Sunday, August 5, 2012

Health Benefits to Traditionally Fermented Foods

Did you know that the health of your digestive system is crucial to your overall health? In fact, the two go hand in hand.  About 80 percent of your immune system is thought to stem from your digestive system.

Don't think you have a gut imbalance? Have you experienced IBS or indigestion, constipation, food allergies or hay fever, reoccurring illnesses, depression or a general lack of energy? Research shows that an absence of good gut bacteria (usually caused by a poor diet and the affects of antibiotics - I have personal experience with this) are related to all of these health concerns. And most of us in modern society have taken more of our fair share of antibiotics, which wipe out both bad and good bacteria. There are also recent studies that connect autism with gut dysbiosis.

You might be saying, "I already eat yogurt." Sadly, and although marketed so you believe the opposite, most mass-produced yogurt and kefir products do not contain enough live or active cultures. Most manufacturing processes do a heat-treatment after fermentation for longer shelf life, which kill a large amount of the lactic-acid producing bacteria that is crucial to benefiting our overall digestive and immune health. Not to mention that dairy pasteurization has killed off most of the immune-boosting bacteria, which is why I prefer making my own raw yogurt.  I'll save the topic of raw vs. pasteurized for another blog. These pasteurized milk products are usually filled with sugars and high-fructose corn syrup, which can add to bad bacteria growth.

So what can you eat to promote a healthy digestive system?

Benefits of Traditionally Fermented Foods
Many health experts are recommending we consume a form of probiotics on a daily basis. Traditionally fermented foods contain probiotics and can help restore a normal balance of good vs. bad bacteria in the gut. Raw, fermented foods also provide more enzymes, which aid in digestion, increase their vitamin content and make nutrients more readily available. And personally, I think they give a lot of flavor to our otherwise boring meals.

Soy Products
What about fermented soy products? There is controversy with soy in the news lately, and for good reason. Non-fermented soy like tofu and soybeans (like edamame beans) contain phytic acid which inhibits digestion of nutrients (as do unproperly prepared nuts and seeds... we will save this for another blog, also) and are thought to negatively affect hormonal levels. However, traditionally fermented soy products (natto, miso, tempeh and soy sauce) rich in isoflavones, are believed to be cancer preventers.

What Happened to Traditional Foods?
Most civilizations have produced and consumed fermented foods. So why has our generation all but forgotten these traditional foods?

We used to know where our food came from. Even city-dwellers back in the early 1900s used to own and harvest their livestock and grow some produce. But this all changed when new transportation such as trains, cars and trucks came along and the industrialization era began. Mass production removed most of us from farming our own food. Transportation and mass production also enabled us to have a wider variety of foods at more affordable prices. However, industrial farmers and food manufacturers sometimes cut corners in order to make more profit as well as make these foods more readily available to a larger percentage of the population that may otherwise not be able to afford them. But cheaper may equate to less quality and less nutrient-dense foods which could be doing more harm than good. And with manufacturing facilities and commercial farms being out of sight, many don't seem to care about how our food is processed. We have lost that connection, respect and sense of value for our food. So many foods are over-processed and genetically altered; it's no wonder that we have an increase of disease.

An example of moving from traditional to modern processing, most store-bought pickles and sauerkrauts are made with vinegar rather than traditional lacto-fermentation. The majority of breads are made without soaking grains, which remove phytic-acid and enable ease of digestion.

Where to Find Traditional Foods
Are you interested in trying these healthy, naturally fermented foods? Not sure where to start? Here are a few types and even some brands you can buy at your local grocer or health food store, and ways you can use them in your daily meals.

Pickles, sauerkraut and kimchee. I buy Bubbies pickles and kraut at Whole Foods. My fiance loves their pickles!  I love eating kraut and sausages as comfort food.  You can buy kimchee at Asian and most chain grocery stores.  Just make sure none of these are made with vinegar and say they are fermented or you're not getting the real thing.

Natto, miso and tempeh. These are good traditional Asian condiments.  I add miso to soup bases, and tempeh in salads and stir fries. 

Traditionally fermented sourdough bread. Traditional fermentation removes the phytic acid and is easier to digest. Le Pain Quotidien sells some fermented breads, and many markets like Trader Joes and Whole Foods have some, too.  I plan on making my first batch soon and will tell you how it goes!

Kefir. You can buy kefir sodas or juice at many health food stores. Milk kefir is also popular. Look for unsweetened, add your own fruits and make a smoothie, even make ice cream.  Better yet, make your own! Buy kefir grains that you can use over and over (see Cultures for Health website), juice or milk, a few mason jars and you're all set!

Kombucha teas and juices. Watch out, as many commercial brands have excess sugar. I like the original and ginger flavors of GT's Kombucha.  When I can afford to, I buy some Kombucha from my farmers market in Brentwood. Better yet, make your own.  It's easy!

Feeling Adventurous? Want to Make Your Own?
Cultures for Health  sells cultures for kombucha (called SCOBY-cultures), sourdough bread, kefir grains and yogurt cultures, and even supplies like fermentation crocks. 

One of my favorite books that I highly recommend, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon-Morell provides many recipes to make your own fermented foods, as well as more information about traditional foods such as these I talk about in this blog post.

Here's to a healthier you, and to preserving the tradition of whole and healthy, fermented foods.

This article is also shared on Fight Back Fridays 

Resources for this article:

Cheeseslave - - 
Dr. Weil  -


  1. "Traditionally fermented foods contain probiotics and can help restore a normal balance of good vs. bad bacteria in the gut."

    Oh really? I thought fermented foods are not good for the health? I was wrong then. Gotta try fermented foods now.

  2. Hi Christine,

    Fermented foods can help ease digestion. I've been trying to add some form to my meals at least once a day. Pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha. I want to try and make some traditional sourdough bread soon as I hear that is easier to digest than modern store-bought breads.