Fermented foods are often part of the best nutritional suggestions for intestinal health, because they contain probiotic bacteria which are said to have beneficial effects on the microbes in our intestines. But what is a fermented food and how do you know if you’re eating the right one? Let’s dig.
What are fermented foods?
By definition, “fermented foods” are those in which microorganisms, including bacteria and yeasts, have been grown into some sort of food product. These microorganisms partially consume the food, and in return, their metabolic waste change the food chemistry.
This chemical change is why fermented foods were invented in the first place. If you let the milk ferment, it grows acid, which gives it a bitter taste. More importantly, it makes the resulting milk – which you might call yogurt – too acidic to allow most harmful bacteria grow there. Fermenting a food is a bit like planting a lawn: just as grass can take over and prevent weeds from taking hold, fermenting a food makes it harder for other microbes to grow in it. food and spoils it.
FFermentation is one way to preserve food, but IIt is also used to alter the taste and texture of foods, and to make them easier or more enjoyable to eat. For example, if you are lactose intolerant, it will be easier for you to eat a block of cheese than to drink a glass of milk.
What foods are considered fermented? If we define them as foods in which microbes were deliberately allowed to grow we get a huge list of things From all over the world. Dairy products like yogurt, cheese and kefir all count because make fermented vegetables like kimchi, sauerkraut, and anything pickled. Kombucha, miso, tempeh, and even sourdough bread make the list. Beer and wine? Also fermented.
But are all these fermented foods equal in health? Not really. Some of these items, if you buy them at a grocery store, are not necessarily fermented the old fashioned way. Others use fermentation as to walk in their production, but do not contain any of those beneficial microbes the moment they reach you. And as you might have guessed from the variety of this list, they are just completely different foods that probably have very different effects on our bodies.
Why fermented foods are (probably) good for you
I’ll be honest – scientists are still working on the question of why and even whether fermented foods are good for us. But the consensus so far is that they should probably be considered part of a healthy, diverse diet. Beyond this vague statement, things become complicated.
Many fermented foods contain lactic acid bacteria. These little guys make lactic acid – the name literally means “milk acid” – when they are allowed to swallow our food. They are in yogurt, kimchi, and many traditionally made pickles. Lactic acid bacteria are considered probiotics: they seem to have beneficial effects on our health.
While probiotics are often characterized as “good bacteria” that take up residence in intestine, the truth is that probiotics usually don’t settle and don’t settle. We already have have bacteria in our guts, and they’re not gonna quit their cushy job just because a new guy shows up. But whatever the reason, there are health benefits of consuming probioticsWho have been linked to improvements in digestion, cardiovascular health, and immune health, to name a few.
There is also research suggesting mental health benefits of probiotics and “prebiotics.” Prebiotics are types of fiber that our human enzymes cannot easily digest, but the bacteria in our gut can. Vegetables and cereals are sources of prebiotics, so a food that contains lactic acid bacteria And prebiotic fiber — like, say, kimchi — provides both.
Why Fermented Foods Might Not always to be beneficial
Despite all the hype, we don’t have a lot of solid evidence on the benefits of probiotics, or on fermented foods in general. This review 2019 even concludes, “There is very limited clinical evidence for the effectiveness of most fermented foods on gastrointestinal health and disease.”
Probiotics and prebiotics in fermented foods can also cause or exacerbate certain health problems. Bloating is a common side effect, simply because a lot happens to our guts when we eat them.. Everyone’s personal ecosystem is not shy about accepting newcomers.
Fermented foods also contain a cocktail of different natural chemicals that can be good (or sometimes bad) for us. Histamine, for example, is a compound you may be familiar with for its role in allergies. But histamine can also be present in fermented foods, causing allergy-like symptoms in people particularly sensitive to histamines.
There are also food safety issues, especially with home-fermented products. Traditional ways of fermenting food generally works pretty well, but it really helps to have experience with the particular fermented foods you’re trying to make SO you can recognize when bad germs are growing. If you’ve ever gotten so into kombucha brewing that you’ve browsed pictures on blogs trying to diagnose if your SCOBY is doing something normal-weird or bad-weirdyou know what I mean.
What grocery store foods are actually fermented?
So you would like to add more fermented foods to your diet. Cool! But just knowing that certain foods can being fermented doesn’t mean the ones you bought at the store are.
JTake pickles. The traditional way to make any pickled vegetable is to soak said brine vegetable. salt in brine is hostile to many microbes that would otherwise grow on your vegetables, while maintaining space for those lactic acid bacteria we know and love. When they arrive and begin to multiply, these little guys eat the carbohydrates in vegetables and produce acid. leave your pickles to pickle long enough, and you’ll get that sour-salty fermentation flavor we all know and maybe to like.
But if you’ve ever made quick pickles, you haven’t done it this way. You have vegetables and you poured vinegar on them. Boom, you have something that looks like a pickle and tastes like a pickle – it was just produced in an entirely different way. (Vvinegar is also traditionally a product of fermentation, in which one set of microbes turns sugar into alcohol and a second set turns alcohol into acid.) Maybe some fermentation happened somewhere along the way. route, depending on the type of vinegar used, but you don’t get a bite of probiotics when you eat quick pickles.
If you want the old-fashioned version, look for “lacto-fermented” pickles from a specialty vendor. (Most grocery store pickles are the vinegar type.) Vegetables fermented with live cultures, including pickles and kimchi, will be kept refrigerated to slow microbial growth. If you leave them at room temperature, or even in the fridge for an unusually long time, they can build up pressure and even, in extreme cases, explode.
If you buy yogurt, the FDA requires the yogurt maker to tell you if the yogurt not contain live microbes. (The phrase “contains live and active cultures” is optional if present.)
Sourdough bread uses fermenting microbes in its sourdough, but by the time the bread is baked, those microbes are all dead. You will still get some of the some products fermentation – hence the flavor – but if you’re looking for live microbes, they’re gone.
It’s okay to eat fermented foods that have had the germs killed or foods that have been traditionally fermented but produced differently today. They’re not bad for you or anything. They often contain some of the same components, like prebiotics and bacterial metabolites, that make fermented foods healthy. But if you want to be sure you’re getting foods that are actually fermented, check the labels, and do your research.