Food for Thought: Fermentation
Ever wonder how certain foods affect your body?
Do you want to know which ingredients can help support your health?
Are you looking for new creative recipes?
Welcome to our Food for Thought blog series that will aim to address these questions and more each month! Tune in for expert nutritional tips from Masha Fox-Rabinovich, outpatient dietitian and diabetes educator at Washington Adventist Hospital, and savvy cooking techniques from Randall Smith, executive chef for Adventist HealthCare.
Many different cultures from around the world have been fermenting foods for thousands of years to improve its nutritional value, taste, and to extend shelf life. That’s because fermentation deters the growth of bacteria that cause food spoilage. It also packs more nutritional benefits than food in its natural form—that is if the pickling process is done through natural fermentation. This takes place with the addition of good bacteria or live cultures called probiotics.
In addition to pickles, which are fermented cucumbers, many other vegetables can be pickled too, including:
Other fermented foods that provide numerous health benefits include:
- Fermented dairy products
- Fermented soy foods
Our intestines contain trillions (that’s 12 zeros!) of bacteria, and the vast majority of them are good. However, depending on our diets and our lifestyles, some of us have an imbalance between the bad bacteria and the good bacteria. Foods containing healthy live bacteria (probiotics) help balance the intestinal microbiota, and are considered to be functional foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as a food that provides additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote good health. Probiotic foods have been linked with enhanced immune system function and digestive health, among other benefits.
Fermentation increases the nutrient content of foods. The nutrients in foods are digested by these good bacteria, breaking down the cell walls of vegetables and allowing some of the nutrients to become more bioavailable, that is, more easily absorbed by our bodies.
In addition, fermented foods improve nervous system function. The gut, or small intestines, acts as the body’s second nervous system. It produces neurotransmitters just like the brain does. Probiotics help the intestines to function properly. A review of the research of fermented foods, published earlier this year in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, argues that the consumption of traditionally fermented foods is associated with positive mental health.
Unfortunately, most pickles we see in grocery stores are just cucumbers canned in vinegar. Same goes for sauerkraut and other traditionally fermented vegetables. This is not fermentation and doesn’t provide the same health benefits that true pickled/fermented foods offer. To increase your consumption of healthy, probiotic-rich foods, look for foods that contain live active cultures, such as those in yogurts, kefir (like a yogurt beverage), miso, tempeh, and kim chi, or make your own!
What foods are you curious about? We’d like to hear from you. Please share your questions in the comments section below.