Truth is, fermented foods can play a key role in our overall health as they can enhance digestion, balance our gut flora and boost the immune system. During the chemical process of fermentation, bacteria and other microorganisms break down starches and sugars within a food, and good bacteria flourishes. When a fermented food is ingested, the body gets probiotics in a natural way.
Our gut hosts trillions of microorganisms that digest our food, synthesize vitamins and nutrients, fight off disease-causing bacteria and more. Our gut also helps regulate our immune system, turning it up or down as needed. And a strong immune system is our best defense against disease, as well as the ultimate protector of good health.
Thankfully, fermented foods and drinks come in different flavors and textures, so can you find the ones that best suit your taste. Here are a few you should consider to elevate your diet.
This fizzy, probiotic-rich drink — made from tea, sugar, yeast, water and bacteria — is all the rage. Known as the “Immortal Health Elixir” by the Chinese, it’s been around for more than 2,000 years. Flavors range from traditional teas to fruity and funky flavors like Cosmic Cranberry and Honey Lavender. It’s said to fight inflammation, aid digestion, detox the body, reduce joint pain and boost immunity. But be sure to read the label. Since some versions are high in sugar, it’s better to drink the organic, 100-percent-raw version to reap kombucha’s full effect.
For many, this potent Korean side dish is an acquired taste. The most common version is a spicy cabbage, but hundreds of different kinds of kimchi are made with various fermented vegetables. Chockfull of probiotics, kimchi has been linked to colon health, weight loss, healthy skin and a stronger immune system. You can add kimchi to fried rice, quesadillas, tacos, soups and more.
Speaking of soup, miso is a traditional Japanese staple made from fermented bean paste. This comforting broth often hosts other healthy ingredients like tofu, seaweed, kelp and scallions. Besides its probiotic gut-enhancing benefits, it’s a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid.
Fermented cabbage may not be the sexiest food, but a study showed that a 4- to 6-ounce serving of sauerkraut has 10 trillion bacteria, so it tops the probiotic charts. “With every mouthful of sauerkraut you’re consuming billions of beneficial microbes which will be killing the pathogens in your gut driving them out and replenishing the beneficial flora in your digestive tract,” says Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD. Look for artisan sauerkraut at your farmer’s market.
A drinkable, more potent version of yogurt, this cultured milk is loaded with beneficial bacteria, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, vitamin B12 and more. Originating in the Caucasus Mountains where it’s been consumed for centuries, kefir’s recent popularity in the West coincided with our culture’s gut-health fascination. Kefir comes from the Turkish word keyif, meaning “good feeling,” which is how you should feel after drinking it — unless, of course, you’re dairy intolerant. Luckily, non-dairy versions exist, too.
So get your fermentation on and boost that healthy bacteria in your digestive system. Here’s to a healthy belly!
Journalist Ann Wycoff has written about wellness, fitness, longevity, travel, spas, food and wine for the past 20 years for magazines like Shape, Fitness, Spa, Outside, Travel + Leisure, Coastal Living, Redbook, Modern Luxury, San Diego Magazine, Redbook, Marin Magazine and more. She lives in Encinitas, California.