On Your Health

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The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Did you know there is a complex ecosystem of bacteria in your gut right now? According to the American Society for Microbiology, up to 40 trillion bacteria live in each of our bodies. In fact, bacteria far outnumber cells in a human body. This microbe population of bacteria living in the gut is called the “microbiota.”

The microbiota is made up of both good and bad bacteria. Probiotics are the good bacteria in your intestines that are good for your health. They especially support healthy digestion. When your microbiota is unbalanced, it can affect digestive health. Gut bacteria are vulnerable to environmental and lifestyle factors such as stress, antibiotic use, pollution, chlorinated water, drugs and alcohol, lack of sleep, and a diet high in processed foods and refined sugars.

Consuming probiotics can help with a gut imbalance by providing a source of good bacteria to the intestinal tract, improving how it functions and how you feel. Besides digestive health, research links gut health to brain health and weight control, too.

While taking probiotic supplements is a good idea, eating fermented foods is an even tastier way to take in the good bacteria. It’s the microflora living in fermented foods that can put a protective liner in your intestines. If you suffer from gas, bloating, cramping, constipation or diarrhea, you might add fermented foods to your diet. Says Justin Sonnenburg, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, “Fermented foods are an effective way to add good bacteria to your gut.”

From Germany to Korea, fermentation has been popular across cultures for centuries, but in the last few years fermented foods have been making a comeback in the U.S., too. Besides improving gut health, fermented foods can have many health benefits, such as increasing antibodies and strengthening the immune system to help protect from colds and flu. Some experts also say fermented foods can help with appetite control and decrease cravings for sweets and carbs.

Experts recommend having at least one serving of fermented foods each day, but you might need to experiment with different fermented foods to see which ones agree with your digestive system. Some of the most common fermented foods are listed below.

Sauerkraut: Made from fermented cabbage

Sauerkraut is high in dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, D, K and all the B vitamins. It is also a good source of iron, copper, calcium, sodium, manganese and magnesium.

Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, says fresh sauerkraut can aid digestion, increase vitamin levels, produce a variety of beneficial enzymes, and promote the growth of healthy flora throughout the digestive tract. Dr. Weil cautions against buying many of the commercially available sauerkrauts. These are often pasteurized and “dead,” he says.

One cup has only 44 calories and 8 grams of fiber. However, often there is too much salt in sauerkraut.  Try rinsing the kraut in cold water to lower the amount of salt. To get the best health benefits, look for fresh, or make it yourself.  Here is Dr. Weil’s sauerkraut recipe.

Kefir: Fermented milk product similar in taste to yogurt

Kefir in Turkish means “feeling good after consumption.” Traditional kefir is tart, even sour. Kefir is 99 percent lactose-free, and its combination of probiotics is more powerful than those in yogurt — kefir contains several major strains of good bacteria that aren’t found in yogurt. Kefir is high in B12, calcium, magnesium, biotin, folate and enzymes.

A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association claimed that drinking kefir eliminated (or at least dramatically reduced) symptoms of lactose intolerance in adult participants.

Be sure to check your labels carefully because commercially purchased kefir may be loaded with additives. Experts recommend buying plain kefir and adding your own sweeteners, such as honey or agave. You can also experiment and make your own kefir — kits are widely available.

Pickles: More than just Vlasic

Dr. Weil says, “Most ‘pickles’ on supermarket shelves are simply cucumbers canned in a vinegar solution and are not fermented. ‘Live’ pickles need to be refrigerated.” So, make sure your pickles say "fermented" on the label.

Pickles can be a great way to spice up some of your favorite recipes. They can replace high-fat and high-calorie condiments without leaving you feeling deprived. Plus, dill pickles contain fiber, antioxidants and vitamin K.

Kimchi: A traditional fermented Korean dish dating back to the 7th century

Kimchi is made from cabbage, radishes, spices and seasoning. Koreans eat so much of this spicy condiment (40 pounds of it per person each year) natives say "kimchi" instead of "cheese" when getting their pictures taken!

Some experts think consuming kimchi can improve cardiovascular and digestive health. It contains high levels of antioxidants and is loaded with vitamins A, B and C.

You can find kimchi in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Try adding it to your eggs in the morning, put it on top of your baked potato, or wrap at lunch. For dinner, you might try this stew recipe.

Yogurt: The most consumed fermented dairy product in the U.S.

By now, most Americans know yogurt can promote better gut health. Greek probiotic yogurts are often listed among the best for their high protein value, low sugar content, and creamier texture. One note: try to buy organic when you can. Here is what Dr. Weil has to say about Greek yogurt.

These days it’s very easy to take advantage of the health benefits of fermented foods. These “superfoods” help our bodies absorb nutrients and keep our microbiome balanced. They’ve never been more popular in the U.S., and fermented foods that were once hard to find are now carried in many mainstream supermarkets and show up on many restaurant menus. So give them a try!