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The Comprehensive Benefits of Fermented Foods: From Nutrition to Digestive Health

What Foods Can Be Fermented?

Almost any food can be fermented.

  • meat
  • fish
  • milk
  • vegetables
  • legumes
  • tea

For example, pu’erh tea is made this way. Even brewed sweet tea can be fermented, which is how kombucha is created.

Enhanced Nutrition and Satiety

Fermented foods are more nutritious and filling than their non-fermented counterparts. Microorganisms consume available carbohydrates, starting with the simplest and most easily digestible ones: glucose, fructose, and sucrose. This is why whole-grain sourdough bread and yogurt have a lower glycemic index than grains and milk. Consequently, fermented foods are less likely to spike blood glucose levels after eating, leading to increased satiety and reduced likelihood of overeating.

  • Lactose Reduction

Fermentation breaks down lactose, making some fermented dairy products, like cheddar cheese, suitable for people with lactose intolerance.

  • Increased Calcium Bioavailability

The fermentation of cheese enhances calcium bioavailability, which is crucial for bone health.

  • Vitamin B Production

Fermentation can increase the content of vitamin B in foods. For example, the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus boosts the vitamin content in tempeh, a fermented soybean dish, and the lactic acid bacteria Leuconostoc mesenteroides increases vitamin B in kimchi. Tempeh can provide 0.7 to 8 mcg of vitamin B12 per 100 grams, while the daily adult requirement is 3 mcg.

  • Potential Health Benefits

Laboratory studies suggest that bioactive peptides from fermented fish can break down blood clots. If these effects are confirmed in humans, it would be a strong argument in favor of fermented products.
Fermentation releases bioactive peptides (ACE inhibitory peptides) that may lower cholesterol levels.
Consuming fermented foods could be a promising strategy to reduce the risk of immune diseases and asthma.
Fermented foods offer various health benefits, from better digestion and nutrient absorption to potential protective effects against chronic diseases. However, further research is needed to fully understand these benefits and how they can be best utilized in a healthy diet.

Probiotics and Fermented Foods

Some fermented foods contain probiotics. This is the name given to strains of bacteria and yeast that provide proven benefits to human health when ingested in sufficient quantities in the gastrointestinal tract.

Studies show that some fermented foods with live microorganisms (sauerkraut, kefir) also contain probiotic microorganisms that can survive long enough to enter the human gut in live form. According to the international consensus of probiotic experts, such foods can be considered healthy.

But there’s an important nuance here. ISAPP experts emphasize that fermented food can be considered a probiotic product only if its manufacturers have identified all bacteria and yeast to the strain level. That being said, beneficial microorganisms must be present in a serving of fermented food throughout the shelf life of the product in the required amount. For example, kefir, which has all of this information on the package, can be considered a probiotic product. Farmhouse cabbage or kimchi will likely lack these properties.

The only truly well-studied fermented foods are fermented dairy products, primarily yogurt and kefir. In 2021, a large meta-analysis appeared, the authors of which compared the results of 108 scientific papers on fermented dairy products. 76 studies confirmed the health benefits of such products.

In the end, the researchers concluded that there is a consistent link between the consumption of fermented milk products and a reduced risk of breast, colorectal, and type 2 diabetes. Meta-analyses suggest that these foods help control weight, promote bone strength, and improve cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health.

The study authors noted that it may not just be about fermented dairy products. It is possible that people who prefer a healthy diet eat more fermented foods, not just yogurt and kefir, and that is why they feel better.

Can Fermented Foods Cause Harm?

Problems can occur with any food product. Fermented foods can harbor harmful microbes. With very few exceptions, lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and mold fungi do not cause any disease or produce poisonous substances. The acidic environment they create prevents pathogens that could cause food poisoning from multiplying.

Errors in the preparation of fermented foods or improper storage can lead to unpleasant consequences. Listeria, salmonella and clostridia can get into them. Therefore, when preparing such foods at home, it is important to strictly follow the recipe and rules for the safe preparation of fermented foods.

Some fermented foods contain many harmful substances. The most obvious example is alcoholic beverages. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation.

Many fermented foods contain a fair amount of salt and sugar. Excessive sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure.

During the fermentation of cheese, meat, vegetables, soybeans, and wine, large amounts of biogenic amines – such as histamines and tyramine – are produced. Although not yet conclusively proven, it is believed that in people sensitive to biogenic amines, consumption of such foods may trigger migraines.

How to Properly Consume Fermented Foods

The US Clinical Nutrition Guidelines only mention fermented dairy products. Adults are advised to eat two to three servings of any dairy product per day.

There are no recommendations for other fermented foods, so you will have to focus on the product’s composition and the individual needs of the person. Most people are advised to include one serving of any fermented product per day.

Important!  Products rich in probiotics can cause flatulence and abdominal pain if consumed in large quantities. It’s best to start with smaller portions and gradually increase the amount to allow your digestive system to adjust.

Can Fermented Foods be given to Children?

According to international clinical guidelines, fermented milk products can be given to children from the age of one year.

Age Number of Servings of Fermented Milk Products
1-2 years 1.5-2 servings
2-3 years 2 servings
4-8 years 2.5 servings
9 years and older 2-3 servings

There are no recommendations for other fermented foods.

Can Pregnant and Breastfeeding People Eat Fermented Foods?

Fermented dairy products are not restricted to pregnant and lactating women; they can consume as much as any other adult.

There is no ban on most other fermented foods for pregnant women either, as they can be a good source of probiotics. That said, you should avoid unpasteurized foods. This will reduce the chances of getting food poisoning.

The only exception is kombucha. Although no one has tested its effect on the health of pregnant women either, some doctors advise avoiding it. Kombucha may contain a small amount of ethyl alcohol, which is contraindicated for pregnant women.

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