Question: What’s the deal with fermented foods? I keep hearing that we should eat more of them. What are the benefits? What should I look for when selecting these foods?
Answer: Before the days of refrigeration, fermenting was a common way to preserve foods. Lately these foods have once again gained popularity as science shows they may offer an assortment of health benefits. This is due to their impact on our microbiome – the term used to describe the trillions of bacteria living in our intestines.
We’ve been hearing a lot recently about probiotics – foods or supplements containing beneficial bacteria to populate our gut. These microbes may not only promote healthy gastrointestinal tracts and immune system functioning, but also play a role in fighting assorted diseases and improving emotional health.
While many people look to the supplement aisle at their local pharmacy or health food store for probiotics, instead consider eating more fermented foods for the same effect. But beware – not all fermented foods are equal in this effect. It depends on the fermentation process used.
Fermentation can be carried out a number of ways – for example, by adding bacterial cultures to certain foods as in yogurt, or by pickling through the addition of salt to make a brine. If a food has been pickled simply through the addition of vinegar, though, it is not fermented and there won’t be microbial benefits to be reaped. This may be the case with many commercially made pickles.
However even some foods made through traditional fermenting methods may not contain live bacteria if they have been heat-treated to make them shelf stable. Sauerkraut is a perfect example. Homemade varieties or those found in a refrigerated case in the supermarket are rich in probiotics, but the jars of sauerkraut found on store shelves, not so much.
Along with yogurt and sauerkraut, go for commercially made fermented products such as kefir (a dairy product), miso, kimchi (Korean fermented vegetable dish usually made with cabbage), tempeh (fermented soybeans), kombucha (a fermented tea beverage) and even apple cider vinegar, if it’s labelled as raw.
Fermented foods may be good for you, but how do they taste? Not all fermented foods may be appealing on your first try. It may take a number of tastes to acquire a liking. Many people are now getting into making fermented foods in their own kitchens and it may be a way to get your kids to try these foods. If they’re in on the action, it might give them incentive to taste the fruits of their labour. Making your own not only saves money, but also allows you to use a little less salt in the preparation. Be adventurous. You can pickle or ferment a long list of vegetables such as carrots, beets or cucumbers, or even custom-season your own sauerkraut with caraway seeds or jalapeño peppers.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Rosieschwartz.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.