We all know about the “good bacteria” that lurks in food like yogurt, but nutrition experts say there can be many benefits to eating more fermented food.
And although they are not a new dietary addition (people have been eating fermented foods for centuries), Andrea D’Ambrosio, a registered dietitian and wellness speaker from Dietetic Directions, says they are nutritious because they offer probiotics — or good bacteria.
“When probiotics are consumed in the right amounts, they may lead to health benefits such as improved digestion, immunity, mood and metabolism,” she tells Global News.
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Fermented foods are treated with bacteria and/or yeast to break down sugars and create new compounds, she says. For example, sauerkraut is made by submerging cabbage into salt water brine, which promotes the growth of this “good” bacteria.
But D’Ambrosio adds a lot more research is needed around the health claims of probiotics, and people with IBS, for example, should avoid fermented food.
And when you’re shopping for fermented products, make sure the product actually is a source of probiotics. “Pasteurized foods have probiotics destroyed from the high heat. When looking for fermented foods containing probiotics, look for products indicating ‘contains live bacteria,'” she says.
“If you are purchasing an unpasteurized product, ensure food safety standards are met.”
Below, experts go through some of the healthiest fermented food and beverages, and how to add them to your diet.
Kombucha is a fermented tea made by adding probiotic bacteria and yeast to black, green or white tea, D’Ambrosio says.
“The product is tart, low in calories and effervescent tasting. The purported benefits of kombucha have to do with the probiotic content. However, the tea can vary depending on the yeasts and bacteria contained in the product and the fermentation process.”
And while there are many health claims out there about the tea itself, D’Ambrosio says a lot more research needs to be done on humans, and for some groups, the tea isn’t recommended at all.
“Kombucha tea is not recommended for pregnant and lactating women, and may be unsafe for people who are immune compromised.”
Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage fermented with lactic acid to create a sour flavour. “Unpasteurized sauerkraut has probiotics when ‘source of live cultures’ or ‘raw vegetables’ is on the label.”
D’Ambrosio says you can add sauerkraut to sandwiches, as a side for grilled meat or eat it raw with other veggies.
Kefir is a dairy beverage made with kefir “grains” — pellets of yeast bacteria that is added to heated milk.
“Kefir is like a drinkable yogurt with a similar taste, but with a much higher probiotic content,” she says. “In fact, kefir contains 10 to 20 different probiotic strains whereas yogurt has only a few.”
There are several ways to eat/drink kefir: drink it plain, add it to a smoothie, use it to make a parfait or substitute it for yogurt in baking. There are also similar benefits to drinking lassi — a traditional yogurt-based drink from India.
Yogurt, which is also made through a fermenting process, is high in protein, calcium and good for your gut, says registered dietitian Rosanna Lee.
However, some yogurt products can also be filled with excessive amounts of sugar — make sure you are reading labels before purchasing.
Yogurt can be eaten plain, added to smoothies, used in baking or even as a side for a savoury rice dish.
Tempeh is a soy product from Indonesia that is made through a fermentation process as well, Lee says. Not only is it a great meat alternative, but it is also a good source of protein and fibre. “Not to mention a great source of probiotic bacteria.”
Tempeh can be cooked and eaten in salads, chili or even fried to mimic bacon.