7 Things You Need To Know About Fermented Foods

Recently, fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchee have been making news, even though they are, in fact, anything but new — fermented foods have been around for thousands of years.

For people living without modern medicine and refrigeration, fermentation has always been not only a simple means of food preservation, but also a way to imbue foods with health-promoting properties, an essential tool for maintaining the gut health. Over the course of the last century, however, fermented foods fell off most dinner plates, their medicinal effects wiped out by pasteurization, resulting in a dead-on-arrival food supply, stripped of the live bacteria the gut needs to stay in balance.

Fortunately, though, there's a deliciously easy fix for this modern problem: incorporate more probiotic, fermented foods into your diet and put those live, good-for-you organisms back where they belong — in your gut!

Here’s a food-for-thought introduction to the health-boosting power of the fermented foods and how to get more of them into your daily diet:

1. Fermented foods help fight off disease.

It’s estimated that roughly 70% — 80% of your immune system is in your gut. Feed it poorly and your gut will be left with few defenses, easily overwhelmed by bad bacteria, wide open to disease-triggering inflammation and plagued by gastrointestinal ills like IBS-type symptoms (i.e., gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc.). In your weakened state, you may also be more susceptible to colds and flu.

But, if you introduce good bacteria into the gastric mix via fermented foods, you’ll enable your gut to crush opportunistic invaders and disease-triggering inflammation, long before they can gain the upper hand. Simply put: A healthy, balanced gut can send illness packing.

2. Fill ‘er up, twice a day.

To fortify your gut, start incorporating small servings of fermented foods once or twice a day. Toss fermented veggies like beets or sauerkraut into salads; enjoy them on their own; as a side dish or, if you’re feeling adventurous, consider adding a spoonful or two to your morning smoothie. I like adding a few fermented beet slices and a splash of beet juice to my berry smoothies, particularly on those days when I feel like my gut needs a boost.

3. Fermented foods can save you cash.

Foods you ferment yourself can last for months, so there’s less waste, which helps save money in the long run. If you’re not the DIY type, commercially produced or store-bought fermented foods will also have a long, preservative-free shelf life, so they’re a pretty good deal too, even with the higher price. And did we mention that fermented foods also add great taste, nutrition and healthy bulk to every meal — so there’s less need to buy or eat insulin-spiking, low-nutrient filler foods like pasta, bread or potatoes.

4. They’re alive — and they’re busy.

Fermented foods don’t just lounge around your belly doing nothing -- they’re active! After you eat them, those bacterial armies get to work, helping to balance your gut bacteria and stomach acids; releasing enzymes to help ease and improve digestion, thereby making it easier for your body to extract and absorb more nutrients from the foods you eat. Another pleasant side effect of all that activity? Less constipation and easier elimination, drug and stimulant-free.

5. Go ferment yourself!

While you can buy fermented products at most natural food stores and some supermarkets, fermenting is easy and inexpensive to do at home. You can ferment most edibles in the fruit and vegetable universe, but some come out better than others, so before you start, take a look some of the numerous blogs and books dedicated to the practice. Donna Schwenk’s book Cultured Food for Life: How to Make and Serve Delicious Probiotic Foods for Better Health and Wellness, is a great resource, as is Fermented Foods for Health: Use the Power of Probiotic Foods to Improve Your Digestion, Strengthen Your Immunity, and Prevent Illness, by Dierdre Rawlings, Ph.D., N.D.

6. Be a smart shopper — in five steps.

If you’re not planning to “grow your own,” then here are a few pointers on what to look for when buying fermented foods. Your mission: to get the most active cultures for your buck. To do that, be on the lookout for:

  1. KEEP COOL: Fermented foods are full of live organisms that must be kept cool to survive, so buy only fermented items in the refrigerated section of the store
  2. IT IS WHAT IT IS: Fermented foods will, not surprisingly, have the phrase “fermented” printed somewhere on the label, so make sure it says so.
  3. PUT IT OUT TO PASTURE: Be sure the label does not say “pasteurized” — because the pasteurization process wipes out the cultures you need to help fortify your gut.
  4. FERMENTED AND PICKLED ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS: … So don’t confuse the two — they’re not interchangeable. Pickled foods are exactly that — they’re pickled in liquids like vinegar or brine, but not fermented (unless it says otherwise on the label).
  5. BUY ORGANIC: Look for fermented foods that are made from the best raw materials possible, namely those made from organic, non-GM or locally farmed produce.

7. Get to know the classics.

So what to buy or make yourself? Try a variety of fermented organic veggies and fruits — the possibilities are endless. Among the more popular ones to work into your daily diet:

  • Fermented beets, radishes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, kimchee, green beans and sauerkraut.
  • Condiments that have been fermented (either at home or commercially), such as ketchup, relish, salsa, chutney and hot sauce make great mealtime add-ons.
  • For dairy-eaters, fermented yogurts, kefir, cultured buttermilk and some cheeses are good options. Nondairy eaters can try fermented yogurt made with coconut milk as a tasty alternative.
  • And while natto, miso, tempeh, tofu and soy sauce are popular fermented foods, generally I advise my patients to avoid them as they tend to be heavily processed and are usually made with genetically modified soy.

To learn more about maximizing your gut health, check out PROBIOTIC POWER: The Path To a Happy Belly is Paved with Good Bacteria.

Frank Lipman, M.D.

Pioneer in Functional Medicine
For Dr. Frank Lipman, health is more than just the absence of disease: it is a total state of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social wellbeing. Dr. Lipman is a widely recognized trailblazer and leader in functional and integrative medicine, and he is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, How to Be Well, The New Health Rules, Young and Slim for Life, Revive and Total Renewal.After his initial medical training in his native South Africa, Dr. Lipman spent 18 months working at clinics in the bush. He became familiar with the local traditional healers, called sangomas, which kindled his interest in non-Western healing modalitiesIn 1984, Dr. Lipman immigrated to the United States, where he became the chief medical resident at Lincoln Hospital in Bronx, NY. While there, he became fascinated by the hospital’s addiction clinic, which used acupuncture and Chinese medicine to treat people suffering from heroin and crack addiction. Seeing the way these patients responded so positively to acupuncture made him even more aware of the potential of implementing non-Western medicine to promote holistic wellbeing. As a medical student, he was taught to focus on the disease rather than the patient, and now as a doctor he found himself treating symptoms rather than the root causes of illness. Frustrated by the constraints of his training, and the limitations in helping his patients regain true health, he began a journey of discovery to search for the path to meaningful long-term health and wellness. He began studying nutrition, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, functional medicine, biofeedback, meditation, and yoga. Dr. Lipman founded the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in 1992, where he combines the best of Western medicine and cutting edge nutritional science with age-old healing techniques from the East. As his patient chef Seamus Mullen told The New York Times, “If antibiotics are right, he’ll try it. If it’s an anti-inflammatory diet, he’ll do that. He’s looking at the body as a system rather than looking at isolated things.”In addition to his practice, Dr. Lipman is the creator of Be Well, an expanding lifestyle wellness brand he founded in 2010 to help people create, sustain and lead healthier lives. He is also the instructor of the mbg Video Course, 14-Day Detox.
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Frank Lipman, M.D.

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