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The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Ziryan Aziz reports on the health benefits linked to the consumption of fermented food and drinks.

Photo by Dina Light


Recorded to go as far back as 7000 BC, the process of fermentation is an efficient and effective method to extend the shelf life of our food. A method used by cultures and peoples across the world, fermentation not only allows humans to store perishable dairy, meats, cheeses, and vegetables for longer durations, but it also comes with a spectrum of health benefits that have only recently received scientific attention.


What is fermentation?

The expansive-global food supply system means it’s now easier than ever to purchase off-season goods in the UK, such as winter strawberries from Egypt, and tomatoes from Spain. Relative to how we live today, most people have historically relied on preserving their food using fermentation to carry them through periods of food scarcity, like winters and on long journeys via marine trade networks.


So, what can be fermented? All food groups can be fermented. For example, milk can be converted into cheese, vegetables can be pickled, and meats and fish can be cured. Even grains can be made into beer and sourdough, which has a reduced likelihood of mold growth which is perfect for a longer lasting loaf. Fruits can be dried, stored in fermenting syrups, or made into beverages like wine.


The list of possible fermented food and drinks is in the thousands: they all help to increase the specific food’s longevity. The process of fermentation is very simple, involving an anaerobic process where microorganisms like bacteria, yeast or fungi convert organic compounds such as starch and sugars, into alcohol and organic acids.


These acids act as a natural preservative that slows down the process of spoilage. It also gives the food that unique zesty taste and texture that fermented products are known for and promotes beneficial enzymes, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as other species of good bacteria.



The Health Benefits?


The following are some of the health benefits associated with fermenting food and drinks:



1. A Source of Probiotics


Fermented foods like yogurts, pickles, sourdough bread, and some cheeses can contain a natural number of probiotic bacteria. Probiotic cultures help to restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Bacteria, viruses, and eukaryotes in the gut have been shown to interact with one and other, and with the immune system, influencing the development of disease. With the addition of probiotics, some studies have shown them to be generally beneficial in the prevention and treatment for gastrointestinal diseases. Other studies have linked probiotics to reducing the duration of illness in adults and children.


2. Assisting Digestion

During fermentation naturally present sugars and starches are broken down which can aid digestion. For example, when making cheese, lactose in the milk is broken down into simple sugars like glucose and galactose, which makes cheese much easier to digest for those who are lactose intolerant.



3. Improving Health and Availability of Nutrients

Fermentation can increase the volume of minerals and vitamins available to our bodies for absorption and eliminates antinutrients. In cereals and legumes there is a naturally high concentration of antinutritional compounds such as phytic acid, tannins, lectins, and other enzyme inhibitors, for example. Studies have shown that roughly half of humans globally are malnourished of micronutrients, especially in developing countries where there exist major health problems associated with zinc and iron deficiencies. A significant antinutrient such as Phytic acid is a food inhibitor, which prevents micronutrients from being available to humans, but also in animals such as dogs, chickens, and pigs. These antinutrient substances interfere with digestibility of proteins and carbohydrates, reducing the nutritional value of food. Fermentation can eliminate these antinutrients. For example, whole wheat bread, which when including varying amounts of sourdough has seen a reduction of phytate content by up to 97%. Other plant-based foods see improved mineral solubility when fermented (See Table 2. here).



4. Better Heart Health

Studies have shown that consuming the probiotics found in fermented foods can have a modest impact on improving your blood pressure, when consumed regularly over a long period. Fermented dairy products have been identified as having beneficial effects on cholesterol levels – especially yogurts. Other studies involving soy protein – a fermented product used in tofu, miso, tempeh, natto, etcetera - have shown a decrease in bad cholesterol levels when consumed. However, more research is needed to confirm benefits associated with cardiovascular health.



5. Psychological Benefits

Certain strains of probiotic cultures like Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 – commonly found in fermented food like certain cheeses and dairy products – have been shown to have a anxiety reducing effect, and produce psychological benefits in animal and human studies. Furthermore, studies have shown that consuming probiotic rich foods can have positive effects on depression, particularly in men.



Concluding Comments


Introducing fermented food and drinks into your diet is a great way to not only broaden your palate with new zesty, fresh and colourful flavours, but also reap the health benefits of the probiotic cultures, greater bioavailability, and nutritional properties. Whilst more research is severely needed on the wide range of health benefits attributed to fermented food and drink, the functionality and increased shelf life of fermented goods is one of the reasons why this tradition of food preparation has been passed down through the generations for thousands of years.

Similar: The Health Benefits of Whole Grains

 

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