Fermented foods are produced by using microorganisms like bacteria or yeast to break down carbohydrates into substances such as alcohols or organic acids under anaerobic conditions. But what is fermentation, why do we ferment foods and what are the benefits of doing so?

Types of Fermentation

There are two types of fermentation:

  • Ethanol fermentation (used to produce beer, wine and bread)
  • Lactic acid fermentation (lactose is converted into lactic acid)

To fully digest, absorb and utilise nutrients in the food you eat, your body needs digestive enzymes. Fermented foods contain digestive enzymes, enhancing the digestion process. Alternate ways you can increase the number and variety of digestive enzymes in your body include eating a variety of foods, eating raw foods (such as cruciferous vegetables) and taking digestive enzyme supplements.

During the time period when food is left alone to sit, and the bacteria break down the carbohydrates present, fermentation occurs as the microorganisms respire anaerobically.

Benefits of Fermentation

Fermented foods are filled with beneficial bacteria that aid the bacteria in the digestive system. This helps to balance gut flora (the complex community of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts) which helps strengthen our immune system as 70% to 80% of our immune system lies in the gut.

These beneficial bacteria are known as probiotics, meaning ‘for life’ as they have been shown to enhance health in humans and animals. The Journal of Applied Microbiology states the benefits of consuming probiotics are:

  • Improving intestinal tract health
  • Enhancing the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients
  • Reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals
  • Reducing risk of certain cancers

1) Fermentation Improves Digestion

The microorganisms active during fermentation help to break down nutrients into more digestible forms. For those who are lactose intolerant, consuming dairy products which have undergone fermentation can reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance. Some foods, such as soybeans are indigestible and toxic without fermentation which breaks soybeans down into easily digestible amino acids which make-up traditional Asian products like miso, tamari and tempeh.

2) Fermentation Enhances Nutrition

The process of fermentation helps to create new nutrients and increase the availability, quantity and digestibility of certain dietary nutrients. It does this by enhancing the bioavailability (the proportion of the substance which enters the body that is absorbed so that is has an active effect) of fats and proteins through bacterial enzymatic hydrolysis of food compounds.

Fermentation can also help to break down phytates, mineral binding compounds that inhibit the absorption of dietary minerals like iron, zinc and manganese and slow their absorption.

3) Fermented Dairy Foods Reduce Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

The bacterium lactobacillus consumes lactose in milk, converting it into lactic acid which tends to be easier for individuals to digest and reduces symptoms of lactose intolerance in those who are deficient in the enzyme lactase.

4) Fermented Foods Can Have Anticancer Effects

Cancer is caused by rapid, uncontrolled cell division. This extreme cell division is caused by the activation or mutation of abnormal genes which send signals causing the cells to divide in an uncontrolled manner. Research has shown that fermented foods and probiotic cultures may decrease exposure to chemical carcinogens (substances capable of causing cancer in living tissue) and have anticancer properties by:

  • detoxifying the ingestion of carcinogens
  • altering the environment of the intestine and decreasing metabolic activities or populations of bacteria that may generate carcinogenic compounds
  • producing metabolic products that cause programmed cell death or apoptosis
  • producing compounds that inhibit the growth of tumour cells
  • stimulating the immune system to defend itself against cancer cell proliferation

Fermented Foods To Eat

There’s a long list of fermented foods you can eat, but certain fermented foods are more beneficial for your gut and immune system. Here are some of the fermented foods which provide a greater benefit to your gut, immune system and health:

  • Yoghurt

Has a very rich probiotic content and certain brands to yoghurt contain active, live cultures which can support digestion. Avoid yoghurts that contain lots of sugars as they help feed pathogenic bacteria and contribute to sugar overload.

  • Natto

Made from soybeans and is an excellent source of iron, dietary fibre, calcium and vitamin K2, which is essential for heart health as it keeps calcium out of your arteries and ensures it goes to your bones where it is required.

A bit like yoghurt, but in a more drinkable form. It may help reduce irritation in the intestines, preventing toxins and pathogens from entering the blood.

Made from tea, clean water, sugar, yeast and bacteria. Kombucha has many probiotic qualities and has a fizzy taste. It can help to fight off bacteria such as E. coli in the digestive tract, preventing illness and aiding digestion.

Prepared using water, salt and cabbage with a little heat being applied at the very end to ensure that beneficial microbes aren’t killed off. A serving provides probiotics that aid digestion and research has shown that sauerkraut prevents cancer cells forming.

Spicy fermented cabbage, similar to sauerkraut that provides you with a nice dose of probiotics. Research has shown that consumption contributes to colon health, lower cholesterol, better thinking, a stronger immune system and weight loss.

  • Tempeh

Also made from soybeans, looks like a type of ‘cake’ and contains a nutty and chewy texture. As well as being a great source of probiotics, it is a good source of iron, calcium and magnesium.

Made from cucumbers, and can be used as a simple way to introduce yourself to fermented foods. They aid digestion and support a strong immune system.

Fermented Food for Thought

There’s certainly a large range of health benefits to eating fermented foods so I would definitely consider introducing some into your diet if you haven’t done so already. Don’t get too fixated on the particular health benefits of each fermented food and instead try and consume a range of foods as this will provide you with the broadest range of nutrients and probiotics which will be very beneficial to your gut flora and immune system.

What fermented foods do you eat and will you be introducing any of the foods shown above into your diet?