Fermented foods have been getting a lot of attention lately. Many claim that eating fermented vegetables is the key to better health. But is that for real? Possibly. Before you start stockpiling kimchi, pickles and sauerkraut, there are a few things you should know. Let’s dig into the details.
FERMENTED VEGETABLES: TAKE YOUR PICK
Kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish, is one of the most popular fermented vegetables. Made from cabbage, hot peppers, garlic and ginger, kimchi is naturally a good source of vegetables that are already healthy all on their own. Once fermented, these ingredients produce a lactic acid bacteria by-product, which may provide additional health benefits you don’t get from nonfermented vegetables.
Fermented vegetable options go well beyond kimchi, to foods like pickles and sauerkraut. Today, you can find just about every vegetable in fermented form — from curried cauliflower and gingered carrots to beets and more. It seems that everyone is jumping on the pickling bandwagon. You’ll find a variety of fermented vegetables in supermarkets, specialty shops, farmers markets and maybe even your neighbor’s cellar.
Vegetables are already good for you, but the fermentation process takes them up a notch with the addition of probiotics. Research is strongest for probiotics and gut health, but there may be other benefits. For example, some strains of probiotics have been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Though fermented vegetables contain probiotics, it’s not always clear how much and which strains are present. In other words, you don’t know exactly how much to eat to get the intended benefit.
Also, adding fermented vegetables may contribute to your overall health but cannot do so alone. You still have to eat a balanced diet to get the total nutrition you need.
FERMENTED VEGETABLES: THE PROS AND CONS
- Gut-friendly bacteria. The lactic acid bacteria produced during the fermentation process may provide digestive and immune support, among other benefits. It’s an emerging theory that maintaining diverse and healthy gut bacteria may support a healthy immune system, influence mood and may even play a role in preventing obesity and other chronic diseases.
- Convenience. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of adults don’t eat enough vegetables, and since fermented vegetables are easily accessible, they could help. Like frozen or canned vegetables, fermented vegetables are a convenient way to meet your daily vegetable quota with ease.
- Flavor. From kimchi and spicy cucumbers to gingered beets, fermented vegetables are available in a variety of flavors. Choose the ones you like to add zest to meals.
- High in Sodium. If you’re watching your sodium intake, take note. Though you may find some varieties that are lower than others, sodium levels are typically high due to the way fermented vegetables are brined (whether homemade or store-bought).
HOW TO INCORPORATE THEM INTO YOUR DIET
For most people, the pros outweigh the con. If you’ve decided that fermented vegetables are a good fit, you might be wondering how to add them to your plate. Here are a few ideas:
- Enjoy them as a side. If you love their tangy taste, munch on fermented vegetables as a crunchy, flavorful side dish.
- Spice up basic meals. Add kimchi and other fermented vegetables to stir-fry, fried rice or scrambled eggs for extra flavor and nutrition.
- Use them as a condiment For a boost of flavor, top sandwiches and wraps, chili, tacos, grilled fish or meat with chopped fermented vegetables. Use them anywhere you might have added pickle relish.
- Add the juice to soups and sauces. The probiotic rich juice from fermented vegetables can add tang to soups, stews and sauces and if you’re bold, smoothies, too. (But note that heating fermented vegetables or their juice will kill the probiotics.)
Despite their sodium levels, fermented vegetables are a convenient, often crunchy and flavorful way to get your veggies. Though more research is needed to confirm the specific health benefits, fermented vegetables offer flavor, nutrition and gut-friendly bacteria.