Fermented products have spent a lot of time in the headlines recently, but it's all well deserved. This ancient technique for preserving food has many benefits beyond extending the shelf-life of our items. It plays its part in extending our shelf-life too! Fermentation has a wide range of health benefits, including being used in wine-making, and fermented foods are a vital factor in any balanced diet.
What is fermentation?
So where does the magic start? With yeast. Lovely. However, yeast and other microorganisms convert carbs, like sugar and starch, into alcohol and acid, for which we are very grateful. This results in such wonderful things as wine, beer and cider, or cheese, yoghurt and sauerkraut. It also promotes the growth of probiotics, beneficial bacteria which are essential to our digestive and immune health.
You heard that right! While it was commonly believed that all bacteria were nefarious, we're coming to understand that our gut microbiome relies heavily on colonies of 'good' bacteria. These play a significant role in the digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, as well as supporting the intestinal mucosa. This natural lining acts as a physical barrier against disease-carrying pathogens, sustaining our immune health.
Maintaining the equilibrium between good and bad bacteria is the key to creating a healthy gut environment. In our world of sugar-loaded processed foods, fizzy drinks and calorific desserts, we're actively encouraging the development of the 'bad' bacteria in our guts.
The probiotics in fermented foods help to counteract this by restoring gut balance in favour of friendly bacteria, alleviating conditions like digestive problems, diarrhoea, bloating, gas and constipation. They can also help reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of IBS!
As well as bringing you friendly bacteria, the process of fermentation breaks down many of the nutrients in our food, making it easier for our bodies to digest and absorb them. For example, through fermentation, lactose is broken down into glucose and galactose, meaning that lactose-intolerant people can happily consume fermented dairy products like kefir. In essence, our good friend yeast pre-digests our food for us!
But fermentation takes heroics one step further. The process destroys the anti-nutrients in seeds, grains, nuts and legumes which interfere with nutrient absorption, and impede the digestive process.
By facilitating the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, fermentation actively increases the nutritional value of many foods. Is there anything yeast can't do?
Good fermented foods to include in your diet
Let me on this bandwagon! Many fermented products are widely available in supermarkets but making your own is a cheaper, more fun and healthier way to go. There are plenty of recipes and tutorials online, so you can get started on making sauerkraut and beer in your garage.
Here are some popular fermented products to include in your routine:
This sweetened black tea works wonders for your immune health and in combatting metabolic disorders. The fermentation process releases alcohol, so this is tea with a kick! But not enough to have any significant impact, sadly.
This fermented dairy product is similar to yoghurt, but with a slightly thinner consistency. It's high in protein, so as well as being profoundly beneficial to your digestive health, it's an excellent alternative for vegetarians.
Miso and Tempeh
These soybean-based products are high in probiotics, protein and sodium, so make a great addition to a sauce or soup in small doses.
Apple Cider Vinegar
This fermented product is excellent in sauces and dressings, but can also be consumed on its own (for the brave) with some lemon and water.
Sauerkraut and Kimchi
Possibly the best hot-dog dressing out there, these cabbage-based dishes are high in probiotics and fibre.