Fermented foods have been around for centuries, dating back to the Neolithic era in China, that’s about 7000 BC, but they’ve been making an explosive comeback in recent years – and for good reason.
This process involves preserving food, having been used to extend shelf life in the days before refrigeration. But that’s not its only function – fermentation produces microorganisms which provide beneficial bacteria and create that familiar salty and acidic taste we love. Here are a few nutritious fermented foods to add to your trolley:
- Yoghurt, cheese and kefir.
- Tempeh, miso and natto.
- Sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi.
Take a look at a few of the benefits these nutritional powerhouses provide.
One of the best sources of probiotics is through fermented foods. Our gut microbiome is made up of 100 trillion good and bad bacteria, and one of the simplest ways to tip the balance in our favour is by consuming lots of beneficial bacteria from – you guessed it – probiotics. The result is improved digestive health and even increased immunity – and considering the viral explosion we’ve had this winter, it’s not a bad idea to crank that immune system up a notch.
Research shows the connection between what we put on our plates and how often we pick up infections, with one study revealing the vital role the gut microbiome plays in regulating the immune response to pathogens.
Strengthens bone health.
When we think of eating for bone health, it’s usually calcium and vitamin D that come to mind, and while these nutrients are essential, we tend to neglect the nutrient that ties it all together: vitamin K2. It plays a role in preventing osteoporosis and maintaining strong bones – take a look at some of the reasons we need this lesser-known vitamin:
- Supports bone strength and density.
- Protects blood vessels.
- Vital for brain function.
- Reduces heart disease risk.
- Reduces inflammation.
Fermenting nutritious food brings out soaring levels of vitamin K2, so if you think you’re probably not getting enough of this essential nutrient, this could be the solution. While eggs and organ meats tend to have a fair amount of this vitamin, it is dependent on the diet quality of the animals.
We recommend hard fermented cheeses like Gouda or Munster, Sauerkraut and natto for a vitamin K boost – the latter of which packs a whopping 200% of our daily recommended intake in just a tablespoon. That’s right, natto tops the list when it comes to vitamin K content, so head to your local Japanese grocer to pick up some of these versatile fermented soybeans. Like most fermented foods, it has a pungent taste, but for those health benefits, it’s worth giving it a go!
Pro tip: Mix your natto with some rice, mustard, spring onions and an egg.
Fermenting foods not only increases their nutrient content, it also makes them more bioavailable – that is, easily absorbed and used by our bodies. This is especially evident in grains and legumes that, in their original form, are harder to digest and contain phytic acid. This acid binds to nutrients and prevents us from properly absorbing them. But here’s where the fermentation process comes in – research shows it strips those nutrient-binding acids away and leaves you with a more bioavailable product. Also, common allergens, like dairy and soy, become easier to digest when fermented, take cultured butter as an example; it loses almost all of its lactose while fermenting.
So, if you have a sensitive gut, fermented foods are a good way to help improve digestion and ensure you’re still getting those essential nutrients.
How you can help fermented foods do their job.
To achieve the optimal health benefits of fermented foods, it’s not just about what you eat – it’s what you don’t eat. High-sugar diets can lead to changes to the gut microbiome, with research showing it lowers microbial diversity, thereby raising our risks for infection and inflammation. Proteobacteria is a type of bacteria that has been found in far higher levels in those who ate excess sugar, and too much of this bacterium is an indicator of an unbalanced microbiome, known as dysbiosis. This, in turn, raises the risks for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
The average Aussie is consuming 15 teaspoons of added sugar per day, which is more than double the 6-teaspoon limit. It’s easy to overdo it with excess sugar in everything from cereals to muesli bars – but there is one thing you can do. Next time you’re looking for a health, gut-boosting food at the supermarket, skip the ‘health foods’ aisle of highly processed foods, and head straight to the fridge where the fermented foods will be.
Pro tip: If you notice a fermented product sitting unrefrigerated on the shelf, it’s probably been heated for shelf stability. The problem here is that now all the beneficial bacteria are lost.
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