10 Healthiest Fermented Foods + How They Can Benefit You

Medically reviewed by Kelly McKenzie, Registered Clinical Nutritionist Kelly McKenzie Kelly McKenzieRegistered Clinical Nutritionist linkedin_icon
Written by , BSc, Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition and Health Ravi Teja Tadimalla BSc, Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition and Health Experience: 8 years
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There is a lot of research being done on fermented foods lately. Whether it is improving your digestive health or strengthening your bones, the probiotics in fermented foods seem to have the solution.

Despite the influx of information, not many of us are aware of the several powerful fermented foods around us. And neither do most of us know how to use them for our greatest benefit. Which is why you are here – you will know the most common fermented foods around you. And you will also understand how to use them to your advantage and lead a better life.

Table Of Contents

What Are Fermented Foods?

A fermented food is a food that is left to steep until its sugars and carbs turn into bacteria-boosting agents. Simply put, this is food that lies between being fresh and going rotten.

Fermentation is a fantastic way to preserve most foods. By the way, not all foods can be fermented. There are only certain foods that are preserved by the actions of microorganisms – and they are replete with benefits.

But hold on – what’s all this buzz about fermented foods? What’s the big deal?

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Why Should You Know About Fermented Foods?

The most common form of fermentation is lacto-fermentation. It is a process in which the lactobacillus bacteria start eating into the food, thereby increasing lactic acid levels. This kills the bad bacteria.

The good bacteria that are formed support the pre-existing beneficial bacteria in your gut, enhancing digestion. These promote intestinal health and even prevent certain forms of cancer (1).

Also, a major part of your immune system resides in your gut. Which is why consuming fermented foods rich in probiotics helps boost your immunity as well. There are various other benefits of fermented foods. But before we get there, how about taking a look at the list of such foods?

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What Are The Fermented Foods You Must Take?

You can start with the following fermented foods. If you never had them before, you can start small with half a cup a day. They are incredibly healthy. Certain animal studies suggest that fermented foods may also treat depression, boost heart health, and even improve your skin appearance (2), (3), (4).

1. Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented tea that has been used for thousands of years. It is thought to have originated in China or Japan. It is made by adding specific strains of sugar, yeast, and bacteria to green or black tea before leaving it to ferment for a week or more. This fermentation process produces acetic acid and other acidic compounds and, yes, probiotics as well (5).

These probiotics boost your gut health and fight inflammation and can even encourage weight loss. Kombucha is also a potent source of antioxidants, and some experts believe them to be better than those found in certain antioxidant supplements.

2. Yogurt

This is probably the most common probiotic food used across the world. Bacteria ferment the lactose in milk, increasing lactic acid and producing yogurt as a result. Studies show how the probiotics in yogurt help ease IBS, which is an agonizing condition of the colon (6).

Yogurt also fights inflammation and strengthens your immune system. It is replete with protein and calcium – nutrients that promote optimal health as you age.

In case you are going for yogurt from the market, ensure you pick the unsweetened variety.

3. Kefir

Kefir is another fermented drink made of cow or goat milk. And it is often considered far more powerful than yogurt. It is made by adding kefir grains to milk – which are nothing but cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast that look like a cauliflower.

Kefir contains about 30 strains of bacteria and yeast, making it far more potent than yogurt when it comes to probiotic benefits. It contains the probiotic Lactobacillus kefiri, which prevent the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella, H.pylori, and E.coli (7).

Kefir is also rich in calcium and vitamin K2, both of which are important to preserve bones.

4. Kimchi

Kimchi, a spicy Korean dish, is made of cabbage as the main ingredient – and is seasoned with ginger, salt, garlic, and red pepper chili flakes. The beneficial bacteria in this dish boost digestive health and fight inflammation and infections.

Kimchi is also an excellent source of vitamins A and C, which further boost immunity and enhance skin health.

Kimchi may also offer protection against cancer and support weight loss and cholesterol reduction (8).

5. Miso

5. Miso
Image: Shutterstock

This is a Japanese condiment consisting of a thick paste made out of soybeans that are fermented with salt and a rice starter (called koji). Miso contains the probiotic strain A. oryzae, which has been found to treat inflammatory bowel disease (9).

The fermentation process also reduces the antinutrients in soybeans (antinutrients bind to nutrients in your gut and hamper their obstruction) – thereby improving your overall health.

The antioxidants in miso (miso soup) may also fight free radicals and prevent the related diseases, including chronic inflammation and cancer (10).

6. Pickles

Pickles could be fermented fruits or vegetables. The healthy bacteria break down the sugars in the food. Fruits and veggies are great sources of natural antioxidants – and these contribute to overall health and wellness.

Even pickle juice has great benefits. It could help treat muscle cramps (11). It also keeps you hydrated. Some believe the juice may also help with weight loss, although there is no research to support this.

7. Natto

This is another traditional Japanese dish made of fermented soybeans. It has a slimy and sticky texture. And it contains strains of Bacillus subtilis bacteria that ferment the food. These probiotics protect your gut from infection by toxins and harmful bacteria.

As a result, natto can combat stomach gas, bloating, constipation, and other serious digestive issues like IBS and ulcerative colitis (12).

8. Cheese

Not all cheeses are made alike. Ensure you check the food labels – look for live and active cultures. Some types of cheese that may contain probiotics include mozzarella, cheddar, and cottage (13). Cheese is also a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin B12.

Studies also show that moderate intake of cheese can cut the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis (14), (15).

9. Tempeh

This traditional Indonesian food is also made of soybeans that are fermented and consumed as a vegetarian source of protein. The dish has a firm but chewy texture and a nutty taste.

The fermentation process breaks down the phytic acid in tempeh, which improves digestion (16). The high amount of protein also keeps you full, thereby promoting satiety and resultant weight loss. The soy isoflavones in tempeh may even reduce bad cholesterol.

10. Sauerkraut

Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage. And as we saw, the probiotics in this food boost digestive health and keep gut ailments at bay. These probiotics also boost your immunity and keep you away from illness.

Sauerkraut is also rich in fiber, which, apart from boosting regularity, also helps in weight loss.

These are the top fermented foods. As we discussed, they have a host of benefits. Which is what we will see now.

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What Are The Benefits Of Fermented Foods?

1. Improve Digestion

We already saw this. Fermentation breaks down nutrients into more digestible forms. Fermenting a food increases the digestibility of its nutrients. The nutrients are better absorbed as well, and this contributes to overall health.

In other words, fermented foods increase the bioavailability of other nutrients. And yes, the probiotics in fermented foods complement the gut bacteria – enhancing digestive health like nothing else.

2. Prevent Cancer

Fermented foods boost immunity, which, in turn, can help combat cancer. Some studies show how probiotics can decrease the exposure of healthy cells to chemical carcinogens (17).

3. Reduce Symptoms Of Lactose Intolerance

The lactose in milk products causes lactose intolerance in some people as they cannot digest it. But, in fermented foods, the bacteria transform lactose into lactic acid. This makes the foods easier to digest, even for individuals suffering from lactose intolerance.

4. Prevent Liver Disease

This is especially true in the case of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by the accumulation of fat in the liver. Studies show how the intake of probiotic yogurt can reduce bad cholesterol in the liver. This can help prevent or even combat NAFLD (13).

5. Can Improve Arthritis Symptoms

Probiotics in fermented foods fight inflammation and may improve arthritis symptoms (19).

6. May Improve Diabetes Symptoms

Some research shows that altering gut microbiota for the better can change how glucose absorption happens in the body – thereby improving diabetes symptoms. We need more research here, though. So, please consult your doctor.

7. May Aid Weight Loss

This is especially true in the case of fermented foods rich in fiber. Fiber promotes satiety and discourages overeating. Better variety of probiotics also enhances digestion, which also may have a role to play in healthy weight loss.

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Consuming fermented foods is one simple way of improving your health and lifestyle. They aren’t heavy on your pocket. They taste good. And they are incredibly nutritious. Hence, start including these foods in your diet today.

Also, tell us how this post helped you. Simply leave a comment in the box below.

Expert’s Answers for Readers Questions

How to make fermented foods at home?

Fermenting vegetables is by far the easiest you can do at home. The process is simple.

– Get organic vegetables. Please be aware of non-organic produce – they are a big NO.

– Get a jar. A normal glass jar would do. You can rinse it with a solution of apple cider vinegar and water to ensure optimum cleanliness.

– Get a reliable bacterial starter – these are the bacterial strains you would add for fermentation. It must be strong enough to fight the bad bacteria. You can find it at your nearest health food store or online.

– Stuff the jar with your veggies, any seasoning, and the bacterial starter. Cover the veggies with filtered water and close the jar. Store the jar in a cool and dark place (if you do not store in a cool place, the veggies may continue to ferment; though this is not bad, they may become too soft). The fermentation might take a week or two. Post that, you can open the jar (make sure you do it over a sink to avoid an effervescent explosion) and check if it has attained the desired puckering taste. You can then store it in your fridge – the fermented food can last up to 8 months.

What are the dangers of eating too many fermented foods?

You may experience unwanted digestive issues like bloating or gas. The amines in probiotics can even cause headaches. In some people, consuming too many probiotics can increase the risk of infection.

Fermented foods or probiotic supplements?

Fermented foods are better, any given day. But with advancements in science, you sure will get high-quality organic probiotic supplements in the market – these can save you time and energy to prepare fermented foods at your home. Just be careful with the brands. Go for something reliable. Check with your healthcare provider.

What is the best time to eat fermented foods?

In the mornings or before you go to bed. Check what suits you.

19 sources

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Kelly McKenzie is a Registered Clinical Nutritionist with 3 years of experience, based in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the founder of All About Nutrition, a nutrition consultancy that takes a holistic approach to their clients health and wellbeing.

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