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Discover the health benefits of fermented foods


Take It In: Carol Bareuther

Sauerkraut, pickles and yogurt. No, this isn’t the latest weight loss recipe. However, what each of these foods has in comment is fermentation.

Fermented foods as a group are forecast as one of the top 10 superfoods for 2017, according to the fifth annual What’s Trending in Nutrition, a national food-trend survey of over 1,700 registered dietitians released by Pollock Communications and trade magazine Today’s Dietitian in December.

The reason? Studies are just starting to show how fermented foods provide health benefits way beyond the food from which they come. Of course, this is something nutrition researchers have observed for some time. For example, the people of Okinawa, Japan, have the highest longevity on the planet, and their customary foods are those such as the fermented soybean product miso.

Fermented foods are those that have undergone a process called lacto-fermentation. This is when naturally occurring bacteria feed on the sugars and starches in a food and produce lactic acid as a result.

This process makes the food easier to digest and also preserves it. Think of the perishability of fresh cabbage versus sauerkraut, cucumbers compared to pickles, and fresh milk as opposed to yogurt.

However, the process of fermentation does much more. It creates beneficial enzymes, vitamins, fatty acids and beneficial bacteria in these foods called probiotics. For example, tempeh, a great vegetarian protein made from fermented soybeans, has more B-vitamins such as folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, niacin and pyridoxine than soybeans themselves. Likewise, milk has an insignificant number of probiotics but yogurt is chock-full of these beneficial bugs.

Here are four popular fermented foods, what makes them good for you, and how to add them to your diet:

Sauerkraut. This German staple is made from cabbage, salt and flavorings such as caraway seeds and peppercorns. The presence of a substance called s-methyl methionine in sauerkraut is linked with a reduced risk of stomach cancer. To get the biggest benefit, make this dish at home. Store-bought is often pasteurized, or cooked at high heat, which kills the probiotic bacteria.

In addition to the popular ways of eating sauerkraut such as topping a hot dog or siding up to a dish of pork roast and mashed potatoes, try it tossed in a green salad, scrambled eggs, tucked into a cheese sandwich, or sprinkled on top of pizza.

Kimchi. Korea’s version of sauerkraut, kimchi is made from Napa cabbage plus a variety of other ingredients such as daikon radish, scallions, red pepper, ginger, garlic and fish sauce.

Korean researchers writing in the scientific journal Genomics and Informatics last year discovered that the various unique microorganisms and bioactive components in kimchi show antioxidant activity and are associated with an enhanced immune response. They also have anti-cancer and anti-diabetic effects. Add kimchi to fried rice or a rice bowl with veggies, stirred in potato salad, as a burger topping, or flavoring for vegetables such Brussels sprouts.

Pickles. Cucumbers are the customary pickled vegetable. Studies show that pickles can support immune health. Look for pickles that don’t contain vinegar or have been heat-processed during production since cooking kills the probiotic bacteria. Or make pickles yourself.

Pickles, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are high in sodium, so pair them with lower-sodium ingredients in dishes. For example, chop and stir in scrambled eggs or potato salad or add to a peanut butter sandwich.

Yogurt. Research shows this creamy fermented milk food has blood pressure-lowering properties. The probiotics in yogurt can also reduce bladder, colon and cervical cancer, according to studies. For maximum benefit, buy yogurt labelled with a seal that says “live and active cultures”.

For added flavor, stir chives in plain yogurt and use over a baked potato, or add fruit and use as a topping for cereal.


Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. 

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