Should I eat fermented foods to improve health?

Posted by Chloe Manlay on 17th Sep 2021

Should I eat fermented foods to improve health?

Guest Blog by Chloe Manlay

Wildling Water Kefir, Old Tree Kombucha, Time for Kimchi, Barnaby’s Sauerkraut and Naturally Nkd are artisan fermenters based in Sussex. We have teamed up to provide an fermenters ‘live’ box for home delivery along the south coast around Brighton. We asked an expert in nutritional therapy and functional medicine to give her knowledge and expertise on the links between fermented foods and health. We are delighted she wrote this comprehensive blog for us.

Should I be consuming fermented foods to improve my health?Fermented foods and beverages are staples of the human diet and have been produced and consumed since the development of human civilisations. From a practical level, the process of fermentation provides better taste, improved nutrition and is a biological method of food preservation.

Examples of fermented foods you might be familiar with include yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, olives, kombucha and sourdough bread.

Traditionally fermented foods were used to promote health properties with ancient physicians like Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna advocating their use for the treatment of gastrointestinal ills. With the recent interest and research in the microbiome – the home for trillions of bacteria that live in your gut – attention has turned once again to the health benefits of fermented foods and we have seen a surge in their popularity. A recent review concluded that fermented foods should be consumed regularly and even recommended they be included in worldwide dietary guidelines (Melini F, 2019).

Fermentation is a process in which microorganisms like bacteria and yeast break down molecules such as sugar. This process not only enhances flavour, but by-products are produced which can have a number of different health benefits for the consumer.

These include:

They make foods easier to digest

The process of fermentation releases enzymes which help to break down parts of the food which humans otherwise can’t digest or often have trouble digesting. For example, it has been found that live yoghurt consumption improves lactose digestion (DA, 2014). Sourdough bread has been shown to reduce FODMAPs and be better tolerated in IBS patients, reducing bloating, nausea and discomfort. (Dimidi E, 2019)

Fermentation creates new healthy compounds

Certain ferments create B vitamins which are a valuable vitamin used for energy production and hormone balance (al. R. P., 2014). Amino acids and derivatives with neurotransmitter and immunomodulatory functions are also synthesized during fermentation.

Help to support a healthy microbiome

Ingestion of fermented foods potentially increases the number of microbes in the diet by up to 10 000-fold and consuming ‘living’ fermented foods on a daily basis could be equivalent to introducing new, albeit transient microbes into the indigenous, intestinal microbiota (al., 2016).

Fermented foods also have antimicrobial activity, which can help to support the balance of bacteria in your gut, as well as providing a fuel supply, or prebiotic, for the bacteria in your gut.

This begs the question – are all ferments equal? No is the simple answer, and this is reflected in the literature. Kimchi has the greatest evidence from epidemiological and case control studies investigating regular consumption with a decreased risk of gastric cancer and improved insulin sensitivity. A small RCT on sauerkraut showed it reduced IBS severity in patients and increased in vitro activity of key liver and kidney detoxifying enzymes.

Large cohort investigations have revealed strong associations between consumption of fermented dairy foods and weight maintenance, in addition to reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overall mortality from frequent yoghurt consumption seen in long-term prospective studies.

The beauty of wild ferments – those that you will encounter in local artisan products or when making at home – is that they are created in a small scale in harmony with nature. As any home-fermenter will know, each ferment will vary in taste due to the very nature of fermenting; the season of the food used, the weather, the quality of the ‘mother’ or ‘starter’ from your previous ferment. It’s alchemy.

Mass produced fermented foods not only miss this connection with nature, but are often pasteurised misleading the consumer into thinking they are buying a ‘live’ product when in fact they have been heat treated and therefore devoid of many of the health benefits offered from live foods.

The literature demonstrates that there are numerous different health benefits from different fermented foods, so a sensible conclusion to draw from this is that we should include a rich variety of fermented foods in our diet. This, unsurprisingly, is in line with the general consensus on eating to support the microbiome in that a large variety of different plant based foods should be consumed regularly in order to home an adaptable and robust microbiome. I coach my clients on aiming to include 30 different plant based foods per week, and to try 1 new plant based food every two weeks.

Interested but not sure how to include them in your meals? Here are some simple ways to include more fermented foods in your diet:

Swap regular yoghurt form probiotic yoghurt or kefir as a nutrient-dense snack of breakfast option.
- Trade sweetened tea, soda, juice or alcoholic beverage for kombucha instead.
- Implement a ‘meat-free’ day of the week and switch animal based products for tempeh or natto.
- Top off your burgers, wraps, eggs or rice bowls with kimchi, pickles or sauerkraut instead.
- Add a spoonful of kimchi to soups or bone broth for a fiery punch.
- Keep hydrated and your gut bugs happy by sipping on water kefir throughout the day.
- Switch out heavily processed commercial breads for an artisan, locally produced sourdough loaf.

If fermented foods are completely new to you, and especially if you suffer from any IBS-type symptoms, I recommend you start low and slow. Just 1 teaspoon of sauerkraut one day, followed by a teaspoon of kimchi the next and so on.

Chloe Manlay is a Brighton based nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner who specialises in IBS.