From kombucha to kimchi, traditional fermented foods have made a comeback in a big way, finding their place in supermarket refrigerators everywhere. Thanks to a more recent focus on the importance of digestion and gut health and how it affects everyday wellness, fermented foods have become one of the hottest buzzwords in health food today.
In the simplest terms, these foods undergo a chemical reaction where Lactobacillus bacteria convert existing sugars into lactic acid. This process leaves a tangy, sour taste while preserving the food, but also creates B vitamins, increases bioavailability of certain nutrients (like iron) and contains a slew of beneficial microorganisms — also known as probiotics.
Probiotics are perhaps the most profound benefit of live (non-heat treated), fermented foods. These friendly bacteria help replenish and balance the existing bacteria in the digestive tract, aiding in digestion and absorption of minerals and are also linked to overall health. While one could easily down probiotics in pill form, these freeze-dried bacteria strains have to make it through your stomach acids and land in your intestines before awakening to start working. Fermented foods with live cultures have the advantage of being active upon consumption.
Here are six common fermented foods worth adding to your diet if you haven’t already:
Well-made sauerkraut has a crispness and “al dente” crunch that adds the right amount of texture to sandwiches, salads or grilled sausages. Basic sauerkraut only has two ingredients: shredded cabbage and salt, but this category of fermentation can also be expanded to include lacto-fermented vegetables like radishes and cucumbers. Avoid pasteurized versions (heat kills the gut-friendly probiotics) and opt for “live” or “raw” kraut to maximize the benefits of this food.
This fermented drink has a lot of similarities with yogurt. Often made with cow’s or goat’s milk, it is creamy, tangy and loaded with good bacteria. The starter grains used to kick off the fermentation process are a combination of bacteria and yeast and the fermentation process is done at room temperature (unlike yogurt, which is often done at around 110ºF). Use kefir in smoothies, on top of berries, as a dressing or drink it straight to get your daily dose of probiotics.
Traditionally made with napa cabbage, cucumber or daikon radish, this signature Korean condiment often includes flavorful ingredients like fiery red pepper powder, fish sauce, garlic, ginger and salted shrimp — which all affect its pungency and level of heat. Kimchi is often served alongside main dishes like barbecued meat, but can easily be added to a Buddha bowl or atop avocado toast for an extra kick.
At its core, this buzzworthy beverage is a simple concoction of green or black tea, cane sugar and a “mother” or SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). The SCOBY is responsible for creating a slightly effervescent, probiotic drink that has a tiny amount of residual sugar that helps to offset the tangy taste. If plain kombucha is too sour for your liking, there are many brands that create flavored kombucha with the addition of herbs and fruit juices — just be vigilant about the amount of sugar listed on the label and stick to the lowest amount you can tolerate.
A staple in Japanese cuisine for centuries, miso is most commonly made of koji fungus (Aspergillus oryzae), salt and fermented soybeans, but can also be made with a variety of other edibles, like barley, rice or other grains. This thick, flavorful paste can be added to soups, salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Pro tip: When making miso soup, make sure the water is not boiling so as not to kill the beneficial probiotics and enzymes.
Whether at breakfast, snack time or as a topping in place of sour cream, yogurt is a versatile and tasty way to get probiotics into your system. Not all yogurts are created equal, so look for one with Lactobacillus acidophilus listed in the ingredients and the words “live and active cultures.” There are non-dairy alternatives, too, such as coconut-based yogurts made with bio-available probiotic strains.