Discover a handful of fermented foods that are easy to incorporate into your diet for improved health. Learn what to look for when purchasing to get the best “Bacteria Bang for your Buck.” Test simple recipes to make your own and save big money. See how easy it is to add these powerful fermented foods to your diet and learn about their wonderful health benefits.
- Fermented Foods are Ancient
- Fermented Foods are Powerful
- Sauerkraut & Kimchi
- Which Fermented Food are You Going to Add to Your Diet?
Fermented Foods are Ancient
Humans all over the world have used fermentation as a way to successfully preserve their food since ancient times. It is an awe-inspiring process that changes grapes into wine, barley seeds into beer, milk into cheese (or yogurt or kefir), flour into sourdough bread, soybeans into miso (or soy sauce), cacao beans into chocolate, pig into prosciutto, cucumber into pickle, and cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchi.
It was through the fermentation of these food products that not only was the food preserved but it was made more nutritious and more digestible. Virtually, every early society ate and enjoyed fermented foods. However, with the advent of industrialized food processes, many fermented foods either were lost or are now made using vinegar and high-heat pressure processing or pasteurization. These modern foods are missing all the powerful probiotics and beneficial enzymes of traditionally fermented foods.
Fermented Foods are Powerful
As science reveals more about the benefits of the good bacteria present in traditionally fermented foods, we are seeing a surge in their popularity. Fermented foods are listed as one of the Food Trends of 2015 in a Chicago Tribune article:
“Fermented foods — think yogurt, kimchee and sauerkraut — contain live cultures, or are preserved in liquid so their sugars and starches can become bacteria-boosting agents, which is said to aid digestion.”
“We’re going to see much more attention on packaging (devoted) to digestive health,” said Lempert. “We’re going to start pickling all kinds of things.”
The Health of Your Gut Microbiome is Key
It is only today that we are beginning to understand the power of including fermented foods in your diet. The Human Microbiome Project was launched in 2008, with the goal of identifying the microorganisms both in and on us and their impact on our health. This project and other studies are revealing many of the ways in which our invisible residents shape our lives, from birth to death.
Your body plays host to trillions of microscopic visitors that make up your unique microbiome fingerprint. A troop of bacterial superheroes living in your gut works very hard to help keep you healthy, strong and resilient.
Watch this 3-minute video by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation on the human gut microbiome and learn more about the superheroes that live within you.
Note: It is great that educational grant money was available to produce this video. We know who funded this video by the ad displayed at the end. However, as you read further, you’ll understand why the yogurt mentioned is not a brand recommended for building healthy gut bacteria.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are made either by using a culture to inoculate food or allowing ingredients to ferment over time in a controlled environment, often adding salt to draw moisture out of the foods and keep bad bacteria at bay while the good bacteria multiply and grow enhancing the nutritional profile of the ingredients used to make it.
This fermentation process converts the sugars into cellular energy with lactic acid being its byproduct. It’s this lactic acid that then produces digestive enzymes and healthy gut flora and cuts the sugar content of the food at the same time! The result is good-for-you foods full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and probiotics.
8 Reasons to Start Eating Fermented Foods
- Fermented foods provide an excellent source of probiotics to restore gut health.
- By eating a variety of fermented foods, you are directly supplying your digestive tract with a wide range of beneficial bacteria that help promote the growth of healthy flora in your intestines. This makes for better digestion which makes for better health.
- Fermentation increases the nutritional value of foods.
- The fermentation process changes a food into a superfood by making the nutrients more bioavailable. For example, sauerkraut contains 20 times the bioavailable amount of Vitamin C of raw cabbage.
- Captain Cook’s crew were free from scurvy on their sea voyages because they were forced to eat Vitamin C-rich sauerkraut.
- During the Civil War, physicians were able to reduce the death rate from disease among prisoners of war by feeding them sauerkraut.
- Fermented foods help you absorb nutrients better.
- Having a healthy balance of gut flora and plenty of digestive enzymes ensures that you will absorb more of the nutrients in the foods you eat.
- When your gut flora is out of balance you can’t absorb all the nutrients out of the foods you eat. Eating fermented foods help improve your gut flora.
- Fermented foods support your immune system.
- Most people, and many physicians, do not realize that 70 percent of the cells that make up your immune system are found in the walls of your gut.
- By eating fermented foods, you enhance your gut flora and increase the amount of beneficial bacteria present, which are then better able to ward off the invaders.
- Fermentation cuts the sugar content of foods dramatically
- This is because the bacteria, present in the fermenting foods, or present in the culture added to the fermenting foods, use the sugar as food to do their job. They eat the sugar for you!
- During the fermentation of Kombucha, the bacteria and yeasts in the added culture eat the sugars in the sweetened tea and produce a slightly sour drink.
- During the fermentation of sauerkraut, the sugars present in the cabbage are consumed by the bacteria and the result is sauerkraut with a sour tang.
- For wines and hard ciders, yeast present on the fruit help to ferment sugars into alcohols.
- Fermentation removes toxins from foods.
- All grains contain phytic acid, a compound that blocks the absorption of nutrients. Fermenting grains by soaking them before cooking neutralizes phytic acid, rendering the grain far more nutritious.
- This is why sourdough bread made with a traditional “starter” and left to rise for 12-24 hours is far more nutritious and easier to digest than bread made with commercial brewer’s yeast and short rising times.
- Fermentation safely preserves foods.
- It is by lactic acid that many fermented foods are safely preserved. This acidic fermentation renders foods resistant to spoilage and highly unlikely to develop food toxins.
- This ancient practice has allowed cultures around the world to preserve and store food from the time of harvest to time of consumption long before there were refrigerators, freezers or canning.
- Fermented foods are budget-friendly and delicious!
- Eight 12-ounce bottles of kombucha, that sell for $3.95 each, can be brewed for the cost of seven black tea bags and one cup of white sugar.
- One quart of sauerkraut kraut can happily ferment on your countertop for the cost of a two pound head of cabbage, a couple of carrots, a few cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of salt. Those are real savings that add up to a decent chunk of money over time.
- And, oh, the flavor profiles that are developed during the fermentation process! Tangy sauerkraut, spicy Kimchi, sour yogurt and kefir, miso, effervescent kombucha and lovely sweet chocolate are just a few of many fermented foods to choose from. We’ll learn about these now.
Fermented foods are essential for your digestive health. I discuss just six of the many to choose from. See which ones inspire you, or are easiest to add to your diet, and start with those. Or, which fermented food(s) are you already consuming that you can up the quality on? Your long-term goal being to eat at a variety of bacteria-rich foods, so that your microbiome fingerprint is made up of a wide range of beneficial bacteria.
In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz cites a 2006 study that looked at the consumption of fermented foods and and their impact on immune health.
Researchers looked at individuals who ate many kinds of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles, and cheese. After recording a baseline for immune function, subjects were placed on a diet without fermented foods and immunity markers plummeted. Then researchers fed one group regular yogurt, and another group probiotic enhanced yogurt. The probiotic group did a bit better, but it wasn’t until subjects were allowed to resume their normal diets with a wide variety of fermented foods and beverages that the highest levels of immune function returned.
“How I interpret that data is that diversity is its own reward,” Katz said. “Better than billions of copies of a single bacteria or two bacteria for stimulating immune function is ingesting foods with many different types of bacteria on them.”
All diseases begin in the gut– Hippocrates, over 2,000 years ago– Hippocrates, over 2,000 years ago
We are only now beginning to understand how right he was.
Sauerkraut & Kimchi
Sauerkraut is a popular condiment, most famous as a topping on hot dogs. However, my memories of this hot dog topping are not good. That is probably because the stuff on my hot dog was canned and lacking in not only flavor but the many benefits of the real stuff, lacto-fermented sauerkraut. Over ten years ago, I learned to make my own sauerkraut, created a variety of fun flavors, now love it, even crave it and always have it with my dinner.
Sauerkraut’s appeal is international. Kimchi – a style of sauerkraut made with ginger, garlic, onions, radish and spicy red pepper – is the national dish of Korea, often eaten at every meal. In fact, Koreans consume 1.5 pounds of Kimchi per week! That’s almost a 1-quart jar of sauerkraut, every week, per person. Americans consume 1 quart annually.
Due to the rise in popularity of fermented foods, a variety of artisanal brands of sauerkraut can now be found in most health food stores. And, today’s sauerkraut is no longer boring and plain but, comes in a rich variety of flavors to please any palette.
Sauerkraut is a German word that means sour white cabbage. Cabbage by itself offers benefits, but it is through the fermentation process that the bioavailability of nutrients is increased making sauerkraut even more nutritious than the original cabbage.
Sauerkraut is made by mixing sliced cabbage with salt and packing the mixture into an airtight fermentation vessel, sometimes just a simple jar. It is then left to ferment at room temperature, for anywhere from one week to eight weeks.
Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut: Health Benefits
The lacto-fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut results in many positive health benefits. Here are 3 reasons to start eating sauerkraut:
- Sauerkraut is rich in probiotics.
- Probiotics enhance your digestion, help heal any damage to the digestive tract and boost your immune system and energy level.
- In fact, there are higher levels of probiotics in sauerkraut than in a probiotic supplement, as Dr. Mercola found out when he sent his sauerkraut off to a lab for analysis.
- “When my team actually tested fermented vegetables produced by probiotic starter cultures, they had 10 trillion colony-forming units of bacteria. Literally, one serving of vegetables was equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic! So clearly, you’re far better off using fermented foods.”
- Sauerkraut has great nutritional value.
- The fermentation process actually predigests the food, making the food more digestible and the nutrients more bioavailable.
- As Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride explains:
- “This is because in the fresh cabbage, vitamin C is bound in the cellulose structure and various other molecules, and our digestive system is just not able to cleave it off and absorb it. Lots of it goes undigested and comes out right out of you. So despite the fact that cabbage may be very rich in vitamin C, a lot of it you will not be able to absorb. But if you fermented that cabbage and made sauerkraut, all the vitamin C becomes bioavailable,”
- Sauerkraut has anti-cancer properties.
- The cabbage used in the fermentation process contains glucosinolates, found in all cruciferous vegetables, that has been shown in laboratory research to have anti-cancer activities. These glucosinolates are destroyed by cooking and pasteurization
Purchasing Sauerkraut: What to Look for on the Label
To obtain the health benefits of traditionally fermented sauerkraut, the sauerkraut you purchase must be raw and not contain vinegar.
Live probiotic-rich sauerkraut is found in the refrigerated section of natural foods stores. You should see the words unpasteurized, or raw on the label and the ingredients should be only cabbage, salt and whatever vegetables are used for seasoning. You might find “starter culture” on the label, which is fine. Some companies use a starter culture to boost the number of beneficial bacteria present at the beginning of the fermentation process.
Make Your Own Sauerkraut: Tips and Links
Learning to make sauerkraut is perfect for your first foray into fermentation. Hence, it is often spoken of as the “gateway drug” of fermentation.
Sauerkraut is simple to make. No fancy jars required. No expensive equipment, though I do recommend a scale to ensure proper salt levels. Just cabbage, salt and time, which can be as little as 7 days, though the best levels of beneficial bacteria are achieved after 20 days! It keeps well and, you will save oodles of money over buying the expensive designer sauerkrauts you find in natural food stores.
Learn how to choose the best cabbage for sauerkraut. Here is my SureFire Sauerkraut Method… In a Jar: 7 Easy Steps with step-by-step photography and many tips.
Ways to Eat Sauerkraut
First off, when looking for ways to eat sauerkraut, keep it simple. You don’t need an elaborate recipe nor do you need to eat a massive quantity to speed up your digestion or improve your health. Just one forkful of sauerkraut is teaming with beneficial bacteria.
And be aware, if you want to enjoy the benefits of your naturally fermented sauerkraut, don’t destroy the good enzymes and probiotics by heating it.
It’s fine to stir sauerkraut into a warm bowl of soup or sprinkle on the top of your meal, you just don’t want to cook or bake with it if you are wanting to take advantage of its many health benefits.
Here are some easy ways to eat sauerkraut and get you going on the road to improved health, or visit my every growing list, 7 Easy Ways to Eat Sauerkraut.
- Condiment to the Main Meal. The easiest way to add sauerkraut to your diet is as a condiment to your main meal. As you’re setting the table, put your jar of sauerkraut out, leaving it in the quart jar that is was fermented in, and add a forkful or two to your plate. It pairs well with almost anything, aids in digestion, especially protein and fats, and contains many vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes.
- Almost Instant Salad. Tear up some lettuce leaves, add a few forkfuls of sauerkraut along with some brine, a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a few grinds of black pepper. For a more fulfilling salad, add some chunks of cheese or leftover meat slices.
- A Nice Zing to Scrambled Eggs. An easy way eat sauerkraut first thing in the morning is to mix it in with your eggs. Try some spicy Kimchi sauerkraut and top with sour cream.
- Sandwich. Make a boring sandwich scrumptious by adding a nice layer of sauerkraut to it.
- Hot Dog! Last, but not least, another easy way to eat sauerkraut is no smoother that steamy hot dog in sauerkraut for the classic combination!
Yogurt is a popular, well-known fermented milk product made most commonly from cow’s milk, but also from goat’s milk and sheep’s milk.
The word yoğurt, is Turkish in origin and related to the verb yoğurmak: “to be curdled or coagulated; to thicken.”
Yogurt is made by fermenting (or culturing) milk. A live and active starter culture (or a dollop of yogurt from a previous batch if you’re making your own) is mixed into warmed milk and left to culture for 8 to 24 hours in a warm place. During this time, the bacteria present in the yogurt culture go to work, growing, multiplying and converting the lactose (milk sugar) to lactic acid, to turn the milk into a thick, creamy product with a soured tang – more yogurt.
The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organization that engages in educational activities supporting sustainable and organic agriculture, recently released, after two years of investigative work, their Yogurt Report: Culture Wars, How the Food Giants Turned Yogurt, a Health Food, into Junk Food. The findings are discussed in this article that includes an interview with Mark Kastel, co-founder of the institute.
As noted in their press release announcing the release of the report:
“Based on its industry investigation, The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking the agency to investigate whether or not certain yogurts on the market, manufactured by such companies as Yoplait, Dannon, and many store brands including Walmart’s Great Value, violate the legal standard of identity for products labeled as yogurt.”
“The Cornucopia Institute requests that the legal definition of ‘yogurt’ be enforced for product labeling, just as it is for products labeled ‘cheese.’”
‘The reason that Kraft has to call Velveeta® ‘processed cheese-food’ is that some of the ingredients used, like vegetable oil, cannot legally be in a product marketed as ‘cheese’,’ Kastel added.”
“Cornucopia alleges that some of the ingredients that manufactures are using in yogurt, like milk protein concentrate (MPC), typically imported from countries like India, do not meet yogurt’s current legal standard of identity.”
If you’re eating yogurt to help optimize your gut flora, chances are the yogurt you’re consuming more closely resembles candy than the cultured milk our ancestors ate. Read on to better understand the benefits of yogurt and how to make sure you’re eating the right stuff.
Naturally Fermented Yogurt: Health Benefits
The fermentation of milk into yogurt results in numerous beneficial changes. Here are 4 reasons to start eating yogurt:
- Yogurt is easier to digest than milk.
- The culturing of yogurt breaks down casein, a milk protein and one of the most difficult proteins to digest.
- Yogurt is rich in valuable enzymes.
- The culturing process for yogurt restores many of the enzymes destroyed during pasteurization including lactase, which helps to digest the lactose, or milk sugar, inherently present in the milk.
- Yogurt is rich in vitamins.
- The culturing of milk increases the bioavailability of calcium, Vitamin C and Vitamin D content of the milk.
- Yogurt contains probiotics.
- Yogurt introduces probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, into your digestion system and helps restore the balance of bacteria in your digestive system.
Purchasing Yogurt: What to Look for on the Label
The label should list milk, preferably “whole” or “full fat,” meaning the cream has not been removed, and various LIVE or LIVING bacteria or culture strains. That’s it! This means the culture has to be added after the milk is pasteurized. In addition, the yogurt should not contain harmful additives, such as high fructose corn syrup, colorings, preservatives, thickeners or powdered milk.
Here’s a food industry well-kept secret. To thicken yogurt, it is common practice to add powdered milk during the commercial yogurt making process. The thickener does not have to be added to the ingredient’s list since it is a “milk” product. When dehydrating milk, the commercial high-heat dehydration methods oxidize the cholesterol in the dehydrated milk, rendering it harmful to the arteries.
Carrageenan, a “natural” food additive linked to gastrointestinal symptoms, is another ingredient best avoided. It is used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk and other processed foods. To learn more, see the Cornucopia Institute’s report: Carrageenan, How a “Natural Food Additive is Making us Sick.
It is best to buy plain yogurt and add your own flavorings and sweeteners. Flavored yogurts often contain preservatives and sweeteners (artificial and natural), flavor enhancers, thickeners and stabilizers. If you buy flavored yogurts, look for brands with real fruit and natural sweeteners.
Make Your Own Yogurt: Tips and Links
I often make my own yogurt not only to save money but because of its yummy-good clean flavor and the ability to add my own sweetener and toppings. This way, I know I’m avoiding all the additives commonly found in yogurt. Also, I can use fresh, grass-fed milk, rich in omega 3s. See Realmilk.com to locate grass-fed, raw milk for making your own yogurt. You can also make nutritious yogurt with whole, non-homogenized organic milk.
I struggled with getting the right consistency with my homemade yogurt. It often turned out sour and runny until I read this in Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz:
I used to use more starter, assuming that more is better, until I consulted my number one reference book, The Joy of Cooking (1964 edition), known affectionately as ‘Joy’ in our kitchen. ‘You may wonder why so little starter is used and think that a little more will produce a better result. It won’t. The bacillus, if crowded, gives a sour, watery product. But if the culture has sufficient Lebensraum [Germen for ‘room to live’], it will be rich, mild and creamy.
Now I add less than one tablespoon of starter – yogurt from a previous batch – to one gallon of milk.
Emma Christenesen at The Kitchn has a great recipe for culturing yogurt in a Dutch Oven and incubating in your oven.
I like to culture mine right in my quart canning jars and incubate either in my dehydrator or in a cooler filled with warm water bottles.
Marisa at Food in Jars has a recipe very similar to how I make yogurt. However, I heat my milk to only 180 degrees and I cool it down to 110 degrees before adding the culture.
Ways to Eat Yogurt
Here are a few of my favorite ways to eat yogurt:
- Granola. For breakfast, on granola topped with fruit and a drizzled of maple syrup.
- Smoothie. When the afternoon “hungries” strike, a smoothie with fresh – a good way to use overripe bananas – or frozen fruit, honey or maple syrup and a pinch of salt, thinning with water to desired consistency.
- Flavored with Fruit or Jam. For a quick snack, stir a dollop of jam into your yogurt or try it with some applesauce and a dash of cinnamon.
Kefir is a cultured beverage made from milk fermented with kefir grains. This bubbly drink is a tart cousin to yogurt and originated more than 2,000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains of Europe. The word Kefir originates from the Turkish word “keif,” meaning “good feeling.” Think of Kefir as a drinkable yogurt with a much greater range of beneficial bacteria than commonly found in yogurt.
Donna Schwenk in her book Cultured Food for Life, states:
“Homemade kefir has between 30 and 56 strains of good bacteria, while yogurt has only 7 to 10. And the types of bacteria in kefir are also quite different from those in yogurt. The bacteria in yogurt pass through the body within 24 hours, their main purpose is to sustain the good bacteria that already reside in the digestive system. Kefir, however, is a source of those good bacteria. The bacteria in kefir stay and take up residence, creating a colony that remains in the digestive system.”
“In addition, unlike most other dairy ferments that use a culture from a previous batch to start the fermentation process (yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk), the fermentation of kefir relies upon kefir ”grains.” They are not truly a grain but a grain-like mass of bacterial and fungal cells that grow together into a white clump resembling little cauliflower florets.”
Donna Schwenk’s world changed when she discovered cultured foods. After a difficult pregnancy and various health problems, she became determined to find answers to what ailed her. And in her quest, she came across the ancient art of home fermentation, a food preparation technique that supercharges everyday foods with beneficial bacteria to balance your digestive system, and vitamins and minerals to enhance your overall health. This simple, natural process has been used for thousands of years to create everything from drinks like kefir and kombucha to foods like kimchi and pickles.
To make kefir, you simply add kefir grains to milk and leave at room temperature until thickened to your liking, about 24 hours. It is a much simpler process to make kefir than yogurt because you do not have to heat the milk nor incubate at a special temperature during the fermentation process.
Naturally Fermented Kefir: Health Benefits
The culturing of milk into kefir results in numerous beneficial changes. Here are 5 reasons to start consuming kefir:
- Kefir has more strains of beneficial bacteria than yogurt.
- The culturing process specific to kefir results in a much broader range of probiotic strains than most other ferments.
- Kefir is a rich source of many different vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids.
- These nutrients help with general health maintenance, promote healing and repair and boost assimilation and utilization of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
- Kefir is easy to digest.
- The fermentation process partially digests the proteins in milk, allowing your body to more easily assimilate the proteins.
- Kefir is lower in sugar than yogurt.
- The milk sugars are predigested by the fermentation process, making kefir extremely low in sugar. Kefir is 1 percent sugar while yogurt is 4 percent sugar.
- Kefir helps control blood sugar levels.
- The fermentation of kefir results in high levels of lactic acid and enzymes that regulate sugar metabolism.