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Why You Should Incorporate Fermented Foods Into Your Diet

The Bioregulatory Medicine Institute


kefir grain on a wooden spoon with mason jar of kefir behind it

Ready to spice up your New Year's resolutions? Why not kick off the year with a delicious twist by adding fermented foods to your daily diet! This isn’t just any resolution; it's a flavor-packed journey to a healthier, happier you.


You've probably sampled familiar fermented foods such as yogurt, soy sauce, and sauerkraut, but have you ever experimented with kefir, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, or miso? You may find these flavor-packed foods fun to try, given that the practice of fermentation has ancient roots dating back thousands of years, and the current research indicates that fermented foods offer a wide-variety of health benefits.


However, before you incorporate some of these fermented foods into your daily diet, you may be wondering what exactly they are.


Well, they are made with the help of tiny living things like yeasts and bacteria, especially lactic acid bacteria (LAB)!


These microbes in fermented foods are so clever that they also produce compounds that can protect against food spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms. 


How do these microbes work their magic? Fermentation happens in many ways, but there are two main methods. The first method, called wild fermentation, occurs naturally when microbes in the environment transform food slowly over days or weeks.


To understand this process, we can look at sauerkraut. Essentially, sauerkraut is created by shredding cabbage, mashing it a bit, putting it in a jar with some salt, and letting it sit for three to ten days. Behind the scenes, the microbes on the cabbage (such as lactobacillus) turn the carbohydrates into lactic acid. This acid gives sauerkraut its uniquely tangy flavor and stops the bad bacteria from growing by lowering the pH of the brine. Pretty amazing, right?


The second method of fermentation is magical in its own right when  starter “seed” cultures are added to food to kick start the fermentation process. We can see this magic working when we make yogurt, kefir, and kombucha - and we can do this in the comfort of our own homes!


In fact, making kefir is a simple process that requires just a few ingredients. To start, you add milk to a small amount of kefir grains in a mason jar. Let this mixture sit on your countertop for about 24 hours, allowing the grains to ferment. After this time, the milk has transformed into kefir and can be separated from the grains. These grains can be reused to make your next batch.


The science behind this process is that kefir grains contain various strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which multiply and convert the sugars in the milk into lactic acid at room temperature. The lactic acid reduces the milk's pH, creating an environment that is unfriendly to harmful bacteria but conducive to healthy bacteria. The result is a thick, tangy, and healthy drink.


If turning your kitchen into a chemistry lab might not be your jam, luckily, most mainstream supermarkets now carry relatively inexpensive fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, and kimchi. 


And health food stores offer even more, including naturally fermented pickles, and olives. The secret to finding these healthy delights comes down to reading labels, of course. When purchasing fermented pickles for example, you’ll have to look in the refrigerated section and check the label to see if it contains vinegar. If so, it’s not fermented. The brine should also look cloudy and usually (but not always) the label will indicate that it is naturally fermented.


Probiotic Powerhouse


The benefits of fermented foods are primarily attributed to the microorganisms they contain. These beneficial bacteria play a crucial role in nurturing a healthy gut microbiome, which is home to trillions of microbes - yes trillions. By regularly consuming fermented foods, it’s highly likely that you are replenishing and maintaining the friendly bacteria in your digestive system, which is vital for overall health. 



Improved Digestion and Nutrient Absorption


Another benefit to fermented foods is that they aid in digestion and nutrient absorption, since the fermentation process breaks down complex compounds in food, making them easier to digest and absorb. For instance, individuals who are lactose-intolerant often don’t have any issues digesting fermented dairy products like yogurt, as the bacteria involved in fermentation produce the enzyme lactase. This enzyme not only aids digestion but also enhances the bioavailability of nutrients, ensuring that the body can make the most of the vitamins and minerals present in food.


Enhanced Mental Health


Lately, there is growing research suggesting a strong connection between gut health and mental well-being. The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system between the gut and the brain, and the state of your gut microbiome can influence your mood and cognitive function. Probiotics from fermented foods may play a role in supporting mental health by positively impacting neurotransmitter production and reducing inflammation.

Boosted Immune System


A significant portion of the body's immune system resides in the gut. By promoting a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive tract, fermented foods may contribute to a robust immune response. Probiotics have been shown to stimulate the production of antibodies and enhance the activity of immune cells, helping your body fend off infections and illnesses more effectively.


Additionally, there are reports suggesting that eating fermented foods might help protect against certain types of cancers. Animal studies have found that the lactic acid bacteria found in these foods can have anti-cancer effects. This means they may either prevent the development of cancer or slow down its growth if it starts. For instance, yogurt and milk fermented with the lactic acid bacteria L. acidophilus have shown these anti-cancer effects in mice.


Lowering Cholesterol


Studies show that eating fermented foods may help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. It is believed that consuming a lot of fermented milk can affect the production of cholesterol in the body. Research has found that L. acidophilus, a type of bacteria, can lower levels of cholesterol in the blood, although more studies are needed. 


Protection From Pathogens


Recent research conducted in the laboratory setting has revealed that kefir has the ability to fight against various harmful microorganisms, including Candida albicans, Salmonella typhi, Salmonella enterica, Shigella sonnei, Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis, Enterococcus faecalis, and Staphylococcus aureus.


Although the mechanism for this is uncertain, scientists believe that it may be because certain strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) produce substances that can inhibit the growth of fungi and the production of harmful substances called mycotoxins. The ability of LAB to compete for space and nutrients, as well as modify the surrounding environment, may also contribute to their antifungal properties. Some good bacteria can even bind to mycotoxins, preventing them from causing harm. Examples of bacteria with these properties include those from the Lactobacillus genus (such as L. rossiae, L. fermentum, and L. sanfranciscensis) and other genera like Bifidobacterium, Lactococcus, and Pediococcus. 

Lactic acid bacteria are also believed to help maintain a healthy pH in the large intestine. A slightly acidic pH helps stop the growth of unwanted bacteria, molds, mold spores, and yeasts, especially Candida.


In essence, lactic acid bacteria and cultured milk products are believed to benefit health by either directly suppressing the growth of harmful microorganisms,  producing substances that fight against them, or by helping to maintain a healthy pH level in the large intestine.


Nutrient-Rich and Bioactive Compounds


Fermented foods are not only a source of probiotics but also a treasure trove of bioactive compounds. The fermentation process can increase the concentration of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds in foods. For example, fermented cabbage becomes sauerkraut, which is not only rich in probiotics but also contains higher levels of certain vitamins, such as vitamin C.


Weight Management and Metabolic Health


There is also evidence suggesting that the consumption of fermented foods may contribute to weight management and metabolic health. Some studies indicate that the microbiota in the gut can influence metabolic processes and may play a role in weight regulation. 

Incorporating fermented foods into your diet is a delicious and nutritious way to support your overall health.


Here’s a Few Tips:


  • Read labels and look for terms such as “naturally fermented.”

  • Go slowly to give your gut biome time to adjust.

  • Try a variety of fermented foods to diversify your gut biome.

  • Probiotics can be destroyed through heat, so be aware that not all fermented foods contain live probiotics. 

  • Look at the label for “live and active cultures.” 

  • Consider kefir over yogurt since it is composed of a wider variety of microbiotic strains. You can even buy the kefir grains, mason jar, and strainer on Amazon.com.

  • Fermented foods are safe for most people, but talk to your doctor if you have an immune disorder, have a serious underlying illness, or before giving to a young infant.

  • Try miso as a flavor enhancer to salad dressing or to drizzle over vegetables like roasted cabbage.

  • If you have an Instant Pot, try making yogurt in it with the yogurt button. There are many online recipes. 

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