Adrian here! Fermented foods – also known sometimes as probiotic foods – are a super hot topic in health right now. As far as we’re concerned here at Gut Geek all the hype is absolutely justified!
But that’s not because fermented foods are trendy all of a sudden. In fact they’ve been around for as long as humans have. It’s just we kinda forgot about them for a while, and our health suffered as a result.
It just so happens that our resident nutritional therapist Naomi is a sh*t-hot expert in fermented foods so we’ve written this article together!
Names like ‘kimchi’, ‘kombucha’, ’sauerkraut’ and ‘kefir’ are all rather strange looking words that are popping up a lot more frequently.
They may be fairly new to our vocabulary but these fermented foods and drinks date back centuries, originating as a preservation method in ancient China.
In fact all nationalities and cultures around the world independently developed their own local, regional versions of fermented foods. It’s only in our modern age of refrigeration, pasteurisation and convenience foods that they’ve been ignored and forgotten, and our health has suffered because of this.
Today’s hype is due to the numerous health benefits that these fermented foods and drinks offer us. But why are they such nutritional powerhouses? The answer lies in our friendly gut bugs!
How Does It Work?
Fermentation is a process that occurs naturally when bacteria break down food. So we’re letting food go bad?! Kind of!
What we’re doing is a controlled version of bacterial breakdown. We’re letting specific, helpful bacteria do their work, while keeping other harmful bacteria out.
The process is started spontaneously by naturally occurring bacteria on food, or we add a live culture. These bacteria feed on sugars, producing lactic acid which in turn preserves the food/drink by keeping other bacteria out.
The end result is food that is preserved and stays safe for humans to eat for weeks or months. This is explains why fermentation was so widespread before the days of refrigeration.
Nutrients Are Released
It also just so happens that the process of fermentation ‘releases’ more nutrients for us humans to eat. The lovely little helpful bacteria break down the food and make these nutrients available to us where they were not before.
For example, enzymes and vitamins are produced during this process. This may be why fermented foods are so delicious!
Friendly Bacteria Are Cultured
When we make fermented food we’re careful to create the right conditions for the growth of helpful bacteria. This can mean keeping the food at the right temperature or using the best possible starter culture.
Different fermented foods contain different strains of friendly bacteria. One that’s common in fermented veggies such as kimchi and sauerkraut is called Lactobacillus plantarum and it’s known to be great for healing the gut.
Why Are They Good For Us?
These beneficial bacteria increase the amount and diversity of good bacteria in our microbiome. For more details take a look at What is My Microbiome And Why Does it Matter
This results in numerous health benefits, including helping the immune system to work optimally and lowering the risk of:
– Digestive disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis and leaky gut
– Bad bacteria present in our digestive tract
– Inflammation related illness
– Weight gain, Diabetes and Obesity. Check out Overweight And Malnourished At The Same Time
– Asthma and hay fever
– Hormonal imbalances
– Food allergies and sensitivities
– Autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, IBD. Take a look at Supercharge Your Immune System To Crush Autoimmune
– Anxiety and depression. Check out Brain Health Begins In the Gut
That’s a pretty big list of reasons why we should be eating fermented foods!
Are They Difficult To Make?
The best way to get fermented foods into your diet is to make them yourself as many of the shop-bought varieties have been through a process of pasteurisation that kills off the good bacteria.
Although it might sound daunting and difficult, in fact many of these fantastic foods are very easy to make once you know how. There’s plenty of info out there on the internet on how to get started.
Adrian: they’re so easy even I can make them at home! 😂
You’ll also find more info here: Two Superfoods You Can Make At Home
What If I Don’t Have Time?
Sometimes it’s just not an option to make them at home due to our busy schedules, or we may want to try them out first before taking the plunge.
In that case, many health food stores carry good quality fermented foods such as the ones we mention below. Just make sure the labels mention that the product contains live cultures and is unpasteurised.
But take care because the average sauerkraut – for example – bought in the average supermarket will NOT provide any of these benefits that we’re talking about.
How Much Should I Eat?
Start with a tiny amount, just a teaspoonful, and increase gradually. This allows our microbiome to get used to the new friends arriving at the party!
This particularly applies when your gut is in ‘dysbiosis’, meaning that the bad bacteria are in charge. Be patient and persistent if you have a bad reaction at first, very gradually increasing the amount. Remember that a little turbulence is normal.
Once you’ve got used to the new food or if you have no adverse reaction, we recommend that you have some fermented food every day. Even better is to have some with every single meal.
You can also experiment with different fermented foods until you find the one(s) that works best for you right now, and which you enjoy eating. Let’s check out some of the most popular options:
Kefir is a probiotic-rich drink made from starter grains that look a little like small cauliflower heads. They are a combination of friendly bacteria and beneficial yeasts that react with sugars.
You can make kefir from milk sources such as cow, goat or sheep. Alternatively you can make it from coconut milk, almond milk or even water. This versatility makes it a good option even if you’re lactose intolerant, as many bad-gut sufferers are.
Kefir contains high levels of vitamins and minerals particularly vitamin B and K, has numerous health benefits and is especially great at healing a leaky gut.
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage that is high in both fibre and beneficial bacteria. This fibre is actually food for our good bacteria, so this is a great source of prebiotics (food for bacteria) and probiotics (good bacteria) in one.
This means that when we eat it we’re:
- topping up our friendly bacteria AND
- providing food to help maintain the friendly bacteria colonies once they take up residence in our lower intestine (eww – but helpful!)
Sauerkraut is also super high in:
- vitamin A: really important for repairing the intestinal lining
- vitamin C: again great for gut healing as vitamin C is required for collagen formation which forms the basis of the connective tissue lining our gut. This is the gut wall membrane that becomes permeable in leaky gut!
- vitamin K
- B vitamins
Kimchi is a spicy, staple Korean dish, similar to sauerkraut but with an added kick! It has similar benefits to sauerkraut.
Kombucha is a fermented fizzy tea made from black or green tea.
We start off by making a large batch of tea and adding some sugar, together with the starter culture known as a ‘SCOBY’. This SCOBY feeds on the sugar and tea for a few weeks, gradually breaking it down.
The end result is a delicious, slightly fizzy, probiotic-rich drink know as kombucha.
The sugar that you add to the mixture is used up by the organism and so you are left with an almost entirely sugar-free drink when it’s ready.
Take care as many shop-bought kombuchas contain higher levels of sugar. This means that the best option, if you’re serious about healing your gut, is making it yourself.
To learn more about making your own fermented foods, please get in touch with Naomi. She puts on very affordable workshops to teach you how to make your own at home along with starter kits to get you going. Email [email protected] to find out more.