If you’ve ever struggled with gas, bloating, constipation or even just persistent cravings, then it could be that trying fermented foods could be the answer for you. Fermented foods are popular in a lot of cultures, and individuals from those cultures have an intuitive understanding of how those foods can help with digestion. As with so many popular remedies and traditional foods, there is science to back the idea of eating them too.
What Is Fermentation?
Fermentation is a process that has been used by humans for thousands of years to preserve foods.1 Fermentation is an anaerobic process, which means that it is done without the presence of oxygen. The food is exposed to bacteria or yeast that will break down the sugars in the food and turn it into alcohol.
The microorganisms require the glucose and other sugars for energy, and the chemical process that they perform breaks down those sugars to produce alcohol and other similar waste products. The presence of this process is what stops other harmful bacteria from growing and means that the food can be preserved for longer periods of time.2
How Do Fermented Foods Help with Digestion?
The bacteria that are found in fermented foods can be characterized as probiotics. There are hundreds of different kinds of bacteria living in the gut, and collectively, this is known as the gut microbiome.3 These bacteria break down certain foods and promote digestion. They also have an important role in supporting overall physical well-being and even your mood.
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The bacteria that live in the gut are partially determined by hereditary factors and partially by lifestyle. So, eating a lot of a specific type of food might promote the growth of one type of bacteria over another. On the other hand, taking a course of antibiotics could kill off bacteria that are vulnerable to that antibiotic, regardless of whether the bacteria are “good” or “bad.”
Fermented foods can help support the growth of healthy gut microbes, and it can also help improve the nutritional value of foods. One specific type of bacteria that is found in a lot of fermented foods is lactic acid bacteria (LAB). This is used in the production of many fermented vegetables, including sauerkraut (fermented cabbage).
During the fermentation process of some foods, such as dairy products, the activity of the LAB can actually produce or increase the presence of certain nutrients such as biotin, vitamin B12, and folic acid.4
Researchers remain divided on whether probiotics that are eaten will survive passing through the stomach and the first part of the intestinal tract. The stomach is an extremely acidic environment, and it is likely that most bacteria will die while they are in there.
Those that do survive to enter the intestines will find that while the pH of the intestines is slightly more friendly, (around six) it is still not an environment conducive to their survival. In spite of this, it is may be possible for a small number of bacteria to survive and proliferate when they reach the lower intestine.5
For those bacteria to actually do any good for the digestive system, they must adhere to the cells of the gastrointestinal tract and become a part of the population of the gut microbiome.6 Some bacteria do successfully do this, and that is where the value of probiotics as a nutritional supplement comes in.
The medical community is divided on the value of commercially produced probiotic supplements because it is hard to control the dose, and it is difficult to really be sure whether the probiotic supplements that you are taking are going to be of use to you. Every person’s gut microbiome is different and what would be beneficial for one person may not be beneficial to others.
Fermented foods are different, however, in that the fermentation process preserves the food and increases the value of the nutrients in it, and the probiotic effect is just an added bonus—albeit one which could help to reduce the risk of various inflammatory conditions.7
Popular Fermented Foods
There are many different fermented foods on the market. Some, are traditional foods in particular cultures, such as sauerkraut in Germany, and “stink flipper” in Alaska or kimchi in Korea. Others, such as pickled cucumbers and olives are fairly common all over the world. Highlighted below are some of the most popular fermented food products:
Yogurt is one particular fermented food that has a lot of potential health benefits. Yogurts are full of calcium and healthy fats. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein and is relatively low in calories, and most other traditional, unflavored yogurts are similar.
They are typically consumed either with oats or granola, which are both good sources of fiber; fruits that are micronutrient-rich; or honey that is full of antioxidants. This makes them the basis of a great, healthful dish.
Another popular fermented food is kefir. This is a fermented milk drink that bears some similarities to yogurt but is not typically as thick. It can be a good choice for people who are lactose intolerant but who still need to take in calcium because the fermentation process breaks down the lactose, making the product easier to digest.8
Kombucha is a popular effervescent tea that is made using yeast fermentation. Typically, the fermentation should produce only a small amount of alcohol, but some kombucha products end up having an alcohol content as high as two percent.
This is a protein source that is made from fermented soybeans and that bears a lot of similarities to tofu. It is a good, complete source of protein and is popular with vegetarians, but it can be enjoyed with anyone thanks to its slightly nutty flavor. It is a versatile protein that can go well in almost any dish.
Whether you choose fermented foods for their unique taste or for the health benefits that they can provide, this unique source of macronutrients and probiotics is well worth trying out.
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