Should We Add Fermented Foods to Our Diet?
We see more and more fermented food in grocery stores and markets… but there is nothing new to the concept. In fact, fermentation has been used for thousands of years to preserve food. Fermentation is defined as a controlled decomposition of one (or more) food(s) by microorganisms. More often than not, the microorganisms responsible for fermentation are bacteria, yeast or even certain types of fungi. There are tons of fermented foods, but the main ones are: sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, cheese, kombucha, miso, soya sauce, tempeh, sourdough bread, beer and wine.
Fermented foods = probiotics?
Although most fermented products contain a healthy amount of good bacteria (with the exception of foods that have been cooked and/or pasteurized), they cannot be called probiotics… Why?
In order to understand why, one must consult the definition of a probiotic:
A probiotic is a living organism (usually bacteria or yeast) that, when ingested in sufficient quantity, has a beneficial effect on the health of the host, in this case the person who eats the probiotic.
Therefore, for a food or supplement to use the term probiotic, there must have been studies showing that the consumption of the bacterial strain(s) contained in the final product has a beneficial effect. This isn’t too complicated in the case of a product that contains a single added strain, such as a yogurt. It is more complicated, however, for sauerkraut. In fact, depending on the origin of the cabbage used, the conditions of preparation, the other ingredients used, etc., the bacterial population can vary enormously from one product to another.
In addition, to have a beneficial effect on the intestinal flora, the bacteria in question must be able to reach the intestine, without being destroyed by the digestive enzymes. Thus, for probiotics in a capsule, it is ensured that the capsule dissolves at the right place in the digestive system to have a positive effect. On the other hand, we cannot ensure that the bacteria contained in fermented foods will get to the right place…
It is for this reason that the vast majority of fermented products cannot be described as being probiotic.
Is there an advantage to eating fermented products?
Although we cannot qualify all fermented products as probiotics, there are still several advantages to including them in your diet! Here are a few of them:
- In sourdough breads, the slow fermentation of the flour by the leaven makes the bread easier to digest, this can be especially helpful for people intolerant to certain wheat carbohydrates i.e. fructans.
- In sauerkraut and kimchi, fermentation of the cabbage by bacteria increases the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C.
- In yogurt, the bacteria responsible for fermentation digest lactose, which allows people who are lactose intolerant to eat it.
- In soy products (tempeh, soya sauce, miso, etc.), fermentation creates by-products that have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health and may prevent certain cancers.
- The presence of good bacteria responsible for fermentation hinders the proliferation of bad bacteria.
In addition to its health benefits, fermented products can be a great ally in the kitchen. Fermentation changes the taste and texture of foods, making them more interesting. All the more reason to include them in your diet! Note that as with legumes, if you are not used to including fermented foods in your meals, it’s best to start with small amounts to avoid annoying symptoms, such as flatulence and mild stomach pains. You can subsequently increase the quantities.
There are no known dangers in the consumption of fermented products. On the other hand, it is still necessary to ensure that fermented foods are well handled to avoid food poisoning. Fermented foods are more often than not living foods! Therefore, it is recommended that people with weakened immune systems and pregnant or breastfeeding women avoid artisanal products and consume only commercially fermented products (such as yogurt and kefir sold in grocery stores).
Another minor problem is that fermented foods, mainly vegetables, have a fairly high salt content. We must, therefore, consume them in moderation.
To answer the question “Should we add fermented foods to our diet?”, my answer is: “Absolutely!” Fermented foods can be part of a varied and balanced diet. Why not include kefir in your next smoothie or put some kimchi in your salad?
- Chilton, S. N., Burton, J. P., & Reid, G. (January 2015). Inclusion of Fermented Foods in Food Guides around the World. Nutrients, 7(1), 390–404. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu7010390
- Dennett, C. (April 2018). The Facts about Fermented Foods. Today’s Dietitian, vol.20(4).
- Probiotique. (n.d.). Dans Dictionnaire de français Larousse. Tiré de https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/probiotique/10910331
- Skokovic-Sunjic, D. (2018). Guide clinique des produits probiotiques vendus au Canada.