We’re all trying to eat more healthily, and for many of us, that can mean scouring the supermarket for the latest products labeled “Heart Healthy,” “Good for Digestion” or “Lowers Cholesterol.”
Newer isn’t always better, however. Sometimes, the healthiest foods you can eat are foods your great-grandmother would have kept in her icebox or cupboard – foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and sourdough bread.
What do these foods have in common? They’re all fermented.
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Great-grandma probably didn’t know why these foods tasted so wonderful or made her feel so good, but today, scientists do.
Fermented foods get their unique taste from lactobacilli: bacteria that digest sugar in the food and convert it to lactic acid. These bacteria make fermented foods so healthy.
Lactobacilli normally live in our intestines and help us digest food. They also kill harmful yeast and bacteria. Foods with lactobacilli are known as probiotics.
Fermented foods can:
- Strengthen your immune system
- Make your digestive system healthier
- Help with lactose intolerance
- Naturally and gently support the body’s ability to detoxify itself
- Reduce the severity of your allergies and prevent inflammatory diseases
- Lower your blood cholesterol
Stronger Immune System
The bacteria in fermented foods help you avoid getting sick, by making sure you don’t have too many unhealthy microorganisms growing in your intestines. They do this by:
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- Making your intestines more acidic, which makes it harder for harmful microorganisms to survive.
- Making your intestines produce more mucus, which has antibacterial properties. A thick layer of mucus also traps bad bacteria in your intestines, so they can’t get into your bloodstream and cause damage throughout your whole body.
Fermented foods make your urogenital tract acidic as well. This means that they can protect you from urinary tract infections and yeast infections.
Healthier Digestive System
By controlling the growth of unhealthy microorganisms in your intestines, fermented foods can prevent you from developing diarrhea from an infection.
Antibiotics themselves can cause diarrhea. This is because they kill the good bacteria that you need to digest your food, as well as the bad bacteria that make you sick. You can prevent this unpleasant side effect by eating fermented foods when you are prescribed a course of antibiotics.
Fermented foods can also alleviate symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis.
Help with Lactose Intolerance
If you develop diarrhea after eating dairy foods, you could be suffering from lactose intolerance. About 65 percent of people in the world are lactose intolerant. If you are lactose intolerant, you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase which enables you to digest lactose, or milk sugar. Because it’s hard for you to digest dairy products, you can’t benefit from the nutrients found in milk, such as calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins and Vitamin D.
Eating fermented foods can help you regain the ability to enjoy delicious foods like pizza and ice cream. Bacteria from fermented foods will digest the lactose in dairy foods for you.
Fermented foods have always been very popular among cultures with very high levels of lactose intolerance. These include Greeks, who have yogurt, Japanese, who have miso, Koreans, with kimchi and Middle Easterners, who enjoy leben.
If fermented foods are part of your heritage, learning how to recreate old recipes can be a way to get in touch with your roots, as well as help your digestion.
Reduced Allergy Symptoms
Fermented foods can reduce allergy symptoms by preventing the immune system from overreacting to triggers and causing inflammation.
In addition, by causing the mucus in your intestines to thicken, fermented foods can prevent food allergens from entering your bloodstream. This means they can’t spread over your whole body, so your reactions will be less severe.
The inflammation-reducing properties of fermented foods not only alleviate allergy symptoms, they may also help prevent inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
Lowered Blood Cholesterol
Are you worried about your cholesterol? Scientists have known since the 1970s that eating fermented milk can lower cholesterol levels. Since then, many studies have confirmed this.
Eat More Fermented Foods
While evidence of the health benefits of fermented foods continues to increase, unfortunately it is becoming more difficult to find them.
Today, yogurts are often sold as sugary treats – and not all of them contain lactobacilli. When you buy yogurt, always check the label to make sure that it contains live bacteria cultures. Avoid flavored yogurts – which contain lots of sugar and artificial ingredients – and buy plain yogurt instead. You can add fruit to enhance the flavor, or honey for extra sweetness.
Since pasteurization became popular in the 20th century, fewer foods are fermented. Pasteurization kills bacteria in foods; both good and bad bacteria. When buying foods like sauerkraut, check the labels and make sure they’re properly fermented in brine (not vinegar, which prevents fermentation) and haven’t been pasteurized (or treated at high temperatures).
You will probably have a harder time finding fermented foods than your great-grandmother did. You may need to look for them in a health food store or other specialty store. If you have a knack for cooking, you can try making your own. However you get your fermented foods, the health benefits will be well worth the time and expense.
Lactose intolerance (National Institute of Health, Genetic Home Reference)
Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health (Journal of Applied Microbiology)
Probiotics and gastrointestinal health (American Journal of Gastroenterology)