produces B vitamins, beneficial digestive enzymes and various strains of probiotics to support digestion and immune health. The lactic acid does the same in a jar of sauerkraut as it does in your large intestine - it keeps the bad yeast and parasites at bay while providing the right environment for healthy bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus to thrive. Lactic acid is why real sauerkraut is sour - it is not because of vinegar.
Why eat fermented foods?
- Probiotics: Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut (the unpasteurised sort) and drinking fermented drinks like Kefir will add beneficial bacteria into your gut and help the balance of bacteria in your digestive system. Probiotics have been shown to support bowel health, aid digestion, constipation and improve the immune system (the majority of which sits in your gut wall)
- Improved nutrient absorption: Having the proper balance of gut bacteria and digestive enzymes helps you absorb more of the nutrients in the foods you eat. The enzymes are similar to the enzymes produced by your pancreas and help to break down food in the stomach and small intestine. Digestive enzymes are particularly useful in people who experience excess gas and bloating as they help break down and digest your food properly. Pair this with your new, healthy, whole food diet, and you will absorb many more nutrients from the foods you eat
- Adding fermented foods to your diet can save you money on probiotics and digestive enzyme supplements
How to incorporate fermented foods into your diet
Most sauerkraut on the market is pasteurised (contains no bacteria or enzymes) - If it doesn't say unpasteurised, it's not the real thing. Ask for unpasteurised sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of your health food store. The key to using unpasteurised sauerkraut for digestive health is to take small amounts on a regular basis. Eat it raw with meals to get the benefits of the digestive enzymes. Start with a forkful or two depending on the health of your digestion. At most, consume 5-6 forkfuls at a time with 2-3 of your daily meals.
Kefir can be drank as a drink or used the same way as you would use plain yoghurt – over fruit, with your breakfast muesli, as a snack with nuts and seeds. Look for an organic version in your local health food store.
What’s the difference between kefir and plain yoghurt?
Like yoghurt, kefir contains beneficial bacteria but unlike yoghurt, which contains transient bacteria (passing through your gut) kefir contains bacteria that will reside in your gut and actually help colonise your intestinal tract. Some of the well-researched strains of bacteria (aka probiotics) are found in kefir such as Lactobacillus Caucasus, Acetobacter species and Streptococcus. Unlike yoghurt, kefir also contains beneficial yeasts such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir which help control and eliminate disruptive pathogenic yeasts from your body. You can drink it or use it as you would use yoghurt. It can also be very useful during acute diarrhoea, traveller’s diarrhoea and antibiotic associated diarrhoea.
Studies have shown that kefir intake enhances lactose digestion in people with low intestinal levels of lactase (the enzyme needed to digest lactose).The effect may be explained by the ability of the starter cultures used in the manufacture of kefir with live cultures to produce the enzyme lactase, which digests the lactose.
What’s your verdict? Are you a fan of fermented foods or are you still unsure? If you already eat fermented foods, please share your favourites in the comments below!