Listen to Your Gut: Fermented Foods

By: Christina Petsoulis, 2015 Meet Your Vegetables Intern

What’s a Fermented Food Product?

What’d your gut tell you this morning? Whether you listened or not, it probably rumbled to be fed a bowl full of lactic acid-fermenting bacteria, or what consumers like to call yogurt. From yogurt and cheese to sauerkraut and kimchi, we consume food products containing fermenting bacteria perhaps more than we realize. Fermented foods, which are categorized as any food altered via fermentation processes by microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) to yield a product, have unique flavors, storage properties and nutritional value. Fermentation occurs when foods mature and gather microorganisms such as bacteria, which begin to feed on the food’s nutrients. In turn, these bacteria produce fermentation products such as alcohol or lactic acid through biochemical processes. The fermentation products are what give fermented foods their novel flavors and act as natural preservatives. The bacteria present during these processes are non-pathogenic, and are commonly coined, “friendly bacteria.” Not only are these little organisms friendly, but they are extremely beneficial to consume as well!

How “Friendly Bacteria” Benefit You

When consumed in the diet, these bacteria enter the digestive tract (also called the gut) where they are able to aid in digestion, promote a healthy immune system, and help synthesize important nutrients including amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and essential vitamins. Adding additional beneficial bacteria to the gut promotes a more optimal balance of bacteria in the digestive tract necessary for proper digestive function and overall health. As humans age, the beneficial bacteria present in the digestive tract declines, which is why it is important to reincorporate this friendly bacteria into the digestive tract. Immune system functioning is improved through an overall improvement of gut microflora, which is promoted by the consumption of beneficial bacteria in fermented foods. The good bacteria in the digestive tract aid in digestion by making certain food components like dairy and starches more digestible for absorption. This is good news for those who have digestive tracts sensitive to dairy or hearty and fibrous grains.

Fermented Food Varieties

Perhaps one of the most popular fermented foods, yogurt, is a fermented dairy product, which is rich in beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillius and Streptococcus. You can find these two formal bacteria names on the back of packaged yogurt labels, which are denoted under the ingredients list. Also popular on the market, and found in stores more recently, is kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage product spiced with ginger and garlic. Fermented cabbage, which includes sauerkraut as well, contains the bacteria Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc. There are several other vegetable varieties such as cucumber, cauliflower, celery, beet, turnip, eggplant, and artichoke that can be fermented to create a pickled vegetable product. Fermented vegetables are an excellent way to incorporate fermented foods in to the diet. Not only do vegetables provide plenty of nutrients themselves, but the fermentation process allows new amino acids to be synthesized in the body, as well as making the present nutrients more bioavailable to the body once ingested.

Benefits Beyond Health

Fermentation dates back to times where modern food preservation methods were not present, and has allowed fermented food today to flourish into a unique food fare. Fermentation is a great way to preserve fresh food, which may otherwise go to waste, forming implications to improvements to world hunger and food waste in the future. Fermented food is both economically and ecologically sound as well as nutritionally beneficial. Whether it is the unique taste, eco-friendly nature or health benefits that entice you to consume fermented foods, it is surely not a bad idea to give them a try!