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  • The Health Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods

    Historically the fermentation technique was used as a way of preserving foods and drinks long before the days of refrigeration. During the process of fermentation, microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or fungi convert organic compounds - such as sugars and starch - into alcohol or acids.

    The consumption of foods and drinks that have undergone fermentation contain benefits to health that stretch beyond food preservation. The transformation of sugars and starches enhances the natural, beneficial bacteria in food. These bacteria, known as probiotics or good bacteria are thought to help a multitude of health issues, specifically digestive health.

    Bacteria - good or bad?

    The bacteria that live in our gut are essential. They help with digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients and play a role in the function of our immune system. However there are bad bacteria that also reside in the gut and the challenge is achieving the right balance between the two. When the balance is shifted in favour of the bad bacteria, we often experience bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.

    Modern diets, high in refined sugars and busy, stressful lifestyles can lead to too much bad bad bacteria by feeding the bacteria, enabling them to flourish. Eliminating refined, high sugar foods and including probiotic-rich fermented foods is thought to bring the gut back into balance and support the immune system.

    Probiotic powerhouses to include in your diet:

    Kefir - A probiotic cultured drink, kefir contains multiple strains of bacteria and yeast. Kefir is rich in minerals and vitamins, particularly the B vitamins and vitamin K

    Sauerkraut - Easy to make at home, this fermented cabbage dish has been around for centuries. It's high in fibre, as well as vitamins A, C, K and various B vitamins. It's also a good source of iron, manganese, copper, sodium, magnesium and calcium

    Miso - This traditional Japanese paste is made from fermented soybeans and grains consisting of millions of beneficial bacteria. It's rich in essential minerals and a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid

    Kimchi Spicier than sauerkraut, kimchi is also a form of fermented cabbage and other vegetables. It contains vitamins A, B1, B2 and C and minerals such as iron, calcium and selenium

    Lassi Made from soured milk, lassi has been drunk as a pre-dinner yogurt drink for centuries. They are a popular way of achieving probiotic bacteria

    Kombucha A fizzy, fermented black tea. Yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and bacteria called acetobacter convert the alcohol into acetic acid, giving it a sour taste. Watch out for sugar in shop-bought kombucha, youre better off making it at home

    Tempeh another version of fermented soy beans, tempeh is a rich protein source so a good choice for vegetarians

    Bread Some breads, such as sourdough are made from dough that is fermented

    Yogurt - Lactobacilli bacteria convert lactose sugar in milk into glucose and galactose, which break down further into lactic acid, giving yogurt its sour taste. Live bacteria remain in the yogurt and provide a valuable contribution to gut microflora

  • Nutritional Highlights

    Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria so by consuming fermented foods you are adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system and enhancing the immune system.

    Digestion and absorption

    As some of the sugars and starches in food have been broken down through the process, fermented foods are easier to digest. For example, fermentation breaks down the lactose in milk to simpler sugars glucose and galactose which, if you are lactose intolerant, can make products such as yogurt and cheese potentially easier to digest.

    Synthesis and availability of nutrients

    Fermentation can also increase the availability of vitamins and minerals for our bodies to absorb. Additionally, by boosting the beneficial bacteria in your gut, you are promoting their ability to manufacture B vitamins and synthesise vitamin K.

    Immune functions

    A large proportion of the immune system is housed in the gut. By consuming probiotic-rich foods, you are supporting the mucosa (gut lining) as a natural barrier, making the immune system more robust. A lack of beneficial bacteria allows disease causing microbes to grow causing inflammation in the gut wall. If you have recently taken a course of antibiotics, probiotic foods are particularly helpful.

    Phytic Acid

    Some natural compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients can be removed by fermentation. Phytic acid, for example, which is found in legumes and seeds, binds minerals such as iron and zinc, reducing their absorption when eaten. However, phytic acid can be broken down during fermentation so the minerals become available.

    Mood and behaviour

    The gut and brain are linked, through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Technically called the enteric nervous system, the gut is lined with neurons that can influence our emotions and feelings. Serotonin a neurotransmitter involved in mood is made in the gut and research further suggests that as probiotic bacteria contribute to a healthy gut, they are also linked to a healthy mind.

    How to select and store

    Keep fermented foods in the fridge and beware of buying those straight from the shelf at a supermarket. If its not in the fridge, its been heat treated and pasteurisation destroys the naturally occurring probiotics. Watch your choice of yogurts and kombucha too those packed with sugar, high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners are not going to support the gut as much as natural, live options.