7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Foods
If you’ve ever eaten miso soup or enjoyed some homemade sauerkraut, you know how tasty fermented foods can be. Foods produced through the natural process of fermentation have incredible health benefits as well. Some individual strains aid in digestion, increase the bioavailability of key minerals and even promote a stronger immune system, as long as the fermented foods are raw. You’ll typically find the good stuff in the meat or other refrigerated sections of the grocery store. Even though fermentation is on the rise today, the ancient fermentation process goes back as far as the 7th millennium B.C., when villagers in China made a fermented beverage using honey, rice and fruit. Today, through research, we’re just beginning to understand all of the potential health benefits of the bacteria found in foods such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut and yogurt. Read on to learn how adding some of these fermented foods to your diet may have surprising health benefits.
1. Probiotics Help Aid in Stress-Induced Digestion Issues
Stress can cause digestive distress, but fermented foods may help improve symptoms. In fact, a 2008 study published in Nutrition Research shows that two of the most researched probiotics -- Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum -- reduce gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and even flatulence for people affected by chronic stress. Unfortunately, the study also shows that the probiotics didn’t really help with various other stress-induced symptoms, such as sleep problems and loss of appetite. Probiotics aren’t a cure-all, and addressing the cause of chronic stress and finding other coping mechanisms is best. However, the beneficial effects probiotics have on GI distress are certainly a good start.
2. Fermented Foods Can Help Improve Mineral Absorption
“The beneficial bacteria in our intestines help to digest our food. They help break down compounds we don’t have enzymes to break down, which is very useful,” says licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel, author of “The Inflammation-Free Diet Plan.” This includes phytic acid, which, while it has some benefits, is considered an “anti-nutrient.” Phytic acid -- which is found in the hulls of grains, nuts, legumes and seeds -- bonds with iron, calcium and other nutrients, reducing their absorption. Cooking, sprouting or even soaking these foods can provide some protection, but lacto-fermentation is another way to reduce phytic acid, thereby improving digestibility of foods and boosting absorption of the minerals they contain. In fact, studies show that the probiotics created in the fermentation process can sometimes break down more than 90 percent of the phytic acid in corn, lima beans, soybeans and other cereal grains.
3. Good Bacteria Actually Produce Nutrients
Not only does the fermentation process improve digestibility and increase bioavailability of nutrients, the benevolent bacteria that you get from eating fermented foods has all sorts of nutritional benefits in its own right. “Fermented foods synthesize certain vitamins for us,” says licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel. “The primary sources of B12 and vitamin K are the bacteria in our intestines. They actually make them for us. It’s a byproduct of their metabolism.” Intestinal bacteria produce niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid and folic acid as well.
4. Beneficial Bacteria Help People Predigest Foods
“Cabbage, beans, soybeans and milk products can be really tough for certain people to digest, but in the fermentation process those beneficial bacteria or microorganisms actually break down many of the components that make digestion difficult for certain people,” says Jenny McGruther, author of “The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle.” People who have difficulty digesting milk may do well with kefir, for example, which is almost entirely lactose-free after 48 hours, since beneficial bacteria metabolize the milk sugar. And even though cabbage can make people feel gassy, sauerkraut is very easy to digest since the fermentation process breaks down the carbohydrates. Miso is another example: This fermented soup is very easy to digest compared with soybeans, which some people have difficulty eating.
5. Probiotics May Prevent Cavities
Who knew that eating the right type of yogurt could impact your dental health? The probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri has been shown to significantly inhibit specific bacteria that lead to cavities. It also decreases plaque and the gum disease gingivitis. L. reuteri can be found in pill form, but it’s also used as an ingredient in some brands of cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, ice cream and even fruit juices.
6. Fermented Foods May Help Relieve IBS Symptoms
Irritable bowel syndrome can be a chronic condition affecting the large intestine. Symptoms include bloating, stomach cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation and flatulence. A randomized double-blind study including 274 adults showed that some of these symptoms could be abated with probiotics. Specifically, those suffering from IBS lessened their discomfort, reduced their bloating and had more normal stool frequency by consuming fermented milk containing Bifidobacterium animalis.
7. Moms Taking Probiotics May Reduce Infant’s Risk of Eczema
Eczema is a type of skin inflammation that’s characterized by red, itchy skin and sometimes the outbreak of lesions. The lesions themselves can get crusty and scaly and even discharge serous matter. Eczema is considered an allergic reaction and often begins in infancy. Research indicates that those suffering from eczema in childhood are more likely to develop asthma, hay fever or another allergic condition later on in life. Luckily, moms at high risk -- those with allergic diseases who respond positively to skin-prick tests -- have some recourse. If they supplement with probiotics while pregnant or nursing, they may well transfer some of the benefits and significantly reduce the risk of their infants getting eczema.
8. Note: Probiotic Pills May Be More Advantageous Than Fermented Foods
Depending on how pills are manufactured and stored -- and how old they are -- probiotic pills can be much more potent than fermented foods. “They do have some advantages,” says licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel. “One is that, you’ll be a little more sure about exactly what you’re getting. If they have a good manufacturing process, they will have isolated certain strains and excluded other unwanted strains. Also, pills are often enterically coated, which protects them from the effects of stomach acid -- which can kill bacteria before they get to your intestines.” Although Reinagel doesn’t think it makes sense to take pills daily on an ongoing basis, she recommends them if you’re taking antibiotics and want to prevent the intestinal problems associated with them.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you eat fermented foods or take probiotic pills? Have you experienced any digestive or nutritional benefits from them? Share your experience with us below -- we love hearing from you!
Explore In Depth
- Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China
- Probiotic food supplement reduces stress-induced gastrointestinal symptoms in volunteers: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial.
- Improving the bioavailability of nutrients in plant foods at the household level.
- B-group vitamin production by lactic acid bacteria--current knowledge and potential applications.
- Essential vitamins produced by intestinal bacteria in humans and/or animals
- Effect of a fermented milk containing Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173 010 on the health-related quality of life and symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome in adults in primary care: a multicentre, randomized, double-blind, controlled trial
- Maternal probiotic supplementation during pregnancy and breast-feeding reduces the risk of eczema in the infant
- Probiotics for the Prevention and Treatment of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea
Yael Grauer is a freelance health and fitness writer and the managing editor of the Performance Menu: Journal of Health and Athletic Excellence.