The Health Benefits of Naturally Fermented Foods

The many health benefits of fermented foods

Traditional cultures didn’t have canning jars or supermarkets. The food they harvested in one season often had to be kept for the upcoming seasons, and their survival often depended on its preservation. Thankfully, they had a simple and effective method of preservation – lacto-fermentation. (By the way, lacto-fermentation doesn’t refer to the use of any milk products, but rather to the lactic acid fermentation responsible for culturing.)

Through fermentation, foods are preserved through the work of healthy bacteria. In a process that seems almost magical, but is easily explained through science, yet with roots going back far into history, not only does fermentation preserve food, but it also transforms food into a probiotic supplement and increases digestibility and vitamin content! It’s no wonder that we find fermented foods all over the world in traditional cultures!

There were so many life-changing things I learned from Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon Morrell, and high on the list was learning the value of fermented foods As part of our 21 steps to a nourishing diet series, I wanted to give an introduction to the topic, and give a couple resource suggestions. Look for new, upcoming fermented recipes as well!

Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics

While most of our ancestors’ diets would have been brimming with live probiotic bacteria, ours are often devoid. With more and more research showing the importance of a healthy gut, the importance of eating foods that will aid our gut health is becoming more prominent. I personally think that lacto-fermented foods are high on the list of gut-healing foods.

Studies showing health benefits of probiotics

In fact, there are now studies linking specific probiotics to a wide variety of health benefits.

  • For example, Bifidobacteria has been linked to decreased cases of neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis.
  • Many strains of probiotics have been directly linked to reduced bouts of digestive complaints (including diarrhea).
  • Lactobacillus plantarum has been linked to reduced inflammatory bowel, small bowel bacterial overgrowth in children, reduced problems for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, and had a positive effect on the immune systems of those suffering from HIV.
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus in animal studies has shown a preventative effect for polyps, adenomas, and colon cancer. Source

And those are just a few of the many studies showing benefits!

I personally take probiotics, but I don’t like depending on them solely, as it is believed by some that probiotics in the form of fermented foods are better used by our bodies and are a more effective means to “take probiotics”, if you will. Some studies have zeroed in on specific fermented foods. Sauerkraut, for example, has been shown specifically to be cancer fighting, a digestive aid, and, in one animal study, even a flu fighter! Source

Fermented foods have increased nutritional value

One of the reasons fermented foods are so great is because the fermentation process increases certain nutrients. For example, sauerkraut has an increased vitamin C content. Other traditional fermented food products show a big jump in vitamin content. One example is traditional fermented plant sap ferment by the name of Pulque. During the fermentation process, the thiamine increases from 5 to 29 and the niacin content creases from 54 to 515! All to say, there is a lot of evidence that the fermentation process actually enriches foods with higher amounts of nutrients. Source

Fermented foods are more digestible

I at first assumed that fermented foods were more digestible because of the probiotic content, but that is only part of the benefit! The fermentation process actually makes the food more digestible to us by breaking down hard to digest cellulose in food. This plays an important role in impoverished countries where young infants are fed fermented cereal gruels as a first food. Without the fermentation process, their bodies would have a hard time getting adequate energy from the food. Because so many of us have digestive issues, fermenting our foods could give our bodies a head start in the digestion of our food, while feeding our healthy gut bacteria at the same time.

Fermented foods are safer than raw vegetables to eat

I think that most of us, when first starting to experiment with home ferments, wondered if we were going to do something terribly wrong and kill off our family with the results of our experiments. We just are no longer used to the idea of fermenting things in our home.

But I found it very reassuring that eating fermented foods is safer than eating raw vegetables. The reason is that while yes, raw vegetables can have E.coli on it, once the fermentation process starts, the lactic acid and the E. coli are in direct competition with each other, and lactic acid is a serial killer of E. coli.

Fred Breidt from the USDA’s Food Science Research Unit at North Carolina State University published a paper on this subject specifically in regard to lactic acid fermented cucumbers.

He says, “The presence of live growing cells of lactic acid bacteria, which are the ones that ferment pickles and cheese and a lot of things, actually in competition cause E. coli to die off rather quickly, because they produce things other than just the acid, that’s in the fermented foods. Lactic acid bacteria are highly efficient killers of other bacteria, and they do a marvelous job. This is why vegetable fermentations pretty much always works. It’s been working for thousands of years. It’s one of the oldest technologies known to man and it always works, and the reason is these lactic acid bacteria are very good at what they do, and we take advantage of that as a technology.” Source

While obviously you should follow proper food handling advice and I do think that longer ferments are safest, overall, it appears that you are more at risk getting sick from eating a salad than your lacto-fermented vegetables!

How to make fermented foods practical

I think the most important step to making cultured foods part of your everyday eating lifestyle is to figure out what fermented food is well liked by you (or your family), what is inexpensive enough to eat daily, and what is easy to make. Adding in just one fermented food is a great start, especially if you consume it on a regular basis. Adding in several will help ensure that you are getting the benefits from a wide variety of probiotic sources, as each has its own benefits –  but that should be your long term goal, not your first goal.

We have often found it helpful, in really busy times, to simply buy locally made, raw, fermented vegetables. This is hardly the cheapest option, but it has allowed us to continue the practice of eating fermented foods when it was hard to keep my kitchen ferments up and running.

Fermented Vegetable Recipes

Other Resources:
Why I like Continuous Kombucha Brewing

Books you may find helpful (affiliate links):
Wild Fermentation
The Art of Wild Fermentation
Nourishing Traditions
The Body Ecology Diet

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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Comments

  1. Renee P. says

    Fermented foods are a real sticking point in our house! My hubby and kids just don’t like them and I’m not too keen on them yet, either! I have the advantage of being able to convince myself to eat them because I know they’re good for me, but I wouldn’t say I enjoy them yet. The one thing that my kids and I like is kombucha, but its been expensive to buy it at the store and I’m not quite ready to commit to making it yet. I’m thinking about making water kefir to see if my family would enjoy that.
    My husband’s problem is that he thinks that fermented foods taste bad, as in they have gone rancid. He says his body (taste buds) rejects it as a way of protection from bad foods that would make him sick! He does like pickles, so I think this summer I need to experiment with making pickles.
    As part of your series, would you help us “fermented” newbies know how to incorporate and pair fermented foods with the rest of the menu?

    • says

      Renee,

      It can be hard for some people to adjust to lacto-fermented foods when it wasn’t part of their diet for so many years. I think the reason I adjusted so quickly was because one of my very first foods as a child was yogurt. For my children, I’ve seen an even easier adjustment (for the most part) because they were so young when I introduced it. There are some ways to include lacto-ferments that are much easier to adjust too though…I’ll keep that in mind as this series continues as I think it would make a great topic to write about. By the way, would you husband eat salads with homemade dressings made with raw apple cider vinegar (well seasoned, of course) or eat yogurt or typical sauerkraut?

      • Renee P. says

        Thanks for those suggestions, Kimi. My husband and one child do eat yogurt (for the other boy, he gets it in his smoothies once or twice per week), and they would absolutely eat salad with ACV dressing. I will continue with these while I work on more fermented foods, thanks!

    • Andresa says

      Recently I’ve been hearing that fermented foods are traditionally eaten more as condiments rather than side dishes. What comes to my mind first is soy sauce, miso paste used in a broth, or the small bowls of pickled vegetables at asian restaurants (maybe just a couple teaspoons worth). How about making homemade ketchup or mayonnaise that is fermented? Both are tangy so the taste of the fermented version shouldn’t be different from the regular version. Kimi has a great idea about homemade dressings using a fermented “vinegar”.

      I started my fermenting food journey with beverages. Kombucha at first but that became difficult to maintain good results. Then I unsuccessfully attempted water kefir. My best results have been the fermented beverages in Nourishing Traditions; specifically the lemon and orange ones. I think it turns out best if left in the frig for a few weeks before drinking (seems to mellow & soften the sourness of the whey). I’ve also enjoyed fermented herbal teas per Cultures of Health; in my opinion, those do not become tart or tangy at all (pretty much just whatever flavor the tea itself has) nor do they become bubbly (I’ve actually never had ANY of my various homemade fermented beverages become fizzy or bubbly). If not for the fact that there is no mold or off taste after sitting on the counter for a couple days, I’d suspect the teas didn’t ferment at all. The fermented herbal teas I try to use within a week; definitely I don’t keep in the frig for the weeks that I do with the NT beverages because I think they start to become flavorless.

      Being single I don’t have to worry about getting anyone else on board. Even so, I’ve found it difficult to do the preparations needed to consume daily fermented products. Which is why I’ve mainly stuck to the beverages. But I had forgotten that yogurt is a fermented product, so I’ve recently started with one serving of that each day – generally with breakfast. I’ve done Bubbie’s sauerkraut and am just now starting to attempt my own sauerkraut and other fermented veggies. While I’d like something fermented with each meal, I’m happy now if I just get one serving per day – and that’s usually a beverage or yogurt.

      • Renee P. says

        I just received a hand-me-down copy of NT, so I will check out those beverages. I think that might be a good way to go with my family, though I still want to pursue fermented veggies.

    • Jen says

      Thankfully, my husband enjoys all my ferments, as does one of my children (3 years old). However, my 6 year old rejects all the veggie ferments (he likes yogurt and kombucha). I think I’m going to start adding sauerkraut, and other ferments to his salads, with dressing. He loves salad, and maybe he can slowly get used to and enjoy fermented foods if I introduce them in his salads.

      I think adding veggie ferments to any “wrap” would be good as well. Combined with mayo, mustard, hummus or dressing, and possibly meats or other foods, the flavor would be more subtle.

      We enjoy banana peppers on our homemade pizza, and I add fermented banana peppers after I pull the pizza out of the oven.

      I also recently came across an excellent idea for fermenting fruit with a little raw honey and serving it as “juice” to children. I’m going to get some going today, and hope my children like it. Here is the link: http://findyourbalancehealth.com/2013/12/wildfermentedfruitykvass/

      One final suggestion comes from the GAPS diet. Stir a tablespoon or two of sauerkraut juice, or juice from other ferments into a warm bowl of soup before serving.

      I’m right there with you, trying to find creative ways for my whole family to get more fermented foods into our diet.

    • Erin says

      Rene,

      I am currently living in rural Paraguay and am trying to diversify some of the foods/food preservation practices within a culture that is very set in their blandish food preferences. Based on experimenting a bit and sharing the results with my paraguayan neighbors – there are a variety of foods that can be generally liked by all who can handle slight sour/vinegar flavors of commonly fermented foods. If your husband likes pickles you should try experimenting by tossing in other veggies or making sauerkraut. For pickles, chopped cucumbers, carrots, beats, onion, with dill and mustard seed in the vinegar/sugar/salt solution is delicious. Also try adding additional spices to the sauerkraut (cilantro, curry, shredded carrots, ginger, mustard seed, etc). My other favorite is experimenting with sourdough and yogurt! You can have the benefits of fermented probiotics while eating pancakes and homemade breads. I like to make sourdough wheat/seed/oat/banana pancakes and top them with fresh fruit, honey, and natural yogurt. If your family struggles with the sour flavor of the breads then you can just let the sponge sit for less time as it will be less sour. A great guide to experimenting with these things is the Art of Wild Fermentation that Kimi mentions in her post.

  2. says

    I knew that fermented foods provided necessary probiotics, but I was intrigued to read that fermenting actually increases the nutrients in the food. So cool!

    Renee P., It’s been very much trial and error in finding fermented food that we enjoy eating instead of just tolerating or choking them down. For us, fermented ketchup has been the easiest way to get fermented food into our diet, with the occasional sprinkling of sauerkraut here and there, but I’m still working on finding more good recipes!

    I’m definitely going to have to try the fermented garlic, because I LOVE garlic in almost anything, so it’s perfect match.

  3. Alicia says

    I would also love tips on getting kids to eat fermented foods. We can’t do dairy & so far even a “taster bite” of anything sends my 4 year old gagging. We don’t do lots of sugary things or whatever but she definitely does not like fermented stuff so far.

  4. says

    Thank you for a nice site and good advice.

    I’ve been into fermented foods for years and can confirm that it’s both extremely nourishing and great for the family budget. Thank you for the links to some recipes I’ve not seen before that I would like to try like the fermented escabeche. This sounds interesting.

    Ken

  5. says

    Foods or liquids with sugar (including kombucha, water kefir, sodas, tomatoes, fruits, etc) will ferment and develop significant alcohol. This is an issue for people who are required to avoid alcohol, or who are taking meds that conflict with alcohol.

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