By Mary Lindsey Jackson
Clinical Nutritionist Educator
The Winter Olympics in South Korea have stirred up a lot of interest in Korean culture, including Korean cuisine. Kimchi is growing in popularity in many restaurants in the states, but are there health benefits from fermented foods?
Fermentation has been used in cultures around the world for thousands of years, both as a traditional food preservation method as well as a way to provide distinctive flavors and textures. With growing research on potential health benefits and interest in incorporating more whole foods, the demand for fermented foods on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus is growing.
Because the fermentation process can encourage the growth of healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus strains, fermented foods can be a good whole food source of probiotics. Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms (usually bacteria, but can also include yeast) that can be ingested to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Probiotics can be taken in a supplement form, but can also be found in these whole fermented foods. There is evidence that these beneficial bugs can support gastrointestinal health for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease diarrhea or constipation. There is also growing research around probiotics and their potential positive impacts on the immune system, obesity, mood disorders and other health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes.
In addition to the potential benefits of probiotics, many fermented foods are made from a vegetable or other high-fiber base such as soybeans. This fiber can promote a healthy and diverse gut flora. In addition, the fermentation process can also increase or produce several of the B vitamins and improve how well your body absorbs minerals such as calcium or iron.
Try these tips for incorporating more fermented foods into your usual food routine:
- Kimchi – A traditional Korean side dish made of fermented vegetables including cabbage, carrots or radishes, and mixed with seasonings such as hot pepper flakes, ginger and salt. Try adding 1-2 tablespoons on top of a stir fry, on a burger/veggie burger or in an omelet for a pungent, spicy flavor.
- Miso – A paste made from fermented soybeans, traditionally found in Japanese cuisine. It has a rich, salty flavor. Add alongside ginger to make Asian-inspired salad dressings or add 1-2 tablespoons to soup for savory flavor.
- Sauerkraut – (German for “sour cabbage”) is made from fermented cabbage, sometimes with fruits or other vegetables added. Add to sandwiches or soups, or incorporate as a side salad (similar to coleslaw) for a distinctive sour flavor.
- Tempeh – A fantastic plant-based protein option made from fermented soybeans. It has a nutty taste and also takes on flavors of a marinade or dish easily. Add to stir fry meals, crumble into soups or bake to use in wraps or salads.
- Kefir – A fermented milk beverage with a tart flavor (think yogurt, but a more drinkable consistency). Incorporate in place of milk; try in a smoothie or over a whole grain cereal.
Some of these fermented foods can be higher in sodium, so consider using in small amounts as a flavoring.
Mary Lindsey Jackson, RD, LDN, is a Clinical Nutritionist Educator for Mission Weight Management.