Fermented foods have leapt into the spotlight over the last few years, as people are becoming interested in what it takes to get a happy, healthy gut. If you have ever considered taking a probiotic supplement, you have probably also wondered about foods that naturally contain probiotics. They’re out there! But encouraging more good bugs to flourish in your gut by eating certain foods is a little bit trickier than most people realize. Here are the top fermented foods, and how to make sure you get the most benefits.
What Are Fermented Foods?
First, a little background: Fermentation means that a food has been partially broken down by bacteria, enzymes, and yeast. Yogurt immediately springs to mind, but the dairy aisle isn’t the only place to find gut-friendly items—check out the list below for more examples.
Fermented foods contain lots of little microorganisms, that are very likely good for the bacteria living in your digestive track. But technically, fermented foods can’t be called probiotics—yet. The definition for probiotics is very specific, and it has to be, to protect you from being misled by food labels. So while some fermented foods may contain probiotics, science just needs to catch up and test all the bottles and jars out there, to figure out which bugs they contain, and how they’re beneficial.
How Do Fermented Foods Support a Healthy Gut?
Fermented foods are thought to be easier to digest because those microorganisms have already started breaking down the sugars and carbohydrates in your food. That also tends to make certain nutrients more available for your body to absorb. Another plus: you’re delivering living organisms straight to your gut, increasing the population of good bugs living there. When the beneficial bugs outnumber the not-so-beneficial bugs, you might notice a host of health paybacks, like an immunity boost, better metabolism and appetite regulation, and improved vitamin and mineral absorption. It could even potentially play a role in preventing chronic diseases, like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Before You Buy: Why Fresh Matters
Before you load up your grocery cart, keep in mind that fermented foods have to contain live and active cultures in order to give you these benefits. It can be a bit of a hit and miss! These are living microorganisms, and processing and storage can inactivate or kill them off. If you’re holding a jar that has been pasteurized, filtered, or cooked, unfortunately, it no longer contains living cultures. Which means most beer and wine, sourdough bread, cheese, and chocolate won’t benefit your gut—sorry!
“A great way to determine whether a fermented food is likely to contain living cultures is where you find it in a supermarket,” says Robert Hutkins, PhD, author of Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods. “If it’s stored in the fridge, it’s very likely to contain living cultures. If you’re buying it off a shelf, it’s been heat treated, and is unlikely to contain any living cultures.”
With that in mind, here are the best fermented foods you can buy. Besides potentially offering big health benefits, they’re delicious. Dig in!
Top 5 Fermented Foods
Kefir is a sour, creamy, and slightly fizzy drink, similar to thin yogurt. It’s formed after a culture of kefir “grains” (bacteria and yeast) are added to milk. Kefir can be a great option if you are lactose intolerant, as most of the lactose has been broken down by the bacteria. Drink it as is, pour it over your morning cereal, or use it in smoothies.
2. Fresh sauerkraut
Probably the most well-known fermented food, sauerkraut literally means “sour cabbage” in German. It’s made by finely shredding cabbage, layering it with salt, and letting it ferment. Make your own, or go for a raw, fresh option—not the kind you’ll find with on a shelf with other canned goods! Add a generous pile to your sandwich, baked spud, grilled pork, or chicken sausage.
3. Fresh kimchi
A staple of the Korean diet, this super spicy condiment is a must taste! It’s made from fermented vegetables and spices, mainly red cabbage and chile peppers. You can find it in the fridge section of most supermarkets or at an Asian market. Enjoy it in a bibimbap rice bowl, with scrambled eggs, or even in spicy, savory pancakes.
4. Fresh dill pickles
Pickling in vinegar is not the same as fermenting, in which the veggies release their own sour liquid full of friendly microorganisms. However, sour dill pickles do count as a fermented food! Just be sure to pick them up from the fridge section of your grocery store to ensure you’re getting your hands on the fermented kind. Munch on them as a snack, slice for sandwiches, or finely chop for chicken salads.
Trendy kombucha is a sour, effervescent drink made with green or black tea, a little bit of sugar, and a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (affectionately called a SCOBY). Although the proclaimed health benefits run pretty slim in terms of science, the drink has been enjoyed in Asia for centuries, where it’s believed to promote longevity and detoxify. It’s safer to opt for a commercially prepared version, but if you’re going to try making it yourself, be sure to follow proper home-brewing and food-safety guidelines to prevent toxicity.