Fermented Foods: Science Meets Magic

Words Rose Glover Photography Charlie McKay

Picked or 'fermented' foods as they are becoming widely known, have been getting more and more attention lately. And while the name does not immediately conjure up images of delicious dishes, they are more common than you think. We speak with nutritionist Rose Glover about their background & benefits.

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods have gone through a natural process of lactofermentation, whereby natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food, creating lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria, and gives that sour or ‘tang’ taste to fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi and tempeh.

Cultures around the world have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years, mainly in a bid to preserve seasonal food so it can be eaten all year round. Sadly, these time-honoured traditional foods fell from favour due to advances in industrial food processing and changes in the way we now preserve, store and transport food. However, lactofermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation or flavour, and fermented foods have recently started to hit the food-scene spotlight again – this time mainly due to their profound medicinal and gut healing properties.

Healthy Gut, Happy You

Normally, there are trillions of friendly and not-so friendly bacteria colonizing our guts that all live together in a harmonious ecosystem. However, this delicate balance can easily be disrupted by numerous factors, such as high-sugar foods, lack of sleep, stress, food intolerances, antibiotics and medications.

The process of lactofermentation creates a bevy of probiotics (i.e. friendly bacteria) in the food, which significantly contributes to the health of your gut. These friendly bugs have been shown to significantly improve digestion, calm IBS symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea and bloating, and improve intestinal inflammatory conditions such as Crohns Disease. They also help destroy and inhibit the growth of opportunistic invaders such as pathogenic bacteria, yeasts and parasites, which can also lead to digestive issues.

And the benefits don’t stop in the gut – a 2011 study published in the Nutrition Research Journal found that kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, helped overweight patients shed weight and improve blood sugar imbalances. In addition, according to some preliminary studies, probiotics can help reduce the risk of anxiety, depression and even certain types of cancer.

Nutrient Absorption

Another major factor in good digestion also relies on the amount of digestive enzymes in our guts. Stress, pollution, age, illness, poor diets and chemicals can diminish the body’s ability to effectively produce these enzymes.Those friendly bacteria found in fermented foods can actually produce numerous digestive enzymes.

These help break down protein, carbohydrates and fats, which significantly takes the pressure off the digestive system and helps you extract and absorb all the nourishment from the food that you eat. This can be a huge advantage for those who find it difficult to digest certain foods, such as grains or dairy.

In addition, the process of food fermentation also helps destroy ‘anti-nutrients’ found in legumes, making minerals more bioavailable to the body. Phytic acid, for example, is a naturally occurring compound found in legumes that inhibits the absorption of minerals such as zinc and iron into the body. Miso and temped are examples of fermented legumes.

So if you are ready to see what a good dose of probiotics and enzymes can do for your health, go ahead and try to incorporate some delicious fermented foods into your diet on a regular basis…your gut will thank you! Rose Glover is a qualified, London-based nutritionist specialising in female health and digestion.

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