Fermentation is a metabolic process converting sugar to acids, gases and/or alcohol using yeast or bacteria. The fermentation process is what makes fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi so rich in probiotic bacteria. Fermentation has traditionally been used as a means of preserving food, and it’s only recently that we have strayed away from this practice and rather use refrigerators, freezers and cans to keep food from going bad.
By eliminating most of the tradtionally fermented foods from our diets we have also removed an important source of probiotic bacteria. In combination with antibiotics, western diets, excessive hygiene, “lack of dirt”, c-sections, and bottle feeding, the loss of fermented foods wreaks havoc on our gut health and immunity. Making your own or buying high-quality fermented foods are ways of getting beneficial bacteria into your gut and boosting your immunity.
Pretty much every culture around the world have traditionally been eating some type of fermented food. While sauerkraut took roots mostly in Eastern European, French and Germanic cuisines, other fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha originated in other parts of the world. Traditionally fermented foods are still popular in many cultures, but the acidophilus milk and commercial yogurt from the supermarket seem to be the new standard in most western countries. These products are usually fat reduced, pasteurized and homogenized before a couple of strains of lactic acid bacteria are added to ferment the product. While the two or three strains of probiotic bacteria in most of these products provide some benefits, it’s a far cry from traditionally prepared fermented dairy from grass-fed cows.
Why fermented foods and not probiotic supplements?
Generally I’m not a big advocate of probiotic supplements. They typically contain only a couple of strains of bacteria, while traditonally fermented foods usually are a richer bacterial resource. Research also shows that some foods act as carriers for the probiotic bacteria, thereby increasing the survival through the gastrointestinal tract.
It’s a lot we still don’t know about probiotic bacteria, but it’s possible that bacteria in a specific fermented food work better in conjunction than some of the species isolated in a probiotic supplement.
This is not to say that probiotic supplements are a waste of money. Probiotics with Soil Based Organisms are interesting, and a new era of probiotic supplements (probiotic 2.0) might soon be on the way.
Which fermented foods do I recommend?
If you are new to fermented foods and want to get started right away I recommend starting with well-known fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut. Bare in mind that this is just examples, and other fermented foods might be equally beneficial.
Kefir: Get some Kefir Grains and start making kefir at home. Whether you choose milk or water grains is not that important. Making kefir only takes 24-48 hours so you will get going right away.
Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut should ferment for several weeks to maximize the probiotic richness. So, if you want to start eating fermented foods right away, I recommend getting some fermented sauerkraut from the health food store.