Five Fabulous Fermented Foods (that are also good for you!)

You may have heard that kefir, kombucha, and kimchi are all good for you…but did you ever stop to wonder why? (It has nothing to do with the letter “K.”) These fermented foods are naturally probiotic, providing healthy bacteria to our digestive systems to support digestive health.

Fermentation is a controlled process in which microorganisms such as yeast and certain bacteria break down carbohydrates and sugars into their component organic acids or alcohol, under conditions that exclude oxygen. The results are typically a little tangy, a little savory, and sometimes a little fizzy… and often delicious! Fermented foods that are properly prepared and stored often have a long shelf-life.

Did you know that not all fermented foods are alike? There are many fermented foods that are produced using use bacteria and yeast, but the final product no longer contains active cultures.  Let’s look at these first before diving into the healthy probiotic-rich delicacies.

A few examples of fermented foods that are NOT probiotic include:

  • Commercial wine. (Commercially produced wines are filtered before bottling to remove remaining bacteria and sediment).
  • You probably do not think of chocolate as a fermented food(!) The processing of cocoa beans into chocolate does requires fermentation to develop and bring out the flavors that we know and love before the chocolate goes through a series of additional steps to turn it into our favorite confection. Although chocolate contains flavanols that act as prebiotics to nurture our healthy gut bacteria, Chocolate does not contain any live bacteria, so is not considered probiotic.
  • Canned sauerkraut. Most packaged sauerkraut is heat-treated / pasteurized during the canning process, which effectively kills off any healthy bacteria. Similarly, cooking sauerkraut at home also kills the healthy bugs.

Let’s look a little closer at what causes a food to be considered “probiotic,” and, what you want to look for to maximize health benefits.

To be considered probiotic, a food must meet the FAO/WHO definition, “Probiotics are live microorganismsthat, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” So a probiotic fermented food needs to have the right type of living microorganisms in a high enough quantity to confer a biological effect when consumed. That seems to be a tall order!

What are the “right” microorganisms?

The most common probiotic bacteria include those in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium groups, and yeasts. They are the same as or similar to the helpful bugs that naturally reside in our guts. Probiotic bacteria have a variety of functions including breaking down food, producing vitamins, and crowding out harmful bacteria trying to take up residence in the gut.

Some top fermented foods that are also probiotic include:

  1. This is probably one of the best-known probiotic foods, but all yogurts are not created alike. Some yogurts have been processed in a way that kills some or all of the live bacteria. Others contain strains that have not been shown to “confer a healthy benefit” to the host. Some things to look for on labels include “Live and active cultures,” and the specific strains.

With many of us going dairy-free, the market has exploded recently with a plethora of dairy-free, plant-based “milks” and yogurts, including nut milks. Most do contain probiotic strains, but the specific strains and amounts vary widely between brands. In some cases, due to the variety of different sugars found in nuts and seeds, a variety of different probiotic bacteria types are used to ferment the yogurt, leading to a greater variety of probiotic strains in the finished product. Definitely do your research and read labels to find the brand that best meets your probiotic needs.

Another option is to make your own dairy-free yogurt. We like this easy recipe from “My Quiet Kitchen” for cashew yogurt (be sure to use organic/biodynamic ingredients and unsalted cashews). For the probiotic capsules to use in the fermentation step, we recommend PERQUE Digesta Guard Forté10™, a probiotic supplement that contains 10 beneficial bacteria in health-promoting quantities.

  1. While similar to yogurt in that it is made by fermenting milk with beneficial microorganisms, kefir uses “kefir grains” rather than bacterial cultures to promote fermentation. Kefir grains are a symbiotic community of a variety of bacteria and yeasts that create a cauliflower-looking “grain” structure. When added to milk and stored overnight in the dark, kefir is formed. The grains can then be removed to use in another batch. Kefir typically contains a greater variety of probiotic organisms than yogurt.

Another interesting option, called “tibicos” or “water kefir,” is a type of kefir grain that specifically ferments sugary water or fruit juice rather than a dairy milk. It allows a true non-dairy kefir to be produced, yet still has a strong probiotic profile. There is an instructional video online for making water kefir, and the finished product can then be used to make coconut milk kefir or other non-dairy milk kefirs!

  1. Kombucha is a fizzy fermented probiotic drink made from tea. It has become quite popular recently but has been around for nearly 2,000 years. To create kombucha, a culture of bacteria and yeast is added to a sugary black tea mixture and left to ferment for 7 to 30 days. Variants have been produced with green tea, as well, to provide additional health benefits.
  2. Sauerkraut is created when cabbage is submerged in a salt brine, allowing the natural bacteria in the food to break down the carbohydrates and fibers to more digestible and nutritionally rich compounds. The problem with canned and other processed sauerkrauts is that heat, vinegar, or sugar added during processing will either kill or inhibit the growth of the probiotic bugs. But there are probiotic-rich sauerkrauts You’ll want to look in the refrigerated section, and check labels for words such as “contains live, active cultures,” “raw,” “probiotic” etc. A few organic options we have found include Hamptons Brine, Pickled Planet, Real Pickles, and Wild Brine. You can also make your own sauerkraut at home. Whole-istic Living has a nice basic recipe; be sure to use all organic/biodynamic ingredients.
  3. Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish or condiment made with salted and fermented vegetables (often including napa cabbage) and a variety of seasonings. The NIH has recognized kimchi as a vegetable probiotic food that confers health benefits to consumers. Check out our sugar-free kimchi recipe here.

Adding probiotic foods to your diet can contribute to your overall health and wellbeing. Which of these foods will you try first?

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