Fermented foods are “in” with foodies. But, did you know that they’ve been popular around the world for centuries? Fermenting is a traditional way to preserve vegetables, grains, dairy products and meats and was very important before refrigerators were in every home.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is a process in which live bacteria and yeasts are encouraged to grow in foods. As they grow, they break down carbohydrates and they create acids, which help to keep the food from spoiling. These acids are why fermented foods often have a sour taste (for example, plain yogurt or sauerkraut).
Are Fermented Foods Healthy?
Fermented foods can be a healthy part of a balanced and varied diet. Some fermented foods offer specific benefits:
- Reduced lactose: Fermenting milk -like in the case of yogurt and some cheese - reduces the amount of lactose in the milk. Some people who are lactose intolerant are better able to tolerate fermented milk products.
- Probiotics: These microorganisms help keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. To gain their health benefits, look for products that say probiotic on the label. Learn more about probiotics.
- Lower Glycemic Index: Fermented grain products, such as sourdough bread, may raise your blood sugar a little more slowly (meaning they have a lower glycemic index) than non-fermented foods because of the natural acids they contain. Eating low glycemic foods can be beneficial for people living with diabetes – learn more about healthy eating for preventing or living with diabetes.
- Increased vitamins and minerals: Fermenting can decrease compounds that bind minerals making them easier for our bodies to absorb. Additionally, certain strains of bacteria produce B vitamins, which help our bodies make use of energy, among other functions. Supporters of fermented foods often highlight this as a great health benefit of fermented foods, but for those of us eating a balanced and varied diet the health effect of this is minimal.
Are There Risks of Eating Fermented Foods?
- Consider food safety:Purchase fermented foods from a trustworthy source. If you’re making fermented foods at home, stick to a tested recipe and don’t experiment. Recipes are designed to make sure the fermentation process is safe.
- Watch sodium levels: Fermented vegetables and meat are higher in sodium because the fermentation process requires the addition of salt to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Most of us get too much sodium each day, so choose higher sodium fermented foods in moderation.
What are Examples of Fermented Foods?
- Vegetables like cabbage are traditionally fermented to make dishes like kimchi and sauerkraut. It’s also popular to pickle vegetables such as green beans and carrot sticks by fermentation.
- Milk has been fermented to make yogurt, cheese and kefir (a fermented milk drink) for centuries in Europe and the Middle East.
- Grains are fermented to make sourdough breads such as ingera (an Ethiopian bread made of teff), dosa (an Indian fermented rice and lentil crepe) and the more modern San Francisco sourdough bread.
- Fermented meats like salami, sausage and ham are prepared around the world.
- Some meat alternatives, such as beans, are also traditionally fermented: natto from Japan, tempeh from Indonesia and fermented bean paste.
What are some of your favorite fermented foods?
National Center for Home Food Preservation: How Do I?…Ferment