For centuries, before we had the accessibility of freezers and canned goods, fermented foods were around to help preserve vegetables and keep them edible for longer. But fermentation is not only good for preserving food; it has also been found to enhance the overall nutritional value of food and have immense benefits on your gut health. Fermented foods are blossoming into a huge, in-the-moment health movement.
Here’s a little fermentation 101: fermented foods go through the process in which natural bacteria feeds on the sugar and starch and creates lactic acid. This helps aid digestion in your body and leads to better support for your immune system and may even help you lose weight. Studies suggest that consuming these foods also improve skin health, mood, and can alleviate symptoms from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The balance between the beneficial bacteria and the disease-causing bacteria in your gut is essential to good health. One of the best ways to eliminate the bad bacteria and keep around the good is by eating and drinking fermented foods and beverages that loaded with probiotics. Foods that are fermented have been shown to break down food into a more digestible form because of the immense benefits of these probiotics.
Fermented foods are easy to fit into your diet, but some may be more beneficial than others. For instance, sauerkraut bought from the grocery store typically goes through a process using vinegar, which does not have the same reaction to the nutrients. Also, any fermented foods that have been pasteurized are a risk to health because of the contamination possibilities and susceptibility to bacterial infections. So when buying anything pre-packaged, make sure to read the label!
1. Dairy yogurt
Did you know that the morning yogurt you’ve been eating for years is actually a fermented food? Yogurt is made by adding good bacteria (streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus) into heated milk. It thickens up from the lactic acid that’s produced by the bacteria and becomes the product that you’re ever-so-familiar with. The higher the fat content in the milk, the thicker the consistency. And when buying yogurt from the grocery store, make sure to check for the ones labeled ‘live active cultures’ and stay away from the ones with added sugar and syrups.
Kefir is basically drinkable yogurt but contains different types of beneficial bacteria and may be surprisingly more nutritious. Kefir can actually colonize the intestinal tract making digestion even easier. It also supplies high levels of probiotics, complete protein, vitamin B12, and other essential minerals. To make kefir at home, you only need one cup of whole-fat milk and a teaspoon of kefir grains, which is the bacteria and yeast that is going to ferment the kefir. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for about 24 hours and then strain the grains. (Tip: These grains can be used again in your next batch.) Before you know it, you’ll have a tangy, thick, creamy drink that’s ready to enjoy.
Eat This!: Make kefir pancakes with 1 cup almond flour, 2 tablespoons coconut flour, ½ cup kefir, 3 eggs, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons coconut oil, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
3. Non-dairy yogurt
Not a fan of dairy milk? You can still get your fermentation on with yogurts from other non-dairy sources like coconuts. Since the structure of coconuts is different from cow’s milk yogurt, you’ll need to add probiotic powder and tapioca starch to get a spoonable, creamy texture. You can also make coconut milk kefir the same way you would make an animal milk kefir!
Eat This!: Make a parfait using coconut yogurt, granola, nuts, coconut shavings, banana, and blueberries. Easy, simple, and delish!
Miso is a well-known ingredient you may have seen on menus at sushi restaurants. It’s a traditional Japanese paste that’s made from fermenting soybeans with salt and koji. Not only is it a complete protein (meaning it contains all essential amino acids), but it also stimulates the digestive system, strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk for multiple cancers. This paste has been used for centuries in Asian cultures to provide health benefits but is becoming even more known in the U.S. because of its nutrient-dense properties.
Eat This!: The flavors of miso are both sweet and salty (technically considered umami), so it’s an awesome way to add flavor to a salad dressing by combining oil, a light vinegar, miso, and spices. Miso also goes great in soup or as a dipping sauce!
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Tempeh burgers or tempeh nuggets are the perfect plant-based alternative to an animal-based protein, and vegetarians and vegans often rave about it. Tempeh is a fermented soy product that has a meaty, tender bite with a semi-dull flavor. Think of tempeh as a blank canvas ready to be painted on; you can add spices, seasonings, or sauces to tempeh because it will absorb any flavor it’s handed and you’ll forget you’re not eating meat! And let’s not forget the nutritional benefits that come along with it: A standard 3-ounce serving of tempeh has about 16 grams of protein and 8 percent of the day’s recommended calcium.
Eat This!: Try out Meatless Monday and top some zucchini noodles (or zoodles) with vegan tempeh meatballs. Cover it with a homemade marinara sauce and enjoy!
6. Sourdough bread
You can find sourdough bread at just about every supermarket there is. Unlike many may think, sourdough is not a flavor, it’s actually the process where wild yeast and friendly bacteria break down the gluten and sugar occurring and it becomes good-for-you protein, vitamins, and minerals. “If you’re trying to increase your probiotic intake, when it comes to bread, sourdough bread is the way to go!” The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, and authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure explain. The starches and grains from the bread are predigested from the bacteria and yeast, thus making it easier to digest and a much healthier option than any processed white bread. It’s also typically lower on the glycemic index scale—meaning it doesn’t spike blood pressure as dramatically as other breads would. The flavor of the bread is semi-sour (hence, the name, and should be moist on the inside with a crunchy outer crust. (Note: This is not a gluten-free option, so make sure if you have any kind of gluten intolerance, you avoid this bread.)
Eat This!: Its succulent flavor and fluffy texture make for the perfect bread to get dipping into one of these 20 Best-Ever Fat-Burning Soups!
When you think of sauerkraut, a loaded hot dog or a fatty Reuben sandwich could be what come to mind. And there’s not often a middle ground between being a lover or a hater of this stuff. But, for you lovers and haters who didn’t know, sauerkraut is actually a high-fiber, low-calorie, nutritious condiment—when it’s made right, that is. Sauerkraut should be made with two simple ingredients: shredded cabbage and sea salt. Cabbage has a high water content, so by twisting and mashing the leaves after letting it sit in salt for 10-15 minutes, the juices are naturally going to begin extracting. (Translation: There’s no need to add any other liquids.) The liquid that forms should cover the entire mixture, and the cabbage and salt should sit at room temperature, completely covered for at least a week for small batches (and at least a month for bigger batches). Before buying it prepackaged at the grocery store make sure to check the label; they often contain added sugar and preservatives.
Eat This!: Make stuffed mushrooms by stuffing the insides of mushrooms with your homemade sauerkraut, a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil.
8. Pickled vegetables
Other vegetables besides cabbage can be fermented, too. “But it’s important to distinguish that not all pickled vegetables are fermented,” say Willow Jarosh MS, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition. “In order to get the health benefits from eating fermented foods, you’ll want to be sure that the pickled veggie you’re eating is, in fact, fermented—and not just pickled.” Using the same process as the sauerkraut, you can ferment carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, garlic, and tons of other vegetables. Since not all veggies have the same amount of water as cabbage, you may have to make a brine for the mixture to sit in. The methods vary depending on taste, special dietary requirements and which vegetable is being fermented.
Eat This!: Stuff your sandwiches, top your patties or just simply enjoy straight out of the jar!
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Kimchi is another variation of fermenting vegetables that was developed in Asian cultures. “The nutritional benefits of kimchi will widely vary, based on what ingredients are used,” Jackie Ballou Erdos, R.D. says. “Typically, vegetables like cabbage, radishes and scallions are used, which provide nutrients including vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, vitamin K, iron, and fiber.” (Ginger, salt, sugar, water, and spices are all involved, too!) Seeing sugar on the list of ingredients may scare you at first, but the salt brine will kill off bad bacteria and leave good bacteria that converts the sugar into lactic acid to preserve and flavor the vegetables.
Eat This!: Mix your kimchi with roasted seasoned potatoes and grilled asparagus. The different flavor profiles combine to make a meal to die for!
Natto is made by boiling and fermenting soybeans with bacteria that increases their nutritional value. Among the array of fermented foods from Japan, this tops the list for health benefits. There is a unique enzyme in Natto, Nattokinase, which is recognized because of its property to dissolve blood clots. Also, since it is made from soybeans, there is a ton of protein, fiber, vitamins K2 and B2, calcium, and iron. The smell and appearance of Natto may turn you off at first; it has an interesting, unique scent and stringy, gooey look to it. Don’t let that deter you, though. The taste is great and the benefits are well worth it!
Eat This!: Eat Natto on top of a bed of brown rice or quinoa with some scallions, herbs, and soy sauce. Make sure to top dishes once they are cooled because it will lose its health effectiveness after being heated over 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
11. Beet kvass
If you haven’t heard of Kvass before, you soon will. The fermented drink is slowly catching up to the trendiness of kombucha, most likely because of its probiotic characteristics that lead to major health benefits. This drink originated in Russia, traditionally made with stale sourdough bread. To D.I.Y. it, mix salt with chopped beets in a mason jar and fill with filtered water. Stir well and let sit at room temperature, covered for about 2-7 days before straining and moving to the refrigerator. The longer the beets are left to ferment, the more developed the flavor will be. Beets are already a great source of dietary fiber, so by fermenting them, the positive digestive properties are through the roof!
Eat This!: Drink it up or use it as a bright salad dressing by combining with vinegar and pepper. It also tastes great over grilled chicken and quinoa!
Okay, okay, so we’re not telling you to go out and drink a 12-pack; that will just lead to belly bloat and excessive weight gain. But fermented alcoholic beverages like beer do actually have some fermentation benefits when drank in moderation. The vitamins from the grains that beer are made out of (such as barley, wheat, rice, and corn) survive the fermentation and filtering process and can lead to good cholesterol and decrease blood clot formation.
Eat This!: Combine whole grain mustard, beer, and spices. Marinade it onto your favorite proteins like chicken or tofu.
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From salsa to mustard, all of the classic condiments that you would typically purchase at the grocery store can be fermented, too! Use whey (the watery part of yogurt) or juice from homemade sauerkraut as the starter for the fermentation, and combine with the usual ingredients. Voila! Easy as that, and you get to skip the sugar and fake additives.
Eat This!: We love this recipe from The Antidote Life for homemade fermented mayo!
And what would a fermentation story be without the highly talked about kombucha? So, last but not least: Kombucha is a fermented drink made with tea and a culture of bacteria and yeast, and it is surrounded by controversy concerning its health benefits. The fizzy drink usually has a semi-sour, yet sweet taste that can be off-putting to some—but addictive to others. The elixir has been said to improve digestive function and remove toxins from the body, but there is no actual scientific evidence behind these claims. “In order to keep the probiotic benefits, the kombucha tea must not be pasteurized—means it increases the risk of contamination,” The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shame point out. But there is also a link between unpasteurized drinks with liver damage and bacterial infections. That’s where the confusion lies. So, if you have any deficiencies or are trying it for the first, time make sure to check with a specialist first. (Psst! And don’t miss these 27 Foods Nutritionists Are Obsessed With!)
Eat This!: Add kombucha to a salsa made from fresh tomatoes, onion, cilantro, jalapeno, red pepper and lime juice to give it a slightly an extra sour taste profile.