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The Benefits Of Fermented Foods And Why They Need To Be Your Healthy Eating Priority

Written by Michael Garrico

Have you noticed some interesting foods on store shelves in recent years? Possibly been seeing plenty of varieties of pickles to satisfy every appetite and kombucha and kefir in the drink aisle?

These three foods might seem unrelated, but they are actually all made through fermentation, making them part of a category of foods that your great, great grandmother was intimately familiar with but which have fallen out of favor in the modern world.

Fermented Foods Are Making A Big Comeback

The health benefits of fermented foods are hard to ignore, as they provide benefits to our guts that modern processed foods simply can't match.

In fact, the billions of tiny bacteria that make fermented foods their home can have big impacts on our bodies, including aiding digestion, boosting immunity and possibly even help you lose weight. This secret food group might make all the difference in your healthy living plan.

However, the average American knows almost nothing about fermented foods. Where do they come from? What kinds are best to eat? And is all that bacteria REALLY helpful for our stomachs?

Don't worry. We at Total Shape are pretty enthusiastic about fermented foods and we want to share with you what we know. We think these foods are a fantastic way to keep yourself healthy and they taste pretty great too.

We've done all the research about the benefits of fermented foods to that you don't have to, and we'll share our top tips about how to get more of these beneficial microbes into your diet.

If you're ready to make some big changes for the healthy of your gut, then come along as we dive deeply into the fascinating world of fermented foods.

What Makes A Food Fermented?

Kimchi!

The term 'fermented' makes foods sound a lot weirder and scarier than they actually are. In fact, most people are eating fermented foods all the time without even realizing it (yogurt, anyone?).

The definition of fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance through enzymes that are provided by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms. Oftentimes foods are given an inoculate of these enzymes to start the fermentation process.

Essentially, when a food is fermented it is left to sit in a microbial rich mixture until the sugars and carbs are slowly broken down through the munching of hungry bacteria.

The breakdown of lactose and other sugars through these substances makes fermented foods easier to digest for the human body, and once inside you they even help to break down toxic microorganisms like E. coli.

Fermentation also preserves vegetables for longer periods of time because it prevents the process of decomposition from taking place. In many cases, vegetables are fermented through the process of being submerged in salty brine which kills off dangerous pathogens before the healthy bacteria have a chance to munch on them.

The natural sugars and carbs are slowly turned into lactic acid, which is the substance that gives pickles their distinctive sour taste. Other forms of fermentation can be done with dairy products and even soy beans. In many ways, the potential of fermentation is limited only be your imagination.

Overall, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of fermented foods for a healthy body and properly functioning gut. When fermented foods are used as a source of probiotics for the body, they are a safe, affordable and natural way to improve the health of both humans and animals.

Historical Origins Of Fermented Foods

Long before refrigerators, people were fermenting their vegetables and dairy as an easy way to pull out extra nutritional benefits and make them last longer. The art of fermentation was a mysterious practice, which made it sacred in many cultures which revered the transformation as an act of the gods.

The earliest experiments with fermentation took place in the Middle East and produced alcohol, making it both an easy way to store excess corn, wheat and grapes and a made for a decidedly fun addition to any primitive community gathering.

Within a short time, people learned how to ferment a wide variety of other foods, and fermented foods became an important part of food cultures around the world.

The early Romans were big fans of sauerkraut, which they added to as many banquet dishes as they could. The tribal Bulgarians fermented milk to produce kefir, a sour, drinkable yogurt filled with health benefits, while the nearby Ukrainians also understood the potential goodness in fermented dairy and filled their diets with yogurt and buttermilk.

Similar to kefir, the ancient Indians drank lassi, a fermented yogurt drink, before every meal to ensure proper digestion of the foods they were about to eat.

Not least of all, numerous Asian cultures became skilled at fermenting a wide variety of vegetables, including cucumbers, onions, carrots, squash and cabbage; most of which are still enjoyed today.

Science Behind Fermenting Foods

Look into the science behind fermented foods before making any major changes to your diet.

Understanding the science of fermentation is easier if you keep in mind that it is essentially a form of pre-digestion that happens through the work of bacteria that are naturally present like lactobacillus, bifidus, or wild yeasts to eat the starches and sugars in your food.

The enzymes in fermentation bacteria work through hydrolysis, or the process of breaking down complex organisms into their basic parts. Not only do they munch on natural sugars, but lactobacillus can also destroy food borne pathogens like listeria, staph and others.

Scientists aren't sure exactly why this works, but they believe that the acidic pH levels help the lactobacillus to out compete other forms of bacteria.

The beneficial bacteria used in fermentation, called probiotics, are so important for your body's health that scientists have recently been calling them as important as your internal organs.

The micro flora of your gut- which is the collection of all the types of bacteria present, make up an inner ecosystem within your body that keeps your digestive tract as well as many other parts of your body functioning properly.

It's smart to try to understand the impacts of these bacteria because the actually out number your very body cells- at a rate of 10 to one! These bacteria form a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with your body that keeps you healthy and helps fight disease.

A healthy gut is often the key to a healthy body. Once your digestive system is on track you will be amazed what other benefits it brings to your body. Chronic health issues, even ones unrelated to fermented foods, often clear up when fermented foods are added to your diet.

The Problem With Commercial Ferments

In many ways, fermentation is less of a science and more of an art form. It takes careful understanding of all the variables involved and a passion for trying new techniques to see what can be done better.

However, that hasn't stopped many commercial food producers from treating it like a science by following standardized procedures to get consistent results.

This may be great for quality control, but it's actually bad news for your gut. Most of the fermented products available to buy in stores are pasteurized, meaning they are heated to high temperatures in order to kill any harmful pathogens that are present.

Unfortunately, this also destroys all the probiotic benefits of fermented foods and makes them biologically dead. This often happens with pickles and “probiotic” yogurts in order to keep them on the store shelves longer.

If you want the full probiotic benefits of fermented foods, your best bet is to find some that haven't been pasteurized or make your own.

Health Benefits Of Fermented Foods

There are many healthy benefits when it comes to fermented foods.

The benefits of probiotic-filled fermented foods are almost too numerous to list here. These products are nature's super foods, filling your gut and immune system with exactly what you need to stay as healthy as possible.

Below are some of the top nutritional and health advantages that eating a diet of fermented foods will give you.

Good Source Of Probiotics

Perhaps most obviously, fermented foods are filled with plenty of beneficial bacteria called probiotics. Because many fermented foods are vegetable based, they are a smart from of beneficial bacteria for vegans.

Eating probiotics provides your body with plenty of benefits, including a protective lining in the intestines and less susceptibility to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.

A diverse digestive system is a healthy digestive system, meaning that probiotics in your food makes your meals easier for your gut to digest, allows you to absorb more nutrients from your food and makes you healthier, less bloated and thinner.

If you're making a smoothie, toss some kefir in there. Banana, kefir, some greens, you're all set!

Full Of Important Nutrients

Many fermented foods are fantastic sources of the essential nutrients we all need to stay healthy, including vitamin K2 which is essential for avoiding the build up of plaque in your arteries. Fermented foods are also full of B vitamins, calcium, iron and dozens of other beneficial substances.

Optimized Immune System For Fighting Disease

Your stomach contains four fifths of your immune system, so keeping it in tip-top shade should be a priority. Eating a diet full of probiotics can help you to keep the beneficial bacteria in your gut diverse enough to take out any pathogens that are present, which can help reduce your risk of contracting horrible disease or even developing cancer.

Good For Detoxification

Fermented foods are full of beneficial bacteria that can help detoxify your body and draw out the toxins and heavy metals that a modern lifestyle can cause you to suffer from.

Best Fermented Foods To Add To Your Diet

Fermented foods have been an essential part of diets from around the world for years, meaning that there are dozens of options for you to try or even make at home.

You don't have to limit yourself to pickles or sauerkraut (though both are delicious!) because an entire world of fermented food potential awaits your experimentation.

Below are some of the top fermented foods enjoyed around the world and some tips you can follow to ensure you enjoy them.

If you're doing keto, it's worth noting that some of the sugars in fermented foods will be taken care of by the yeast, which can result in a more sour flavor sometimes.

Kombucha

image: colostate.edu

You probably didn't know that tea could be fermented, but kombucha's combination of sugar, black tea and yeasty bacteria produces an incredible brew that's easier than you expect to make right at home.

Once considered the 'Tea of Immortality” in ancient China, kombucha has moved from royalty to the general population and can be made by anyone with a little patience.

The crucial ingredient for kombucha is a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) which you can either make yourself, beg off a kombucha-brewing friend or buy online at specialty sites.

When added to brewed black tea and allowed to sit for two to four weeks, your tea will become carbonated, much like soda, and slightly alcoholic. Kombucha can be drunk both for pleasure and as a health drink to help fight off E. coli and Staph bacteria from your digestive tract.

Studies have also shown that kombucha can help with weight loss, increase energy levels and act as a general detox solution for the entire body.

Sauerkraut

This favorite hot dog topper is actually an easy way to add some fermented benefits into your regular diet. Though it's traditionally prepared with just water, salt and cabbage, homemade sauerkraut can be spiced up any way you want, including adding radishes, peppers or carrots.

As the cabbage breaks down through the bacterial digestion, the sour taste heightens, meaning that you can let your batch age until it's the flavor you want.

Not only is sauerkraut a healthy way to inject some probiotics into your diet, its also a way to prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading. It's also full of beneficial vitamins like vitamin A, C, K, B and iron, calcium and magnesium.

For the best benefits, make sure to buy raw sauerkraut or make your own.

Kimchi

Kimchi takes a little getting used to, but it's great for you.

As a form of spicy sauerkraut, kimchi is made from fermented Asian cabbage and plenty of spices. Popular in Korean food, kimchi is used as a garnish for meat dishes and even layered into sandwiches.

Not only does it add a delicious kick to your favorite dishes, kimchi has also been linked to better colon health, a more robust immune system, glowing skin and weight loss.

You can make kimchi right at home or buy it in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores.

Pickles

Everyone loves a pickle, don't they?

It doesn't take much convincing to get people to eat more of this fermented classic. If you're new to fermented foods pickles are a great place to start.

When made through a lacto-fermentation method, pickles are full of vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants and beneficial bacteria. Best of all, eating pickles can help you keep your vitamin K levels high enough as a singe pickle contains almost 20% of your daily value.

Making your own pickles is super easy and is a great way to preserve extra produce from the garden or your weekly trip to the farmers market.

When buying pickles, be sure to look for ones that are made with organic ingredients and that aren't pasteurized, as pasteurization can kill all the beneficial bacteria they contain.

Yogurt

This classic fermented food is so prevalent today that few people even remember that it's fermented! Even so, probiotic yogurt is the most common fermented dairy product eaten in the United States.

The benefits in yogurt come from its rich probiotic content and the billions of live cultures present within every cup. Eating yogurt regularly can help your digestion and might even help clear up your skin.

Because there is so much misleading advertising about probiotic yogurt, it's important to know what you're buying when you get some. Be sure to get yogurt that actually contains live, active cultures and avoid low-fat and flavored varieties that are pumped full of unhealthy sugars to make them sweeter.

Kefir

This yogurt-like substance is slightly thinner in consistency can conventional yogurt, meaning that it is more often drunk than eaten with a spoon.

Originally from Eastern Europe, kefir has long been an easy way for people to reduce irritation in their intestines and prevent toxins from entering their blood steam.

You'll feel benefits from its levels of vitamin B12, calcium, numerous enzymes and more. When drunk regularly, kefir can help your body boost its immune system, heal irritable bowel disease and even build up your overall bone density.

The secret to making kefir is in the kefir grains that are used as the innoculent to get the bacteria to start munching on the milk sugars. It's also possible to make a water-based or even coconut water based kefir, so long as you have the kefir grains available.

Natto

Though it's relatively unfamiliar to western consumers, natto is a fermented soybean dish that is filled with the highly beneficial probiotic bacillus subtilis, which helps to keep immune systems running strong.

Natto can also help your body digest vitamin K2 as well as calcium, iron and dietary fiber. When combined with vitamin k2, the nattokinase in natto works as anti-clotting agent that keeps your blood pressure levels low enough to be safe.

The texture has been described as being a bit "snotty", so it may not be the best option for breaking a fast, treat yourself to something a bit more palatable if you haven't eaten in a while - but none the less, natto can be a solid option.

Tempeh

image: finedinelove.com

Originally from Indonesia, tempeh made from soybeans and a yeast starter is formed into nutty tasting cakes that have a chewy texture which makes them a great meat substitute.

Tempeh is highly popular in vegan recipes and is a smart way to get all the amino acids needed for complete proteins as well as your daily dose of iron, magnesium and calcium.

Because it's fermented, tempeh is easier to digest than other soy products which makes it a great choice for anyone that has a sensitivity to soy milk and other processed soy products.

Delicious in stir fries and other savory dishes, tempeh is best when bought organic.

Miso

Made from soybeans barley or rice, miso is a fermented paste that adds a well rounded savory flavor to any dish its added to. As a traditional Japanese seasoning, miso is used to make soup and is often added to stir fries.

Just a little of this boldly flavored condiment is needed to transform the taste of a dish and provide you with plenty of health benefits, including a stronger immune system, a lower risk of caner, stronger bones and a healthier nervous system.

You can find miso in most Asian food stores.

Kvass

Popular in Eastern Europe, kvass is a fermented drink made in similar ways to kombucha but traditionally with rye bread and vegetables instead of tea.

Though the drink is usually made without the bread today, it's fizzy, salty taste is still enjoyed when brewed with various vegetables like beats or carrots. Kvass contains plenty of probiotics as well as plenty of salt, so remember that a little goes a long way with this health tonic.

Sourdough

Sourdough is a great way to spice up your sandwich.

Once you try a sandwich made out of fresh sourdough bread, there is rarely any going back. The secret to making sourdough is in the starter, which is cared for and cultivated for between the times you use it to make bread.

With care and attention, you can keep the same sourdough starter alive for years, meaning that the flavor will eventually begin to evolve to reflect the wild yeasts that become involved.

Because the bacteria in the starter help to predigest the flour in sourdough bread, its easier to eat for people with a gluten sensitivity and packs a powerful punch of probiotics as well.

Lassi

Indian cuisine also celebrates the use of fermented foods. Lassi is a fermented dairy product made by combining yogurt with milk and fruits and spices in order to create an easily digestible, probiotic rich drink that is traditionally drunk before meals to prevent stomach problems while eating.

Should You Try Probiotic Supplements?

image: healthannotation.com

It's always better to get your nutrition from food instead of pills, but some people find that no matter how hard they try they simply can't stomach the taste of fermented foods.

Even so, don't give up on eating fermented foods completely until you've given them a good try. A smart strategy is to taste tiny amounts (half a teaspoon or less) every day by adding them to your salads or sandwiches.

If nothing seems likely to get you to be able to enjoy eating ferments, it makes sense to try taking a supplement so that you can still take advantage of the health benefits that ferments give you.

When looking for a high quality probiotic supplement, making sure that that the bacteria strains are advertised as being strong enough to survive your stomach acid and that they actually have health promoting features (not all bacteria is created equal!)

Make sure that the supplement also has a long shelve life and won't go bad within a few days of you opening it.

Feeling Sick On Ferments? You're Going Too Fast

For some people, fermented foods simply don't seem to live up to the hype. They might have allergic reactions to tiny tastes or find that their stomachs feel worse with ferments than without them. Some of this problem comes from portion control issues.

When people first learn about the benefits of ferments they often get so excited that they shock their system by eating more than ten times the recommended dose.

This can cause a crisis in your gut due to the influx of new bacteria being introduced, and if you think this is your problem you need to scale your fermented foods back to recommended levels.

The key to success is to introduce fermented foods into your diet slowly. After a few weeks at a tiny dose level you can increase the amount that you eat everyday to see if you experience an improvement in your body.

Summary

What's your favorite fermented food?

The evidence is clear; fermented food are full of total body benefits and will help every part of your body from your gut to your immune system. To keep yourself healthy and full of body-aiding bacteria, it is important to incorporate some fermented foods into your diet.

You don't need a lot; even a few tablespoons of sauerkraut added onto your sandwich can make a big difference for the health of your gut.

Once you start experimenting with ferments you'll never want to go back. Best of all, these unique foods are often even easier to make than they are to find on store shelves, so you'll get to enjoy the fun and creativity that comes from creating healthy foods to keep your body running well.

Now we want to hear from you! What are your favorite fermented foods? Did we miss any on our list. Share your favorite recipes and cooking secrets with us and we'll be sure to get the word out to our readers.

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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