Regular consumption of Fermented foods for improving gut health is highly recommended by health experts. They give you a dose of healthy probiotics.
Having a diverse array of bacteria in the intestinal tract not only supports healthy digestion, but also provides a number of additional health benefits, ranging from better mood and blood sugar control to decreased allergies and improved immune function. Fermentation also improves the nutritional value and shelf life of foods.
Here are the top 12 fermented foods that you should add to your diet to improve your gut health:
Sauerkraut, the fermented cabbage has been consumed across various cultures for ages. It is a staple food in both European and Asian cuisine. Sauerkraut means “sour cabbage” in German. However, the Germans weren’t the first to make it. It’s believed that the Chinese were the actual pioneers. The history of sauerkraut is as old as 2,000 years or more.
It was traditionally made from white cabbage, but now it’s also made with red & green cabbage. Sauerkraut is high in fiber, vitamin A, C, K and B vitamins. It’s also a great source of iron, calcium, copper, sodium, magnesium and manganese. It also has potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Is store-bought sauerkraut fermented?
No, it is not always fermented, especially the canned or processed forms.
Sauerkraut is a wonderful source of live, active cultures as long as it hasn’t been pasteurized. Any sauerkraut that has been pasteurized does not contain healthy microbes, as heating kills the beneficial bacteria in the kraut. The fermented cabbage with live, active cultures are typically refrigerated and are not shelf stable.
Fermented cabbage is heart-healthy, being fiber-rich and a source of beneficial bacteria that help to balance cholesterol levels. It also provides potassium and its microbe content is known to positively influence blood pressure.
Sauerkraut is very cheap and easy to prepare at home. Add a tablespoon of sauerkraut to your salads or soups three to four times a week to get optimum health benefits.
While sauerkraut holds tendency to boost gut health, not everyone can tolerate it well. Some individuals with irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) may experience that fermented foods like sauerkraut could actually worsen their IBS symptoms. This could be due to the high amounts of fermentable (or gas-producing) carbs, like mannitol, particularly in sauerkrauts made with white cabbage.
The tolerance tendency with sauerkraut is highly individual based. It is always good to start by adding a small amount of sauerkraut to a meal.
Kombucha is a tangy, effervescent, fermented tea drink made from green or black tea and sugar (from sources like cane sugar, fruit or honey). It contains a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, known as Scoby. The Scoby initiates the fermentation process once combined with sugar. It converts sugar into ethanol and acetic acid. The acetic acid gives the signature tangy flavor of kombucha.
How to have Kombucha?
It can be flavoured with different herbs, fruits & spices to create a mildly fizzy, gut-loving, highly beneficial, delicious drink! Simply replace your usual afternoon tea or coffee with a glass of kombucha!
A very small amount of alcohol is sometimes produced during the fermentation process. This is usually less than 0.5% alcohol by volume (some may contain close to 2-3%). Pregnant women should avoid unpasteurized kombucha. If you’re not into the sour taste, try different brands or flavors. You might find one that suits your taste buds.
Having kombucha over alternatives like soda is surely a healthy swap. However, it contains sugar as well. If for some reason, you need to watch your added sugar intake, you may consider mixing kombucha with seltzer for decreasing sweetness.
Kombucha contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and some B vitamins (B1,B6 and B12). These are produced when the yeast breaks down the sugars. The levels of the vitamins and minerals are likely to vary by product.
Kombucha contains antioxidants and good bacteria and yeast. Some research studies suggest that drinking kombucha may help protect the liver from chemical induced damage. It may help to induce cancer cell death and prevent the further spread of cancer. It may also help decrease blood sugar, triglyceride, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Although the research on Kombucha has provided promising results, the research data so far is still limited. More research is needed to understand and utilize the health promoting properties in a better manner.
Kimchi is a Korean staple food and is now popular worldwide. It dates back to the seventh century. Like Sauerkraut, it is another form of fermented cabbage. However, Kimchi is typically made with more ingredients than sauerkraut. It is a fermented combination of spices and vegetables. Commonly used combinations include napa cabbage, radish, salt, water, garlic, onions, ginger, red pepper and fish or soy sauce.
There is a good amount of research evidence supporting the benefits of kimchi. It is rich in beneficial bacterial species like Lactobacilli, dietary fiber and other compounds possessing antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, and immune-enhancing properties. This unique combination may even give kimchi anti-carcinogenic(cancer-fighting) properties.
The fermentation process, by mainly lactobacillus bacteria, may enhance the nutritional value of kimchi. This is because the bacteria synthesize vitamins and minerals and the process of fermentation also deactivates some less favorable compounds.
Regular intake of kimchi may help you manage cholesterol and balance blood sugar levels.
In a study, two groups of people consumed 7.4 oz (210 g) of kimchi and 0.5 oz (15 g) of kimchi daily for 7 days. The results showed that higher kimchi intake led to a higher decrease in blood sugar, cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Kimchi is easy to prepare and can be added to noodle bowls, sandwiches and stir-fries for a strong flavor boost.
Like in case of sauerkraut, kimchi may cause digestive symptoms in people sensitive to fermentable carbohydrate mannitol. It is always good to start with a very small(1/3 cup) amount and assess your tolerance.
Tempeh is a popular plant-based protein alternative. It’s a traditional soya product which is made from cooked and whole fermented soya beans. It is similar to tofu.
It is prepared by combining soybeans with a tempeh starter (a mix of live mold). It is allowed to sit for a day or two. The resulting product is dense and cake-like. It contains both probiotics and a very high amount of protein. It is also rich in bone-friendly minerals like calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.
It typically contains more probiotics & health benefits than its more commonly known sister Tofu. It is also more textured and chewier. In comparison to tofu, it is less spongy and is more “grainy.”
Tempeh is rich in both heart healthy plant-based protein and dietary fiber. Just a single cup of tempeh can provide a good 34 g of protein and 6 g of fiber.
Since tempeh is typically pasteurized and cooked before consumption, it’s not likely to retain the active cultures. However, tempeh can still be a good source of ‘paraprobiotics,’ which are inactive microbes that still deliver health benefits.
Kefir is a fermented milk product which is made by combining kefir ‘grains’ with milk (cows, goats, sheep, or buffalos). Kefir ‘grains’ are not an actual grain. These are a starter culture which is made of bacteria and yeast and serves as a fermenting agent. Kefir has been consumed for over 3,000 years. It has a loose consistency than yogurt and is thus called a drinkable yogurt. It also has a more tart taste. It can also be enjoyed by adding it to smoothies. It can also be used to marinate proteins.
Kefir benefits include providing high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes, protein and probiotics. It has the additional benefit of being extremely low in lactose. Most people with lactose intolerance may tolerate milk kefir.
Cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir show the most strong evidence as the ideal fermented foods for gut health. Kefir has been shown to increase the microbial diversity in the gut and helps to lower inflammation in the body.
How is Kefir better than Yogurt?
Kefir has the additional advantage of having a more diverse composition of beneficial bacteria and yeast than yogurt. These microbes produce bioactive compounds that have numerous health benefits, from improving digestion to lowering cholesterol.
Kefir may help to improve cardiovascular health. In a randomized control trial, study participants who consumed a bottle of kefir daily for 3 months had significant increases in ApoA1, the primary protein found in healthy HDL cholesterol, when compared to participants who were given regular dairy milk. However, both groups experienced a similar level of reduction in inflammatory markers in blood, regardless of whether they consumed kefir or dairy milk.
Vegans can also enjoy the health benefits of kefir by making water kefir. It is just as beneficial as milk kefir. It is made with different grains & can be flavoured in a similar manner to Kombucha for a delicious healthy drink.
Yogurt is most probably on the top list of most popular fermented foods for gut health. It is also the most commonly available and most commonly consumed fermented food worldwide. Yogurts containing live and active cultures are a wonderful and delicious source of gut-friendly probiotics. Unlike other fermented products, the bacteria in yogurt have been known to survive transit through the GI tract. This is particularly important for gut health, because the bacteria need to reach intact up to the intestines in order to influence gut health. This makes yogurt the most ideal, easy and delicious fermented food for gut health.
Yogurt is a good source of high-quality protein. It’s also high in many important nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin(vitamin B2), and vitamin B12. A regular incorporation of yogurt in your diet may help in weight management, maintaining bone health, blood sugar balance, and regulation of blood pressure.
Research studies suggest that a 100g serving of yogurt daily can be beneficial for maintaining a good mood. This is because of the relationship between the beneficial bacteria in your gut and their role in producing feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
While choosing a healthy yogurt:
- The first thing is to look for live and active cultures. Many companies show it as a seal while others list it in the ingredients list. This is important because if the yogurt has ben heat processed then the beneficial bacteria would have been killed.
- Choose an unsweetened yogurt and add your own fresh fruit. If you must have it sweet, choose one that has less than 7 gm of added sugar per serving.
- Choose Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr yogurt for high protein content
Vegans can also enjoy yogurt made with organic coconut milk fermented with probiotic powder.
7. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is prepared by crushing apples and adding yeasts to ferment the natural sugars into acetic acid. It’s the unfiltered vinegar that retains all the health benefits because it contains ‘mother,’ a collection of proteins, enzymes and friendly bacteria. An unfiltered product is easy to recognize because it appears cloudy in the bottle.
The acetic acid of apple cider vinegar, supports the functioning of probiotics and prebiotics in your gut.
Not all apple cider vinegars contain bacteria. Many of them are pasteurized and filtered. Both of these processing methods inactivate or remove microbes.
Apple Cider Vinegar is on top of the most well researched fermented foods for gut health. It is also ideal for maintaining blood sugar balance and reducing HbA1c which is a marker of long term blood sugar control.
Research studies have shown that taking Apple Cider Vinegar prior to meals could help prevent sharp blood sugar spikes after meals.
A teaspoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with warm water can be taken before meals. It can also help with digestion as it contains digestive enzymes.
If it is taken after dinner, it can positively affect fasting blood sugar levels. It can be easily added to salad dressings and soups.
Natto is a popular traditional Japanese dish consisting of whole fermented soybeans. It’s traditionally consumed at breakfast in Japan. It’s more commonly combined with soy sauce, karashi mustard and Japanese bunching onions. It is also added to rice dishes, soups and used for sautéing vegetables.
The fermentation process develops a strong smell, a deep flavor and a kind of sticky, slimy texture that not everyone who is naive to natto appreciates.
It is found to have been associated with improving gut health, cardiovascular health and immune function.
Natto is a rich source of beneficial bacteria and thus has a beneficial effect on gut. It contains as much as 100 times more vitamin K2 than some cheeses. This makes it particularly useful for people with poor bone health.
However, if you’re taking blood thinning medication like warfarin, you should refer to your Doctor or registered dietician before introducing such strong vitamin K-rich foods into your diet.
9. Sourdough Bread
Sourdough bread is typically made from just four ingredients (flour, water, salt and a starter culture). The starter culture involving the long fermentation process holds the key to sourdough’s taste, rise and texture and of course the health credentials.
The traditional slow fermentation process makes the nutrients more bioavailable. The process also kick-starts the breakdown of gluten protein, which makes the bread easier to digest. It also reduces the tendency of antinutrients that may make digestion difficult.
The preparation process makes sourdough both easy to digest and highly nutritious.
Although the beneficial microbes added in the starter are lost during the process of baking, compounds called polyphenols become more bio-available by the slow fermentation. These polyphenols act as an important fuel for our good gut microbes. Unlike the most commercially produced loaves, sourdough is found to be beneficial for maintaining blood sugar levels.
People with gluten sensitivity, who tend to experience bloating & indigestion when eating regular bread, experience no digestive symptoms when eating real sourdough bread. Quality long time fermented Sourdough bread is hard to find. Learn how to make sourdough bread yourself
Miso is prepared by fermenting soybeans, barley or brown rice with koji, a type of fungus. It has a paste like consistency. Miso has been a staple in Chinese and Japanese diets for nearly 2,500 years.
Miso paste is used more like a seasoning. It lends a powerful umami flavor to many dishes. It has a bold taste, so a little is sufficient to use.
Although, miso is typically found in soups, it can also make salad dressings and marinades more delicious and gut healthy.
Miso is one of the most unique fermented foods for gut health. It not only gives probiotics but also has a tendency to blend with a whole range of dishes and impart its strong umami flavor.
Fermented pickles are a very budget-friendly option of fermented foods for gut health. They contain a very rich amount of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and gut-friendly probiotic bacteria.
The store-bought pickles are usually not fermented and are made with vinegar and cucumbers. This process makes the pickles taste sour, but it doesn’t lead to natural fermentation. Fermented pickles are made with brine (salt and water).
When shopping for a jar of pickles, you should look for “lactic acid fermented pickles”. They should be made by a manufacturer that uses organic products and brine. The fermented pickles should also be refrigerated.
Olives are one of the most popular and delicious fermented foods. The natural saltwater fermentation process makes them rich in lactobacillus, which is one of the most influential species of gut-friendly bacteria.
Health experts advise daily incorporation of one to two servings of fermented foods for gut health. Fermentation not only gives you probiotics but also improves the nutritional value and shelf life. There is a whole range of naturally fermented foods to choose from, as per your taste. The variety ranges from yogurt and kefir, pickled vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, a seasoning like miso, a tea like kombucha and Sourdough bread.
Red miso is fermented for a longer time duration, it usually has a stronger and saltier flavor compared to white and yellow miso.
Cabbage is the easiest vegetable to ferment. You can make a mixture based on cabbage first and then add carrots, ginger, leeks, radishes, garlic, onion, etc., This procedure is also employed in making of Kimchi.
Fermented foods that are properly and neatly prepared and are stored in a cool, dark place (like refrigerator) can last for 4-18 months.
The best time to eat enzyme rich fermented food is at the beginning of the meal, so that they can begin the work of helping digestion as soon as they enter stomach.
The most common reaction to eating fermented foods is a temporary increase in gas and bloating. This is because excess gas gets produced after probiotics kill harmful gut bacteria and fungi.