What are Fermented Foods?
Fermentation is a metabolic process through which bacteria and yeast convert sugars and starches in food and drink items into acids and alcohols. It is a process that helps to produce a lot of common foods and drinks, including yoghurt, cheese, bread, beer, wine, olives and salami. Fermented foods are known for their health benefits, and the fermentation trend is predicted to take off in a big way in the next few years. People have even started throwing the term 'superfood' around. Does this mean kimchi is poised to replace kale in our smoothies and juices? Ew! Let's take a closer look.
Where do Fermented Foods Come From?
Fermentation is an ancient technique that has arisen seperately in most cultures throughout history because of its benefit in preserving food and enhancing its nutritional profile. Fermentation is widely used today to produce food and drink, both in large scale industrial processes, and on a smaller scale in the home.
Fermented Foods Benefits
Fermentation is in favour for a number of reasons, and the major one is the probiotic properties of fermented food. The relationship between humans and our collection of microbial flora, or "microbiota" is known to influence health, and there has been a great deal of research interest in this area.
Like all animals and even plants, humans live in a symbiotic relationship with billions of microorganisms. Unbelievably, it has been estimated that each person is harbouring ten microorganisms for every one of their own cells in their body.
Many fermented foods retain live microorganisms, and many of the species used in fermentation, particularly lactobacillus and bifidobacillus in foods like fermented dairy and kimchi, have positive effects on the gut and digestive system. These beneficial organisms produce lactic acid, which lowers the gut pH, which is a good thing, because it promotes their own growth while preventing the overgrowth of other organisms that can cause undesirable digestive symptoms. Many of the nutrients in fermented foods can also reduce inflammation and may help the gut recover from injury (1).
Cuts Sugar Content
Many people are trying to cut sugar from their diet these days, for a variety of reasons. Because bacteria and yeast use simple sugars as a starting point for fermentation, by the completion of the fermentation process, this type of food is generally low in sugar, but still packed with taste. Lactose is a disaccharide sugar which is broken down to lactic acid during fermentation. This means that fermented dairy products like yoghurt are low enough in lactose to be tolerated by many people who are lactose intolerant.
Adds to Nutritional Profile
Fermentation of food can alter its nutritional profile. Increases to the protein content, decreases in antiutritional factors, and higher levels and greater availability of vitamins, minerals and enzymes are often reported as side effects of fermentation of food and drink products, enhancing the functional properties (2,3).
Other Health Benefits
There have been many big claims made about the benefits of fermented food, and some of these hold more weight than others. There have been studies showing that some fermented foods like kimchi can play a role in weight loss and improve metabolic parameters (4) and may have a role in diabetic nutrition (5), other foods may prevent liver damage (6), that fermented foods can boost the immune system (7), and that some fermented foods, including red yeast rice, may prevent heart disease and benefit conditions as diverse as alzheimers disease and cancer (8). Scientists are just starting to understand the relationship between our gut microflora and our overall health, and it is thought that the body's microbiome can even influence the nervous system, and may play a role moderating conditions like depression, autism and multiple sclerosis (9).
Fermented Foods Benefits for Bodybuilders
Of course, excellent overall health is paramount for anyone trying pushing their body to the limits, as bodybuilders and people who are strength training do on a regular basis.
On a more specific level, probiotics can help to restore the digestive imbalance that some people experience due to a high protein consumption. Athletes are generally looking to eat a low sugar, high nutrient diet, and fermented foods offer these benefits.
Fermented Foods Side Effects, Safety and Negatives
There are very few negatives to eating a diet rich in fermented foods, but it is important to eat a balanced, healthy diet, keeping the consumption of foods like beer and meat in moderation, and concentrating on foods with other nutritive benefits, like yoghurt and fermented vegetables.
Many people have taken up the challenge of home fermentation, brewing and pickling. Yoghurt, and pickled vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi are increasingly being made in the home, alongside home brewed drinks like kefir, kombucha and ginger ale. These foods and drinks can be a satisfying and enjoyable way to supplement your diet, but it is very important to remain very safety conscious and follow instructions to prevent issues with contamination. Kombucha is a fermented tea which has, on rare occasion, been associated with serious health issues as a result of microorganism contamination and use of incorrect apparatus.
Fermented Foods Recommended Dosage and Ingredient Timing
Humans have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years, and they can generally be enjoyed at will as part of a balanced diet. Some people recommend introducing probiotics into the diet gradually to avoid overwhelming the digestive system. This is good advice. Plan to start with small portions.
Fermented Foods Supplements
A lot of people find it easier to get their healthy probiotic bacteria as a supplement. Most of us have been brought up with yoghurt, but other fermented foods can taste strong, unusual or unpleasant to some people. On top of this, not everyone has the time and inclination to brew their own kombucha or regularly hit up their local Korean grocer for fresh kimchi. Thankfully, there are a number of products that will give you a healthy hit of probiotic bacteria without the effort. Check out antioxidant supplements like Swisse Vitality Superfood and NuZest Good Green Stuff, and there are even proteins on the market that contain helpful probiotics to maintain healthy digestion, such as those in the Reflex range.
Stacking Fermented Foods
Fermented food goes hand in hand with a healthy, prebiotic-rich diet. Prebiotics provide food for healthy bacteria, and assist in the maintenance of healthy digestion. Eating a range of fruit and vegetables to make sure you're getting enough dietary fibre will keep you and your gut bacteria in the best health.
(1) Viladomiu M, Hontecillas R, Yuan L, Lu P, Bassaganya-Riera J. Nutritional protective mechanisms against gut inflammation. J Nutr Biochem. 2013 Jun;24(6):929-39.
(2) Singh AK, Rehal J, Kaur A, Jyot G. Enhancement of attributes of Cereals by Germination and Fermentation: A Review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Oct 17.
(3) Gupta V, Nagar R. Minerals and antinutrients profile of rabadi after different traditional preparation methods. J Food Sci Technol. 2014 Aug;51(8):1617-21.
(4) Kim EK, An SY, Lee MS, Kim TH, Lee HK, Hwang WS, Choe SJ, Kim TY, Han SJ, Kim HJ, Kim DJ, Lee KW. Fermented kimchi reduces body weight and improves metabolic parameters in overweight and obese patients. Nutr Res. 2011 Jun;31(6):436-43.
(5) An SY, Lee MS, Jeon JY, Ha ES, Kim TH, Yoon JY, Ok CO, Lee HK, Hwang WS, Choe SJ, Han SJ, Kim HJ, Kim DJ, Lee KW. Beneficial effects of fresh and fermented kimchi in prediabetic individuals. Ann Nutr Metab. 2013;63(1-2):111-9.
(6) Wang LC, Kuo IU, Tsai TY, Lee CL. Antrodia camphorata-fermented product cultured in deep ocean water has more liver protection against thioacetamide-induced fibrosis. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2013 Dec;97(23):9955-67.
(7) Ashraf R, Shah NP. Immune system stimulation by probiotic microorganisms. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(7):938-56.
(8) Yang CW, Mousa SA. The effect of red yeast rice (Monascus purpureus) in dyslipidemia and other disorders. Complement Ther Med. 2012 Dec;20(6):466-74.
(9) Wang Y, Kasper LH. The role of microbiome in central nervous system disorders. Brain Behav Immun. 2014 May;38:1-12.