Years ago, when I was studying to be a dietitian, we would have never used the phrase “gut microbiome” when talking with patients. Now, these words are pretty well-known, thanks to the many commercials and food products that mention gut health and the bacteria that live there. All of this makes it much easier for health practitioners to discuss gut-related topics and make specific recommendations for getting and keeping your gut healthy. One typical recommendation is to regularly consume fermented foods. Here is the latest science on fermented foods and health and which food and beverages deliver the most benefits.
What are fermented foods?
Fermentation itself is a process by which microorganisms—bacteria and yeast—convert sugars to other compounds (including alcohol) while producing energy for themselves. When the bacteria and yeast are live and present in large enough amounts in those foods to provide health benefits, they are referred to as “probiotics.” (Check out my previous post covering probiotic basics.) Initially, humans intentionally fermented foods to preserve them (and likely to make alcohol for drinking), but the culinary use of fermentation has resulted in a large and diverse selection of fermented foods and beverages from countries around the world. Examples include sourdough bread, beer and wine, kombucha, injera, miso, various cheeses, dosa, kefir, poi, sauerkraut, salami, yogurt, curtido, and kimchi, among others.
Health benefits of consuming fermented foods & drinks
It wasn’t until the 1900s that the potential health benefits of consuming them became a subject of interest and study. Years of scientific study has shown that fermented foods in general are linked with gut microbiome changes (with varying populations of bacteria and changes they can bring about), but much more study needs to be done in order to determine which bacterial species bring specific health-enhancing properties. There have been strong associations presented in the scientific literature for:
- fermented dairy products and weight management, increased digestibility and tolerance of dairy for people with lactose intolerance, reduced heart disease, decreased type 2 diabetes and mortality, improved glucose metabolism, and reduced muscle soreness after exercise
- kimchi and anti-diabetic, anti-obesity, and anti-atherogenic effects
- probiotic supplements show benefits for a wide variety of gastro-intestinal issues
The inclusion of fermented foods in nutrition guidelines around the world makes good health sense. These foods are healthy in and of themselves, and also offer health benefits that go beyond just fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc.—even if we are still learning about those benefits.
Health impact of fermented foods and drinks
Research indicates there are likely numerous ways that fermented foods and the probiotics they contain impact our bodies; here are some of the possibilities:
- Fighting against pathogens and inhibiting the ability of invading microorganisms to “attach” to our bodies
- Strengthening the physical barriers that keep out microorganisms in our intestines and respiratory tracts
- Boosting the effectiveness of our immune responses
3 easy ways to find fermented foods
Fermented foods and beverages can be found in nearly every department of the store, but not all of these foods contain probiotics. Probiotics are added to lots of foods that are not fermented (such as teas and energy bars), but if you’re looking to get your probiotics from fermented foods, here are three of the most obvious places to find them:
- For beverages, you can use the new Guiding Stars beverage guidance, which assigns extra points for the presence of live, active cultures (as noted on product labels). This means that drinks like kombucha, probiotic-enhanced waters, vinegar-based drinks, and probiotic juices are all evaluated with this new guidance—and you can quickly and easily select an option that supports good health by following the Guiding Stars. For an easy way to see which probiotic beverages earn stars (and how many), use the Food Finder tool. Probiotic beverages are often found near the produce section, but can show up other places, too.
- The dairy department is packed with probiotic product, including things like Greek and regular yogurts, skyr, kefir, drinkable yogurts, cultured cottage cheese (most in the US are not cultured so check the label), aged cheeses that have not been heated, and a few other varieties like feta and parmesan (there are some probiotics in these products, although the labels won’t indicate live active cultures).
- In the produce department, you can find miso paste and tempeh (usually near the tofu), kombucha, probiotic juices and vinegar-based beverages, fresh (not heat processed) sauerkraut, and kimchi is often found in the produce area, too.