In this blog series, we are talking about the importance of gut health. So far, we have discussed the value of limiting our sugar intake and the benefits of eating a wide range of plants. In this blog, I would like to talk about the value that fermented foods offer our gut.
One of the goals for gut health is to have a large variety of different microbes inhabiting our gut. Each microbial family will do different jobs for your body, promoting your health through their unique capabilities. The more variety of microbes we have, the more adaptable and resilient our body becomes.
One of the ways we can promote more microbial diversity is to consume fermented foods and drinks. Fermented foods have a long history of use, and most cultures will have their version. Think of Asian cultures with their tempeh or kimchi or Germany with sauerkraut. There are many other examples like yoghurt, sourdough, kefir and kombucha, to name just a few.
Fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth, and consuming these foods can potentially increase the numbers of microbes in our diet by up to 10 000 times. Consuming fermented foods helps counteract the highly processed and sanitized diet we have in Western societies. One popular theory is that it is important to our health to be exposed to microbes and is essential for the normal development of our immune system and our neural function. Therefore, consumption of fermented foods may provide an indirect means of counteracting the hygienic, sanitized Western diet and lifestyle
But it is not only the health benefits of suppling our gut with microbes that fermented foods offer. In fact, some ferments don’t contain enough live microbes by the time we consume them or those microbes might not survive the journey through our acidic stomachs, but they are still good for us. This is because one of the major benefits of fermented foods is that the microbes they contain turn that food into a completely different food. Think of yoghurt or cheese versus milk or cabbage versus sauerkraut. The fermented versions tastes, looks and is completely different from the original food. And in this process completely new compounds are formed. The fermentation process creates potentially health promoting compounds in the foods, while removing those with negative health potential. The food just becomes better for you.
A good example of that is milk. In its unfermented form it contains lactose, a sugar that some people can’t digest. But in yoghurt, the fermented form, most if not all of the lactose has been consumed by the microbes making it more digestible. And other healthy compounds will also have been formed. Studies have revealed strong links between eating fermented dairy and weight maintenance, reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. There is evidence suggesting that kimchi is anti-diabetic. Fermented food offers health benefits for immune-related disease such as arthritis and sclerosis although clinical data is not yet available for that. The list goes on. There is even an indication that fermented food consumption can alter mood and brain activity.
So my advice is to try adding more fermented food into your diet. Personally I enjoy diluting kombucha in water for a refreshing drink or adding a tablespoon of sauerkraut to my lunch or dinner. Good quality yoghurts are another good source of fermented foods. Once you get the taste for them, you might even have a go at making them yourself.