The best fermented foods available today have resulted from food science developing over thousands of years. The fermentation process had been in use as a natural food preservation method long before refrigeration and the use of preservatives became the mainstay to prolong the shelf-life of foods such as dairy products.
Ranging from food preservation to the growth of live and active cultures of beneficial bacteria in fermented foods, some of the most common health benefits associated with eating fermented food are:
- Makes hard to digest complex carbohydrates easier to break down and absorb in the gut.
- Facilitates synthesis of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and vitamins that improve digestive health.
- Alters the pH of fermented foods and produces antimicrobial metabolites which inhibit the growth of pathogens and spoilage microbes.
- Adds beneficial probiotics to the gut which play a vital role in maintaining gut health.
Fermented foods have also been positively associated with improvements in digestive health, heart health, bone health, immune system, and symptoms of chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome.
The best-fermented foods not only provide health benefits and contain probiotics but also come packed with flavor while improving your gut and digestive health.
The differences in fermentation
Not all fermented foods taste the same or have the same texture. The difference in taste and texture stems from different microorganisms which initiate a versatile set of reactions in different environments leading to the development of unique flavors and textures.
For instance - Koji, a starter culture that's used to start the fermentation of several other fermented foods (miso, sake, soy sauce, mirin, etc), is a mold growing on cooked rice. The mold goes through a solid state fermentation which means it doesn't enjoy pooling moisture or exposure to air while it's growing on a solid food medium.
Different fermentations lead to the development of different enzymes such as amylase and protease and bioactive molecules such as bacteriocins (antibacterial compounds that curb the growth of pathogenic bacteria) and peptides, etc. There are four different fermentation reactions in fermented foods.
Four types of fermentation
Different cultures use different microorganisms such as molds in Asia to start the fermentation process. Here's a list of fermented foods based on the type of microorganism used to start the process.
1. Lactic acid fermented foods
Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) convert sugar into lactic acid. Examples of lactic acid fermented foods include yogurt and kimchi.
2. Acetic acid fermented foods
Acetic acid bacteria convert alcohols and sugar derived from previous food reactions into acetic acid. Examples of acetic acid fermented foods include kombucha, apple cider vinegar, water kefir, etc.
3. Alcohol-based fermented foods
Yeasts convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Examples of alcohol-based fermented foods include sourdough bread, beer, and wine.
4. Alkali-based fermented foods
Bacteria such as Bacillus and Staphylococcus convert proteins into amino acids, peptides, and ammonia. Examples of alkali-based fermented foods are natto, douchi, etc.
Growth mediums for different fermented foods
Microorganisms like lactobacillus and pediococcus (lactic acid bacteria), saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast), and Aspergillus oryzae (mold) responsible for fermenting some of the best fermented foods need different foods as growth mediums.
For instance, miso paste is a fermented food that requires two subsequent types of growth mediums for a two-stage fermentation process involving different microorganisms.
Fermenting soybeans for miso paste requires the addition of koji, salt, and water to cooked and mashed soybeans while koji itself is a starter culture that requires cooked rice or soybeans as a medium for the growth of the mold Aspergillus oryzae.
- oryzae produces the enzymes amylase and protease amongst others. In the second stage of fermentation, when koji is added to cooked and mashed soybeans, the protease and amylase break the protein and starch present in the soybeans into simple sugars, amino acids, and peptides, which are then further broken down by lactic acid bacteria and yeast to produce unique nutritional and flavor compounds.
The most commonly fermented food - fermented milk - is often turned into yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, raw milk cheese, or aged cheeses, etc, by simply varying the fermentation method. Similarly, there is a host of other fermented foods and drinks that result from a variety of growth mediums, like:
- Fermented cereals such as sourdough bread, idli, beer, makgolli, etc.
- Fermented vegetables and bamboo shoots such as sauerkraut, kimchi, gundruk, etc.
- Fermented fruit such as wine, vinegar, cider, etc.
- Fermented legumes such as natto, miso, iru, etc.
- Fermented roots/tubers such as garri (West Africa), fufu, etc
- Fermented meat such as sausages, salami, pepperoni, etc.
- Fermented, dried, and smoked fish such as balao balao, bonito flakes, etc
- Fermented herbs such as kombucha, pu'er tea, etc.
A list of 10 best fermented foods to try
If you're new to the world of fermentation and fermented foods or simply want to add some more probiotic goodness to your diet, check out the following fermented foods!
Did you know that the German sauerkraut, or sour cabbage, traces its roots back to China? A result of spontaneous fermentation, this fermented cabbage recipe is full of probiotics such as:
- Enterobacter cloacae,
- Bifidobacterium dentium,
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactococcus lactis
- Leuconostoc spp., and many more.
Probiotics and microbial by-products found in Sauerkraut have been positively correlated with anticancer, antibacterial, and free radical scavenging activity.
Kimchi means fermented vegetables in Korean. Often made with napa cabbage (or radish) and flavoring ingredients such as garlic, chili, ginger, onion, mustard, and cinnamon, they traditionally served this pungent fermented cabbage recipe as a side dish with rice.
The microbial composition of most fermented foods and vegetables will vary depending on the flavoring ingredients such as the presence and quantity of garlic, red chili powder, etc.
Depending on the preparation method, cabbage kimchi might contain probiotics such as:
- Saccharomyces unisporus, etc.
Studies suggest regular consumption of kimchi may have anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and weight management effects.
Japan is home to many fermented foods, from fermented soybeans such as miso (used to make miso soup), soy sauce and natto to fermented rice wines such as mirin and sake.
Miso or fermented soybeans will be incomplete without the addition of 'koji'. As previously mentioned, Koji is used to ferment many other foods such as soy sauce, miso, amazake, katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), etc.
In miso preparation, they add koji to cooked soybeans and leave it to ferment in earthen pots. Miso goes through a secondary fermentation with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) and lactic acid bacteria such as Pediococcus halophilus for up to 24 months.
Miso soup forms a vital part of traditional Japanese cuisine and is associated with many health benefits. Several population studies associate soy foods including miso soup with health benefits such as antidiabetic, anticancer, antihypertensive, anti-oxidative, and anti-inflammatory effects.
Natto is made from fermented soybeans using the beneficial bacteria B. subtilis var. natto for its fermentation. Natto is known for its distinctive odor and thready appearance.
Several studies looking into the effects of B. subtilis and nattokinase - an enzyme produced by B. subtilis and found in natto - on the management of cardiovascular disease have found that B. subtilis and nattokinase to have a fibrinolytic (clot-breaking) effect which might have a protective effect on heart health.
Regular consumption of natto was associated with an increase in the abundance of Bifidobacterium and Bacilli and an increase in short-chain fatty acids in stool samples of test subjects.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian soybean fermented food that uses the fungal starter Rhizopus oligoporus.
Regular consumption of tempeh has been associated with an increased abundance of Akkermansia muciniphila in the gut. A. muciniphila is a beneficial bacteria for its role in strengthening the gut barrier and thus improving gut health.
Animal studies suggest consuming tempeh might have a positive effect on gaining muscle mass and on healthy gut diversity.
6. Fermented vegetables
Fermented veggies are a staple fermented food across different cultures. While fermenting vegetables is a quick and easy way to preserve in-season veggies, the tangy flavor makes you want to keep reaching for more of these nutrient dense bites.
If pickling your veggies seems daunting, you can always reach for the commercially available lacto-fermented pickles such as olives, cucumbers, or bamboo shoots!
7. Milk Kefir
Kefir comes from the Turkish word 'keyif' meaning wellbeing. Milk kefir is a fermented milk drink made with the help of kefir grains.
Kefir grains are a symbiotic colony of beneficial microbes comprising lactic acid bacteria (LAB), acetic acid bacteria, and yeasts that feast on lactose (milk sugar) and casein (milk protein). Kefir is often called 'drinkable yogurt' in ode to its more popular cousin - yogurt.
The microbial composition of kefir grains differs based on the type of milk used, the addition of thickeners and sweeteners such as inulin, and pomegranate juice and the geographical location.
Fermented dairy foods offer a host of beneficial microbes for a gut-healthy diet besides adding short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate.
Rich in probiotics like Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus gasseri, and Lactobacillus plantarum, eating yogurt can be a delight, but monitor the ingredients list since not all yogurts are equal as many come with added sugars and sweeteners.
9. Water-based fermented drinks - kombucha and kvass
Fermented drinks are equally popular across the world. Kombucha is a fermented tea that originates from China. Made with sweetened black or green tea and fermented with the help of a symbiotic culture of bacteria (SCOBY), drinking kombucha has been associated with health benefits such as having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-diabetic, and anti-carcinogenic activity.
Beet kvass is another fermented drink that is rising in popularity and is full of minerals such as iron and zinc. Beet kvass is one of the simplest fermentation recipes you can prepare at home. Here's my beet kvass recipe to get you going!
10. Apple cider vinegar
A common ingredient in salad dressings, apple cider vinegar is made from fermented apple juice. Apple cider vinegar goes through two stages of fermentation. The first step includes fermentation via yeasts and lactic acid bacteria and the second fermentation occurs when acetic acid bacteria convert simple sugars into acetic acid.
A systemic review and meta-analysis conducted in 2021 found that apple cider vinegar had a favorable effect on blood lipid levels.
Fermented foods for gut health
Eating fermented foods has been a part of cultures across the world. Countless health benefits have been associated with the regular consumption of fermented foods. Whether it's the humble yogurt or a bottled pickle, probiotics can be a great way to keep your gut healthy.
But before you add a new pick to your favorite fermented foods, remember to look at the ingredients list for added sugars and sweeteners and whether the fermented foods of your choice state contain 'active cultures', 'beneficial live bacteria', or have been 'lacto-fermented'.
Check out our YouTube playlist here to watch me make some of my favorite fermented recipes!
Martha Carlin, is a “Citizen Scientist”, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective , a microbiome company expanding the reach of science and BiotiQuest, the first of it’s kind probiotic line. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human disease. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.
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