Fermented foods improve digestive, cardiovascular and immune health and have been used to regulate weight and appetite by reducing cravings for sugar, soft drinks, bread and pasta.
The key phrase you absolutely must watch for if you want to achieve the amazing health benefits is traditionally lacto-fermented.
Olives, pickles, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, kimchee, and kombucha are some of this category’s most popular delicacies.
Though the term “fermented” sounds a bit funky, the results of this ancient preparation and preservation technique – produced by breaking down carbohydrates and proteins by microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts and molds – are delicious.
These naturally fermented foods are considered “functional foods” and “probiotics” that increase your overall nutrition, promote the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria, improve digestion and support immune function.
The fermentation process increases the natural B vitamins (even Vitamin B12, which after all come from bacteria), omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes, and other immune chemicals that fight harmful bacteria and even cancer cells.
Lacto-fermentation is a traditional method of food preservation that has been used around the world for thousands of years. The technique is used to keep and store harvests and to add beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion and enhance vitamin absorption.
The synchronicity of traditional cultures pairing fermented foods with heavy protein and fatty dishes is remarkable and speaks to the genius of humans who pay attention. The bacteria and increased enzymatic action of naturally fermented foods helps the human body to digest and assimilate these proteins and fats. In Eastern Europe you find sauerkraut with sausages, in India lamb dishes are often served with yogurt. Chinese pickled cabbage is often found with animal proteins, while in Korea kimchee, a spicy type of sauerkraut, is served with barbeque meats and fried dishes. Japanese fish and meat dishes are usually served with pickled ginger or diakon radish, all of which help the body digest easier.
Lactic acid bacteria are naturally present on the surface of healthy plants. When vegetables are packed fresh into airtight vessels, the lactic acid bacteria become active and convert the natural sugars into lactic acid and carbon dioxide which preserve the food.
There is a big difference between naturally fermented foods and commercially processed, pasteurized foods.
Commercial fermented products found in supermarkets and stores are usually pasteurized. In other words, they are no longer ‘alive’, and the enzymes and beneficial bacteria have been destroyed.
Olive producers can now hold olives in salt-free brines by using an acidic solution of lactic acid, acetic acid, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, a long way off from the old time natural lactic-acid fermenting method of salt alone.
Some pickles are simply packed in salt, vinegar and pasteurized. Many yogurts are so laden with sugar that they are little more than puddings. Unfortunately, these modern techniques effectively kill off all the lactic acid producing bacteria and short-circuit their important and traditional contribution to intestinal and overall health.
By abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation, and insisting on a diet in which everything has been pasteurized, we have compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made ourselves vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisims.
You can still buy or make healthy traditional varieties.
The stronger-flavored, traditional Greek olives found in olive bars or refrigerated sections at health food stores are not lye-treated and are still alive with active cultures.
So are “overnights,” the locally-crocked fresh pickling cucumbers made in local delis every few days, as well as the pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented foods you make yourself at home.
Generally, the more tangy and stronger the flavor (not counting any added jalapeño or other hot pepper flavorings), the more likely that the food will still have active and beneficial lactobacteria and enzymes.
Your body needs enzymes to properly digest, absorb, and make full use of your food. As you age, your body’s supply of enzymes decreases. This has caused many scientists to hypothesize that if you could guard against enzyme depletion, you could live a longer, healthier life.
My Favorite Fermented Food Brands
Since I don’t always have the time to make my own fermented foods, I rely on these brands to keep my digestive system strong: