There can be no doubt that the food we eat and our lifestyles can have dramatic impacts on health and wellbeing.
But, that’s only part of the story. There are other options for health as well, including fermented foods.
So, why are fermented foods good for you?
After all, the health benefits from most of the food we eat tend to be associated with the various nutrients. For example, tart cherry juice is popular because of the antioxidants that it contains. Likewise, some of the compounds in coffee (including caffeine itself) and tea have been connected to health benefits.
That’s not entirely the case with fermented foods, particularly because there are so many different types out there.
What that in mind, this post specifically looks why fermented foods are so important and how they can be a great addition to the diet.
What are Fermented Foods?
In relation to food, fermentation is a process that takes advantage of bacteria to create fairly unique taste and strong flavors. Indeed, fermented foods can often be very distinctive and can be appealing for that reason alone.
At the same time, fermentation helps to preserve food, meaning that fermented food will often last longer than traditional alternatives.
Essentially, fermentation uses the action of bacteria. These bacteria partially break down the food, which is what creates the flavor and also the health benefits.
This process of breaking down food means that the nutrients present are in an easier to digest form. Theoretically, this gives you access to more nutrients than would typically be the case (1).
Likewise, fermented foods are significant because of the bacteria themselves. As we will discuss, these can play a key role in human health and help to reduce disease risk and promote positive outcomes (2).
Still, in many ways, fermented foods can seem a little scary. Most examples do have a fairly intense taste, which can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it.
However, fermented food truly is worth trying. In fact, most types of fermented food are appealing once you get used to their specific flavor profile. Plus, if nothing else, you can always stick to yogurt, which typically isn’t as intense.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
The key advantage of fermented food is in relation to gut health – an area that has recently become the focus of research and attention.
Now, our digestive tract contains many different types of bacteria, which are collectively known as gut flora or the gut microbiome (3). And, despite common perception, some of those species play a positive role in human health (4). For that matter, having the right balance of bacteria is much more relevant than most people realize (5).
In particular, research is beginning to show a significant association between the bacteria in our gut and the rest of our body (6). Some theories suggest that having an ‘unbalanced’ combination of bacteria in the gut could contribute to disease development (7,8), including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (9,10).
Likewise, the significance of the microbiome for heart disease and other diseases may mean that eating fermented foods or supplementing with probiotics could reduce the risk of disease development (26).
Probiotics may also be relevant in other ways. For example, some research has indicated that they can help reduce inflammation (27) and may improve blood cholesterol levels (28,29), along with blood pressure (30,31), skin health (32,33,34) and immune function (35,36).
Fermented Foods and Mental Health
Likewise, some research has suggested links between microbes in the gut and mental health.
For example, one study found that probiotic yogurt could help decrease stress signaling (37).
The composition of gut microbiota may also play a role in the development of mental health issues, such as depression (38).
Indeed, researchers suggest the presence of a two-way relationship between the gut and the brain, with each being able to alter the other (39).
However, it isn’t entirely clear where causation lies with this topic. For example, mental health issues could be causing changes to the gut microbiota or the reverse could be occurring. Likewise, it’s possible that the effects work in both ways at the same time.
As such, there isn’t enough information to know whether fermented foods would help with mental health outcomes. Still, there is enough potential to suggest that this area is worth pursuing.
Research into Gut Health and Beneficial Bacteria
As a field of study, gut health and the bacteria in the gut is still a very new topic. One major challenge is simply that there is such a large number of species (40). In fact, there may be up to 1,000 different species present, many of which could directly impact health (41).
Furthermore, each of these species is going to have different effects and the species will interact with one another.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that we know relatively little.
Indeed, much of the research that has been conducted has been in animals (42) and it’s hard to know how many of those outcomes translate across to humans.
There have also been relatively few randomized controlled trials and most that have been conducted have been poor quality.
The Relevance of Probiotics
When it comes to fermented food, the term probiotics is commonly used. The word specifically refers to live bacteria (and occasionally yeasts) that offer benefits to health (45).
The nature of fermentation means that any type of fermented food should be a probiotic. Additionally, you can get probiotics in the form of supplements.
Probiotic supplements may have similar advantages to fermented food, as they do contain healthy bacteria.
Additionally, supplements are often designed to maximize benefit, while the same isn’t necessarily true for fermented foods.
As a result, probiotic supplements can be an alternative approach and they may even be necessary for some people.
In particular, this type of supplement is commonly used following a course of antibiotics, as antibiotics can dramatically decrease the bacteria in the gut.
Realistically, probiotic supplements may be effective – but more research is needed to know how truly relevant these are for human health. For example, one study did show that this type of supplement was able to increase beneficial bacteria levels and promote the production of key organic compounds (49).
Nevertheless, getting your healthy bacteria from food rather than supplements is likely to be a healthier option overall, as this also means that you get other benefits from the food.
Still, supplements are an option in some situations and they may still offer benefits due to the healthy bacteria that they contain.
Key Types of Fermented Foods
There are many different options for fermented foods and these vary in taste and texture, along with the specific strains of bacteria that they contain. With that in mind, the best option for health is simply to include a variety of these in your diet, rather than just sticking to one or two.
The following sections highlight some of the most common and significant types of fermented food that you could include in your diet.
By definition, yogurt is a type of fermented food. This is true for traditional yogurt, Greek yogurt and other types that are on the market. Despite this, not all yogurt contains beneficial bacteria.
The reason for this is that most of the bacteria in yogurt is killed during the pasteurization process. As a result, many types of yogurt aren’t good sources of microbes.
With this in mind, it’s important to focus on yogurt that does contain active cultures. Typically, this happens because the company adds some strains of bacteria back in after the pasteurization process.
The most well-known example of this is Activa yogurt, which is specifically promoted as containing probiotics and being good for gut health.
However, many other yogurt brands take a similar approach.
In most cases, brands that use bacteria will have a section on their label that mentions active cultures. As such, it’s worth looking out for this when you choose what yogurt you buy.
Additionally, yogurt that contains active cultures will often be marketed as probiotic yogurt. This can be another easy way of working out which yogurt to buy.
Now, yogurt brands do vary in the specific bacterial strains that they contain. For example, Activa is unique in offering the probiotic Bifidus Regularis. However, there is little evidence that this is any better than other strains.
In many ways, the best outcome for health may be to simply vary the brands of yogurt that you consume, to ensure that you get a range of different bacterial strains. After all, researchers are still trying to determine which strains of bacteria are most relevant to health (50).
Yogurt itself is also associated with health benefits in its own right, which may be another reason for regularly including probiotic yogurt in your diet.
Finally, yogurt is especially interesting because much of the research into probiotics has been conducted on yogurt.
The research suggests that that probiotic yogurt is more effective at improving digestion, although yogurt itself does have digestive implications as well (57).
All of these areas suggest that yogurt is particularly powerful as a fermented food.
It is also a perfect place to start as yogurt doesn’t have the same intense flavor of many other options. Besides, many of us are already used to eating yogurt regularly.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that is sometimes sold alongside yogurt. The taste and texture are often similar to thin yogurt. However, kefir is still somewhat unusual and can sometimes look like it is slightly carbonated, depending on the fermentation process.
As with yogurt itself, there is often considerable variation in the flavor and texture of kefir. This means that you may find some brands taste better than others.
The production of kefir makes use of slow-acting yeasts. This approach means that there is very little lactose present in the final product. As a result, kefir can sometimes be consumed by people who are lactose intolerant.
Because kefir is derived from milk, it does contain some of the key nutrients that milk offers. However, the precise levels are likely to vary from one preparation of kefir to the next and the nutrient profile has not been standardized (58).
The site Whole Natural Health offers directions for making kefir at home if you're interested in trying it.
There are also some variations on kefir that don’t use milk. For example, one alternative relies on water and sugar. Alternative liquids will still be fermented, so they are likely to offer health benefits.
Nevertheless, their precise microbial composition is likely to vary and the implications for health may as well.
Tempeh is created from fermented soybeans and it is sometimes used as an alternative to tofu in vegan diets.
Indeed, it may even be considerably healthier because tempeh is much less processed than tofu.
Like tofu, tempeh ends up being a cake-like food, which is easily included in a wide range of dishes.
It is also a key source of nutrients and this may be another reason for eating it regularly.
Miso is a type of fermented paste and it can be made from soybeans, barley or rice.
This isn’t a food that you would eat outright, instead, it is used to flavor various meals, creating a umami/savory flavor.
However, the taste of miso is also intense.
With this in mind, you would typically just use a little bit of it when cooking.
Additionally, it is often flavored with fruit or with herbs.
The fermentation process means that the drink is effervescent and somewhat tangy. This makes it popular for people who regularly drink soda – and it is certainly a healthy alternative.
Kombucha is also something that you can easily make yourself. For example, the site Delicious Obsessions offers all the details you'd need to make your first batch of kombucha.
Kimchi is another somewhat unusual option. This is a traditional Korean dish that is also fermented.
The meal makes use of a range of vegetables, particularly cabbage, along with various spices and seasonings.
For a western audience, the flavor may take some getting used to. However, this is a great option for fermented food and can also be high in antioxidants.
Indeed, the meal has even been researched and linked to the same general health benefits that are found with probiotic yogurt (61).
At the same time, the dish is a good source of nutrition overall, especially as it does contain various cruciferous vegetables, along with compounds like garlic and ginger (62). The site Crazy Korean Cooking offers a great recipe and video if you want to make this one yourself.
Like kimci, sauerkraut makes use of fermented cabbage. However, sauerkraut is much more familiar to many people and also tends to be a simpler product.
In particular, it is traditionally made by just using water, cabbage and salt.
As with many of the fermented foods on this list, the dish is created using lacto-formation, where lactose is broken down. Some research even suggests that the compounds in sauerkraut may play a role in fighting cancer (63).
Because it is more common than options like kimci, sauerkraut can also be a good option for many people.
Other Fermented Foods
There are many other alternatives if you want fermented foods, including some that are common and others that are more obscure.
For example, pickles are often fermented. Likewise, lassi is another fermented milk drink and it plays a significant role in Indian cuisine.
Another option is natto. This is a Japanese dish that uses fermented soybeans, like tempeh. However, the dish is somewhat controversial and many people struggle with the texture.
Some types of raw cheese can also contain probiotics, as these haven’t gone through pasteurization.
If you’re going to shop for fermented foods, then it’s important to pay close attention to what you’re buying.
In particular, some brands tend to over-process their products and may also pasteurize.
As a result, fermented foods will not always have the bacterial content that you may expect.
Should You Eat Fermented Foods?
Human health is an inherently complicated process and there is much that we don’t understand. And, in many ways, this isn’t surprising. Our bodies host countless different reactions, interactions and chemical pathways, many of which can impact short-term and long-term health.
Because of this, it’s impossible to say that a single type of food will prevent disease or, conversely, cause it.
Instead, health outcomes are connected to the totality of a person’s diet and lifestyle. This means that making good choices can be critical in promoting your overall health.
Relying on fermented foods is certainly one aspect of that process.
Research in this field may still be relatively new but there is certainly some evidence that fermented foods can play a role in health. This may be especially relevant for people whose gut flora needs improvement.
But, at the same time, there is still a long way to go with research. In particular, we don’t know much about which specific strains of bacteria offer the most benefits or what role the type of fermented food has.
Likewise, the benefits may not be as amazing as some industry leaders would like us to think (64). So, much more research is needed.
With all of this in mind, it may be best to vary your sources of good bacteria. This may include relying on multiple types of fermented food. Doing so gives you the best chance for benefits, especially as some health advantages may occur with some strains of bacteria and not others.
Likewise, researchers suggest that this is a great approach for health overall and has many potential benefits (65).
Besides, fermented foods are safe and most have been in the human diet for a long time. As a result, there is little risk involved with fermented food and considerable potential for benefits.
You can also turn to probiotic supplements but that is a topic for another time. This type of supplement can be a relevant approach, especially if you don’t like the taste of most fermented food. Nevertheless, as is always the case, it’s better to rely on food first rather than supplements if you can.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
Check out my recommended products to see where you can get started.