Fermentation. The word immediately brought to mind the making of alcoholic drinks and their effect on our stomachs. So imagine my surprise when I learned that fermented foods greatly benefit our digestive system.
When I first read up on fermented foods, I was a bit underwhelmed. After several bouts of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), however, I was ready to consider consuming fermented foods.
Fermentation is an ancient process of preserving foods and multiplying their nutritional value. Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, lacto-fermentation (the process in which good bacteria convert sugars and starch into lactic acid) was how food was kept safe and fresh from harvest time right through winter. Fermentation creates beneficial enzymes, minerals, B-vitamins, essential amino acids, and various strains of probiotics or good bacteria.
Fermented foods, also known as cultured foods, are as varied as kimchi from Korea, sauerkraut from Germany, cucumber pickles from the Middle East, pickled umeboshi plums from Japan, and kombucha from Ukraine.
Here’s how the Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook describes the fermentation process:
“When pickling vegetables, lactobacillus, a species of bacteria normally present on fresh food, is allowed to flourish. This enables food to break down and become more digestible while providing live enzymes and beneficial bacteria that help with the entire digestive process. This type of anaerobic fermentation uses a salt brine to inhibit harmful microbes as the beneficial species take over and multiply. These beneficial bacteria produce lactic acid as they eat up some of the starches and sugars in the food, lowering the pH, thus inhibiting harmful microorganisms from surviving.”
Why fermented foods matter
Given that almost all digestion and nutrient absorption occur in the gut, fermented foods play a crucial role in bolstering our digestive system. Our microbiome, which consists of the microorganisms in our gut in particular, depends on a steady supply of good bacteria to keep it working smoothly and to keep us healthy.
Beneficial bacteria counter the negative effects of the irradiated, chemically manipulated, and pasteurized food that makes up a large part of our modern diet. Many people are suffering from dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance in the gut that leads to many serious illnesses. In addition, beneficial bacteria are harmed by antibiotics, unsafe drinking water, mercury in our fish, and pesticides on our food, so we need to restore our inner ecosystem.
A healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive tract limits food allergies and sensitivities, bolsters the immune system, helps regulate hormones, and curtails inflammation. A lot of the gas and bloating that IBS sufferers experience, for example, can be eliminated by incorporating foods like plain yogurt, sauerkraut, and kefir, even in small doses daily. What we eat feeds the intestinal microflora, so cultured and fermented foods keep the intestinal lining strong. When the good and bad bacteria in our gut are balanced, physical, mental, and emotional well-being are nurtured.
As Donna Gates, creator of the Body Ecology Diet has noted:
“Nature vaccinates us by putting this amazing world of bacteria in our gut and begins to build the immune system.”
What to expect from eating fermented foods
- Improved digestion. Donna Gates notes that “fermented foods provide an actual food source for the good guys in your gut.” Their microbes are like front-line warriors defending the gut against hostile bacteria. The nutrients in fermented foods are retained and food is broken down so that it can be digested easily. Likely outcomes: more control of inflammatory bowel issues, restored gut health, and elimination of leaky gut syndrome.
- Better food absorption. When your gut bacteria are in balance and you’re producing sufficient digestive enzymes, you’re far better able to absorb more of the live nutrients in your food. The microflora in fermented foods protect the intestinal lining from dangerous bacteria like salmonella and E.coli. The upshot? You won’t need to take as many supplements and you’ll get nutrients directly from your food.
- Stronger immune system. The lactic acid released in fermented foods amps up your immune system to help you fight infections. Fermented foods bring your appetite under control and lessen cravings for sugar and carbs. Big plus: for those suffering from candida, fermented foods are a godsend.
- More money in your pocket. Fermented foods are easy on your wallet, especially if you make them at home. You’re using basic produce items and kitchen staples. Plus, you don’t have to eat a lot of them so a little goes a long way. I eat just a forkful or two of sauerkraut daily and that’s more than enough.
Three fermented foods to try out
Kvass. Kvass is a traditional eastern European beverage originally made from fermenting stale bread (yikes!). Nowadays, many people make beet kvass, which is a great medicinal tonic, source of probiotics, and liver cleanser. However, I tried out homemade fruity kvass two weeks ago and loved it! It reminded me of our traditional Caribbean Christmas drink, sorrel. Try the two linked kvass recipes in this paragraph!
Kombucha. A fermented beverage that tastes like a cross between a fizzy soda and a strong fruit juice, kombucha has grown in popularity in recent years. The more traditional versions are made of black tea and some form of sugar as a sweetener. Bacteria and yeast crank up the fermentation when added to the sugar. It is claimed that kombucha has antioxidant properties and can help with digestion, weight loss, energy, and detoxification. I’ve not yet made kombucha from scratch, but my preferred store-bought brand is GT’s Kombucha.
Sauerkraut. One of the oldest traditional foods, sauerkraut, literally translated “sour cabbage,” is high in fiber and vitamins A, C, K, and B, as well as minerals like magnesium, copper, and calcium. It’s great for digestion, is a solid inflammation fighter, and can help reduce cholesterol. Here’s a simple recipe for making your own sauerkraut; my store-bought go-to is Eden Foods Organic Sauerkraut.
Which fermented foods have you tried? Which ones have you made at home?