Fermented Foods

By Dr. Tracy Gilbert, ND Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

There has been a lot of exciting research in recent years about the extraordinary health benefits of probiotics (i.e., healthy bacteria) and the important role that our gut bacteria play in disease prevention.  The range of conditions that have been linked to an imbalance in gut bacteria is staggering – examples include autoimmune diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis), ADHD, autism, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, eczema, acne, diabetes, digestive conditions, and much more.  The important lesson in all of this research is that healthy bacteria or probiotics are critical for achieving and maintaining good health.  They have been shown to act as anticarcinogens, boost immune function, restore critical gut bacteria, and help prevent illnesses.

Consuming fermented foods on a regular basis is an ideal way to ensure that you are getting a variety of probiotics from your diet.  In fact, fermented foods have been enjoyed by virtually every traditional culture and the process dates back over 7,000 years!  These foods are packed full of health-promoting bacteria, live enzymes, and easily absorbed nutrients.  Having a variety of these foods is particularly beneficial since each food contains different strains of healthy bacteria.  Sauerkraut, for example, is high in Lactobacillus plantarum – a bacteria that helps to prevent disease and maintain the correct balance of gut bacteria in the intestinal tract.  Yogurt, on the other hand, is high in Lactobacillus acidophilus – a bacteria that helps support immune function, maintain cholesterol levels, and reduce the growth of Candida (i.e., a fungus that causes yeast infections).

Here are some examples of fermented foods that offer numerous health benefits:

  • Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage
  • Kimchi – fermented cabbage combined with other vegetables and spices
  • Kombucha – a beverage made from fermented black or green tea
  • Miso – paste made from fermented soybeans and typically used to make soup
  • Kefir – fermented beverage made from milk combined with kefir “grains” (a combination of yeast and bacteria)
  • Yogurt – fermented milk
  • Fermented Pickles – fermented cucumbers
  • Apple Cider Vinegar

Side Note About Pickles: Pickles have been traditionally made from fermented cucumbers.  However, pickles that line the shelves of grocery stores have been made with vinegar and have not been fermented at all!  Therefore, they do not contain the health promoting bacteria that fermented pickles offer.  So look for pickles that are refrigerated, unpasteurized, and do not contain added vinegar.

What to Look For in Fermented Foods

Unfortunately, the majority of fermented foods sold in the grocery stores have now been pasteurized.  This is a process by which the food is heated in order to partially sterilize it and increase the shelf life.  Of course, this process also kills the probiotics and subsequently, much of the benefits of the fermented foods are lost.  Therefore, when choosing fermented foods, it is important to look for unpasteurized versions.  Note: labels do not usually indicate when the food has been pasteurized – instead, you have to look for products that specifically indicate that they are unpasteurized.  Also, whenever possible, choose organic options to ensure that no pesticides or genetically modified ingredients were used.

Well, that sums up the basics!  I hope you experiment with a variety of fermented foods and begin to incorporate them into your daily routine – your gut and your overall health will reap the benefits.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Dr. Tracy Gilbert, ND