Digestive Benefits of Fermented Foods
Submitted by: Kathleen Van De Weert
Edited by: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CD
Although it may seem like a recent trend, people have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. First discovered as a preservation technique, fermentation has been used to transform foods for new flavors and to increase health benefits. Yogurt, sauerkraut, and beer are a few well-known fermented foods. Those that are gaining popularity are kefir, kimchi, and tempeh made from milk, cabbage, and soy, respectively. The process of fermentation involves the transformation of sugar, or carbohydrate, into acid, gas, or alcohol by adding yeast or bacteria. This reaction usually takes place in the absence of oxygen, so the yeast or bacteria readily feed on the sugars and begin the fermentation process.
The utilization of carbohydrates by yeast and bacteria is a form of “pre-digestion”, which increases the digestibility of certain foods. Because the yeast and bacteria do the work of breaking down complex carbohydrates, our digestive systems don’t have to. For example, individuals who are lactose-intolerant are able to eat yogurt or cheddar cheese because the process of fermentation breaks down the lactose in the milk.
Not only does it increase digestibility, but fermented foods also introduce “good bacteria” into the digestive system, which aid in digestion and improve overall health and immunity. Having the proper balance of digestive bacteria helps the body better absorb certain vitamins and minerals. In addition, evidence suggests that a healthy gut reduces inflammation, improves bowel health and immunity, and may slow or reverse the symptoms of diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
How can you incorporate fermented foods into your lifestyle? There are store-bought options such as tempeh, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. Certain labeling will indicate whether or not a food is fermented. Look for “live food” or “contains live cultures” on the label of many fermented products. For foods like sauerkraut, the label should indicate “raw” or possibly “starter culture”. If vinegar is on the ingredient list, it is likely not truly fermented. Try some fermented foods, and your gut will thank you!
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