Fermented Foods for Good Gut Health

Fermented foods are crucial for creating and maintaining good gut health. The bacteria found in the gut protect the body from harmful organisms that might enter it. That same bacteria, or gut flora, prevent illness, improves digestion, boosts our immune response and helps us maintain a healthy weight. The beneficial microbes in our gut can be encouraged to reproduce by eating fermented foods that are full of good bacteria.

From the familiar yogurt to the lesser known nattō, here’s a list of 10 fermented foods to add to your diet and help promote better gut health.

1. Yogurt

Yogurt is a bacterial fermented dairy product that has been made and consumed for ages. Yogurt is mentioned in the Bible and other ancient historical texts. According to several reliable accounts, in the 1500s, King Francis I was ill with an intestinal disease that appeared to be incurable by traditional medicine. A Turkish doctor treated the king with goat’s milk yogurt, and it saved his life.

Registered dietician Brianna Elliot wrote about the benefits of yogurt. She said, “Yogurt provides almost every nutrient that your body needs. It is especially high in calcium, B vitamins and trace minerals.” Elliot’s assertion is correct. In one cup of yogurt, you’ll get nearly half of your calcium requirement for the day. It’s also high in phosphorus, magnesium and potassium.

While the organisms in real yogurt have been shown to improve digestion and gut health, many of the yogurt varieties found at grocery stores have no live cultures in them. Some yogurt manufacturers pasteurize the yogurt after it’s made to extend the shelf-life of the product. To be sure you’re getting yogurt with beneficial cultures. look for a seal that says, “Live and active cultures.” The National Yogurt Association created that distinction recently to help consumers find real yogurt. Similarly, the words “cultured after pasteurization,” on the label indicate live cultures.

Another thing to watch for is added sugar. Some brands of yogurt come with 32 grams of sugar per serving. That’s about the same amount of sugar in a can of soda. No matter how healthy the cultures may be, 32 grams of sugar makes it junk food. Because milk naturally contains some sugar, even plain yogurt may have a small amount. Read the nutrition labels to make sure there’s no added sugar in the yogurt you plan to buy. If you like your yogurt sweetened, buy plain, unsweetened yogurt and add whole fruit as a topping before eating.

2. Kosher Pickles

Pickles labeled “kosher” are not prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. Rather, they are made using the traditional methods of New York City pickling. Kosher pickles are made by soaking cucumbers in a salt brine with added garlic and a blend of other pickling spices. Cucumbers have a naturally occurring lactobacillus bacteria in their skins. When the cucumbers are submerged in a brine solution for several weeks, they become fermented and sour.

3. Fermented Vegetables

Carrots, radishes, green beans, pearl onions and garlic cloves are some of the more common types of vegetables that can be fermented easily at home. Most of the time, you just use salt and water to create a brine, and the naturally occurring lactobacillus bacteria strains from the plant matter foster an ideal environment for fermentation. The vegetables and brine sit together in a jar with a breathable cover over the top ― a coffee filter or thin fabric works ― secured with a rubber band around the mouth of the jar. After a few weeks, the vegetables are fermented and can be transferred to cold storage where the flavor will continue to develop.

4. Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk drink made from kefir grains, which contain yeast and bacteria. It has a taste similar to yogurt, but it’s thinner and slightly carbonated. Many people who cannot digest or tolerate lactose can enjoy kefir without digestive pain. During the fermentation process, the lactose from the milk is significantly decreased.

5. Kombucha

Chances are, you’ve seen kombucha in your local supermarket. It’s usually near the produce section or with the refrigerated juices. The most unrefined brands contain a little bit of alcohol and are sold only to adults with proper identification. Others are processed a bit to remove the trace amounts of alcohol. What is this trendy probiotic drink ― and is it worth the hefty $4 a bottle price tag?

In July 2014, the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety published a review on kombucha tea. Through chemical analysis, researchers found a presence of acetic, gluconic, citric, L-lactic, malic and tartaric acid, among others. They also found that kombucha contained vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12 and C. It contains amino acids, polyphenols, manganese, iron, copper, zinc and bacterial metabolites.

People who brew it at home, and those who shell out $4 a bottle to drink it daily, say that kombucha helps them digestively. Other kombucha fans have cited improvement in skin conditions, increased energy, strengthened immune system, weight loss, mood regulation, liver detoxification and cancer prevention.

Although it likely originated in East Asia, most cultures throughout the world have a version of kombucha tea that has been passed down through the centuries. Kombucha is a yeast and bacteria fermented beverage made from black, green or oolong tea, sugar, water and an active symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). SCOBYs are generally handed from person to person. Each time a batch of kombucha is brewed, a new SCOBY is formed on top of the liquid and can be used to make another batch.

6. Kimchi

Ranked by Health magazine as the fifth-healthiest food worldwide, kimchi is a fermented dish made from cabbage, Korean radishes and seasoned with chili powder, ginger, garlic and other spices. There are several varieties of kimchi, but it’s generally made with fermented vegetables, salt and spices. Sometimes, fish sauce or salted seafood is added. Kimchi is typically served as a side dish with each meal in Korea, but it can also be served as a main dish.

Kimchi contains high levels of vitamin A, B vitamins, calcium and iron. It contains beneficial bacteria for gut health. Many Koreans say that eating kimchi gives them an energy boost and protects them against infection. Studies have shown that adding kimchi to the diet can strengthen the body’s immune response during illness.

7. Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is finely chopped, fermented cabbage. Generally, sauerkraut is a food we associate with Germany and other European countries. However, it is believed that sauerkraut was originally brought over to Europe from China. The Europeans altered and improved the recipe by fermenting the cabbage with salt instead of rice wine.

Sauerkraut, which is made easily on the countertop by layering shredded cabbage with salt and leaving it to ferment, has numerous health benefits. It contains a significant amount of B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamin C. It’s also high in copper, potassium, folate and manganese. It is excellent for improved digestion and has been shown to help the body fight infection. Because it contains lutein and zeaxanthin, it’s also a good food to improve eye health. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry showed that compounds found in sauerkraut also inhibited the growth of certain cancer cells in lab studies.

8. Miso

A traditional Japanese staple, miso is a fermented bean paste made from soybeans, sea salt and a mold starter called koji. Miso is fermented for a period of as little as three months to several years. Miso is used by chefs and foodies to add heartiness to soups and sauces. It is also commonly served with rice in Japan.

Miso is an excellent vegetarian source of B vitamins. It also contains all the essential amino acids ― making miso a complete protein. Consuming miso can help restore probiotics in the gut and aid in digestion. The dipilocolonic acid in miso is an alkaloid that can help protect the body against radiation. Miso’s high antioxidant content helps to combat free radicals.

9. Tempeh

Another beneficial fermented soy product is tempeh. Tempeh is a fermented cake made from soybeans that are soaked and then cooked. The dense block of protein is bound together by a white fungus formed in the process called mycelia. Tempeh originated in Indonesia probably around the 12th century.

Nutritionally, tempeh is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids. It is high in folate, magnesium, iron and calcium. Tempeh has high levels of dietary fiber, B vitamins, copper and manganese. It has both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is an excellent source of protein.

Tempeh holds up well to grating, slicing and frying. It’s often marinated and cooked and can be used in stir-fry as well as ground to substitute for beef.

10. Nattō

Another food in the fermented soy category is nattō. Nattō is a Japanese staple made from fermented soybeans. It is a common breakfast food served with soy sauce and mustard over rice. Nattō is a strong-smelling food with a slimy texture.

Nattō is an excellent source of protein, high in vitamin K, and full of probiotics for better gut health. Like miso and tempeh, nattō contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It’s high in iron and copper, magnesium and calcium.

If you have poor gut health or suspect that you do, try adding some of these 10 fermented foods to your diet and see if you notice any improvements. Chances are, you’ll experience improved digestion and better overall health.