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Fermented Foods: What’s all the Fuss About?

By June 20, 2018 December 28th, 2018 No Comments

Kimchi.  Kombucha.  Miso.  Nato.  Tempeh.  Did you think I was speaking in a different language for a second there?  Ha!  No, I was not!  A couple years ago, some of these words would have perplexed even me!  All these words are foods; fermented foods, to be exact.  Fermented foods are all the rage right now; and for good reason!

Fermentation is an easy process that has been used around the world for centuries.  In biology, the fermentation process is a conversion of sugar into acids or alcohol with the help of microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast.  Fermenting is not some kind of food fad; although everyone is talking about fermented foods like they are a cure-all.  Fermenting has been around forever, and people eat products of fermentation every day – sourdough, miso, cheese, yogurt, tofu, pickles, vinegar, wine, beer!  So, why the sudden popularity in homemade kombucha and Korean sauerkraut (kimchi)?  More than likely, it’s because research has caught up.

There is a plethora of research showing how important our gut health is, specifically our gut bacteria; and scientists have only begun to scratch the surface!  There is still so much that we do not know; but all the research is fascinating – what we put in our bodies is more important than ever!  There are whole books being written about the gut microbiome, so there is no way, I’ll be able to write about everything on this little blog.  Therefore, I’ll just give you the basics. 

The bacterial cells harbored within the human digestive tract are referred to as the gut microbiome; which is being called our second brain!  Each person is made up of their own unique microbiome, which houses nearly 100 trillion bacteria that outnumber our human cells 10 to 1.  Many people think it’s odd to be made up of so much bacteria; because most people only think of bacteria in terms of germs that make us sick.  However, that’s not the case at all!  Your body is comprised of all kinds of bacteria that have different jobs.  A lot of them are probiotics that serve a beneficial purpose – they help your body produce vitamins, synthesize all essential and non-essential amino acids, absorb nutrients from your food, and may even help to regulate your mood, through what is called the gut-brain axis (which will have to be a whole other blog post).  Probiotic bacteria also colonize within your digestive tract so that potentially harmful bacteria can’t settle in, multiply, and create chaos in your body.  Imbalance of the gut microbiota has been linked to gastrointestinal conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as disease states, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and mental health conditions, like depression and mood disorders.

So, how do we keep our gut microbiome healthy?  The probiotics within our microbiome need to feed on prebiotics to remain abundant and thriving.  Prebiotics come from types of carbohydrates (mostly fiber) that humans can’t digest.  These types of carbohydrates feed the friendly probiotics in your digestive system.  Foods that contain prebiotics include vegetables, fruits, and legumes.  Include these foods daily and you will be providing some very high-quality food for your healthy gut bacteria:

  • Beans, peas, and legumes
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Asparagus
  • Dandelion greens
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Jerusalem artichokes

The other type of food that can help keep our healthy gut bacteria in check are fermented foods!  Many fermented foods, like kefir and yogurt, contain live, probiotic organisms and have been shown to decrease inflammation and improve gut health.  In addition, most cheeses, non-heated kimchi and sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso contain large numbers of healthy bacteria that can provide a probiotic boost.  Some precursors to fermented foods like cabbage and other vegetables are rich in fiber and act as prebiotics.  Furthermore, it has also been shown that the Lactobacillus species (healthy bacteria) from fermented foods are biologically active upon oral consumption.  For example, Lactobacillus plantarum strains isolated from traditional Chinese fermented foods provide strong antioxidant protection in animals and fermentation of fruit and herbal smoothies with Lactobacillus plantarum and other strains has been shown to preserve their polyphenolic compounds and vitamin C, which helps to decrease free radical activity in the body. 

Wow!  Isn’t all of this research fascinating?  There is so much more being studied on a daily basis and it’s an exciting time to be immersed in all the new findings.  My current advice is to include prebiotic foods and fermented foods every day – you can’t drink kombucha once a week and expect to have the perfect gut microbiome – these foods need to be incorporated into your diet regularly.  If you haven’t noticed, a lot of these fermented foods are rather expensive.  Save some money and try making your own fermented foods at home!  Start by watching my video on how to make homemade kombucha.  Enjoy! 

References:
Abrahamsson, T. R., Jakobsson, H. E., Andersson, A. F., Björkstén, B., Engstrand, L., & Jenmalm, M. C. (2012). Low diversity of the gut microbiota in infants with atopic eczema. Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 129(2), 434-440.

Bull, M. J., & Plummer, N. T. (2014). Part 1: The human gut microbiome in health and disease. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, 13(6), 17.

Di Cagno, R., Minervini, G., Rizzello, C. G., De Angelis, M., & Gobbetti, M. (2011). Effect of lactic acid fermentation on antioxidant, texture, color and sensory properties of red and green smoothies. Food microbiology, 28(5), 1062-1071.

Li, S., Zhao, Y., Zhang, L., Zhang, X., Huang, L., Li, D., … & Wang, Q. (2012). Antioxidant activity of Lactobacillus plantarum strains isolated from traditional Chinese fermented foods. Food chemistry, 135(3), 1914-1919.

Pei, R., Martin, D. A., DiMarco, D. M., & Bolling, B. W. (2017). Evidence for the effects of yogurt on gut health and obesity. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 57(8), 1569-1583.

Qin, J., Li, Y., Cai, Z., Li, S., Zhu, J., Zhang, F., … & Peng, Y. (2012). A metagenome-wide association study of gut microbiota in type 2 diabetes. Nature, 490(7418), 55.

Selhub, E. M., Logan, A. C., & Bested, A. C. (2014). Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Journal of physiological anthropology, 33(1), 2. 

Tremaroli, V., & Bäckhed, F. (2012). Functional interactions between the gut microbiota and host metabolism. Nature, 489(7415), 242.

Vyas, U., & Ranganathan, N. (2012). Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics: gut and beyond. Gastroenterology Research and Practice, 2012.

Vyas, U., & Ranganathan, N. (2012). Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics: gut and beyond. Gastroenterology Research and Practice, 2012.

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