Fermented food and health: hipster hype or the real deal?

Fran Taylor the Brighton NutritionistBy Fran Taylor, the Brighton Nutritionist

Anyone worth their salt (geddit?!) knows fermented foods are having a bit of a moment right now. A key food trend of the past few years, this is, at least in part, due to the interesting and delicious flavours and tastes they provide. From spiced kimchi, crunchy sauerkraut, to fizzy kombucha and tangy kefir, they add tasty variety to the diet.

However, another reason for their rise in popularity is the health benefits associated with these products, in particular the live bacteria they contain. These help to keep our gut happy, which in turn supports our overall health.

Is this all just hipster hype or are they worth including as part of a healthy balanced diet?

Fermentation is the conversion of sugars and starch in food to acids by bacteria or yeast. This process helps to preserve the food by preventing growth of ‘bad’ bacteria. The acids produced by the fermentation process also give the food its distinctive tangy flavour. It is an ancient, traditional method of preserving food and is prevalent across the world, with popular ferments including kimchi in Korea, miso in Japan, kefir in the Caucasian mountains and sauerkraut in Germany. Other fermented foods better known in the UK include yogurt, beer and sourdough bread.

Probiotics

Fermented foods are often marketed as being rich in ‘good bacteria’ known as probiotics, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “known species with known functions and when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. In other words they’re specific strains of micro-organisms which have been identified in a lab and clinical trials to have proven health benefits. These include: positive influences on antibiotic-induced diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, and other digestive issues, and reducing the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections (that’s coughs, colds and sneezes to you and me).

homemade sauerkraut with cumin and juniper.So if a food is fermented, is it a probiotic food? The answer is, as with most things nutrition-related, not so straight forward. A probiotic food needs to have an adequate level of live microbes that have been shown to promote good health.

We know that some food’s microbes are killed off in the cooking process (as with sourdough bread, for example) and others get destroyed if they are heat-treated for shelf life. But there are plenty of fermented foods that do contain live organisms, including yogurt, other fermented milk and non-heat treated kimchi and sauerkraut.

Still, whether these ferments are probiotic or not is not a simple question. They can be if some of the strains of bacteria within them are known strains that possess known health benefits. It also might be that the bacteria within them have positive health benefits but are, as yet unknown.

The fact is, research into the health benefits of fermented foods and the live organisms they contain is in its infancy. It is an exciting area of research and there is every reason to believe new research will reinforce the reasons to ferment.

Wild health claims like apple cider vinegar and a spoonful of kimchi will reverse diabetes as always needs to be taken with healthy dose of scepticism. However, introducing more good bacteria into your gut isn’t the only positive of fermented food. There are several other brilliant benefits.

Nutrient enhancement

For starters, they enhance nutrients. That is, they help you get more good stuff from your food. The action of the bacteria or fungus turning sugars into acids helps break food down into a more basic form that the body can use better. For example, fermented milks like kefir may be more digestible for people who are lactose intolerant as the lactose is broken down into lactic acid. This is why yogurts are often more tolerable.

The digestive action of these micro-organisms also leads to higher levels of certain B vitamins – thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) –  than in the raw unfermented food. When cabbage is fermented as in sauerkraut it can increase the vitamin C content, as well as a compound called indole-3-carbinol, a compound with positive health benefits.

Phytates are antioxidant compounds found in nuts, seeds and legumes. They bind to certain minerals such as zinc and magnesium, making it harder for the body to absorb. Fermentation helps to breakdown the phytate content therefore increasing the availability of these essential minerals by making it easier for our body to absorb these nutrients.

In short, fermented food has been around for a very long time. Not only do they provide us with exciting flavours, new cooking methods and enhance our enjoyment of food, they also are a good addition to a healthy balanced diet. Whilst the evidence and research about the health benefits of fermented foods is relatively new, adding fermented foods into your diet is never going to be a bad thing.

Give it a try

How do you make sure that your fermented foods taste delicious and contain live micro-organisms? Make your own!

There are some great books and advice on the internet but there’s nothing like learning direct from an expert. We have a brilliant introduction to fermented foods course starting very soon. Find the class here.

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