Your Health

Fermented foods

Can they actually be good for your health?

fermented foods
When we eat fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, we are actually improving the balance of "good" vs. "bad" bacteria in our guts.
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Make yogurt at home

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2015

There appears to be a fair amount of interest these days in the idea of eating as our ancestors used to eat.

The explosion of books (as well as magazines and websites) promoting food trends such as the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet underscores the point. This diet is based on the notion that we should all eat the way people ate prior to the invention of agriculture by following a high-protein, low-carbohydrate menu that is heavy on meat and fish and excludes grains.

Of course, trends like these are often rooted in flawed research or unfounded notions about nutritional health. For example, researchers say that while it is true that our ancestors used to eat a lot of meat and fish, they also ate their fair share of plant-based carbs. And, as nutrition experts point out, a balanced diet drawing from the four main food groups - vegetables and fruits, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives - is still the best way to go to maintain your overall health and well-being.

That being said, there are healthy ways to tap into your food-eating roots, should you be so inclined. One proven option is to eat more foods that have been fermented, a process that dates back at least 6,000 years.

Researchers say fermentation was likely first used to make alcoholic beverages, such as wine. But it didn't take long before our ancestors realized the process could also be used to preserve foods, a useful thing considering that people living back then could never be too certain where their next meal was coming from or when. The fact that fermentation could also provide new and complex tastes in foods must have seemed like an unexpected bonus.

Today, fermentation is enjoying a bit of a resurgence, and for good reason. In addition to preserving foods and heightening their flavour, fermentation of food also provides important health benefits. For example, fermented foods are known to help with digestion, improve nutrient absorption, and may have other health benefits, such as improving gastrointestinal health and enhancing the immune system.

Most Canadians already eat fermented foods without even thinking about it. Foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, genuine dill pickles, cheese and soy sauce are fermented. Fermentation is also used in the production of coffee and chocolate.

But there are also a lot of unfamiliar fermented foods now available in your grocery store. Some of these foods are kefir (a tangy drink made from milk), kombucha (a fermented tea), and kimchi (made from radishes, cucumbers or other vegetables).  

So what exactly is fermentation? Foods are fermented thanks to the action of certain micro-organisms (bacteria, moulds or yeasts). These micro-organisms consume the sugars in a food and convert them to alcohols, carbon dioxide, or organic acids. As a result, the flavour and nutritional quality of the food is enhanced, digestion is improved, and the shelf life of the food is increased. 

Take yogurt as an example: lactic acid bacteria cultures are added to heated, pasteurized milk. The milk is then incubated at 110°F (43°C), which provides the perfect environment for the bacteria to convert the lactose (milk sugar) to lactic acid. This acid causes the milk to thicken, and produces compounds that give yogurt its tart, tangy flavour. Many people with lactose intolerance find yogurt easier to digest than milk. This is because the bacteria have already partially digested the lactose in the milk for them.

So, you might be thinking, is it safe to eat a fermented food if it's made with bacteria? Absolutely. Our bodies (especially our guts) are full of different kinds of bacteria, some good and some not so good. Fermented foods are made with the good bacteria.

When we eat these foods, we are actually improving the balance of "good" vs. "bad" bacteria in our guts. This is helpful to us as the good bacteria can help us to digest and extract nutrients from food, keep bowel function regular, and defend us against the harmful bacteria (which can cause disease and illness).

Also, many types of bacteria involved in fermentation are considered to be probiotics, meaning they can provide our bodies with health benefits when we consume them.

Research suggests that there may be benefits for conditions such as lactose intolerance, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's, colitis and urinary tract infections, as well as enhancement of the immune system. There is even emerging research suggesting that probiotics may play a role in allergies and mood disorders.

Though more research is needed, current evidence gives us good reason to include fermented foods in our diets.   

To get the health benefits and flavours of fermented foods, you don't need to make an entire meal of them. Adding a little bit on a regular basis will do.

Some choices, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, are higher in sodium, so use them in small amounts, as condiments. Here are a few other suggestions to add fermented foods to your diet:

  • Add a spoonful of sauerkraut to your sandwich or salad.
  • Drink kefir or pour it over cereal or granola. Look for brands lower in sugar.
  • Use kefir or yogurt when making smoothies.
  • Try kombucha tea at your next coffee break.
  • Add a spoonful of kimchi to barbecued meat, eat it raw over brown rice, or add it to burgers, sandwiches and stir-fries.
  • Try miso paste (fermented soybeans) in sauces, soups, marinades and salad dressings.
  • Replace regular bread with a fresh sourdough variety.

Lisa Skromeda is a public health dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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