As a young man, I remember my grandmother trying to give me sauerkraut for dinner once and making the worst face possible in response to which my grandmother laughed and said, “Sauerkraut is not only good, it’s good for you!” When I tell my patients about sauerkraut as a health food, they make almost that same funny face!
Recently, however, it turns out that grandma’s words were correct – sauerkraut has a surprising health benefit to it as do other fermented foods. In fact, a group of Polish women were recently studied for their rates of breast cancer. The group who ate a lot of sauerkraut had very low rates of breast cancer.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermented foods, like sauerkraut, olives, pickles, sourdough bread have been around for a long time. They were created to help food keep longer using a natural fermentation process called lacto-fermentation. In this process, beneficial lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria (the kind that live in your gut and help digest your foods) convert the starch and sugar in foods to lactic acid. The lactic acid acted as a preservative so refrigeration was not necessary and food had a long shelf life.
A surprising, little known health benefit about these fermented foods was then discovered. It seems that the same fermentation process that both preserves and gives these foods their distinctive sour-tangy taste are also higher in vitamins and actually help your digestion, remove excess saturated fats and cholesterol, and keep your digestive tract healthy and happy.
In fact, these good bacteria present in naturally fermented food have recently started popping up all over television ads and health food articles as “probiotics” which restore and maintain your intestinal flora, i.e., the level of good bacteria in your gut. In case you didn’t know this, your large intestine, the place that houses all these beneficial bacteria, is the very seat of your immune system. When your beneficial bacteria levels are optimal, you have a healthy immune system strong enough to ward off infections and other diseases.
Many fermented foods, like olives, also contain good Omega-3 fatty acids that are beneficial in reducing inflammation throughout your body.
Not All Sour Foods Are Naturally Fermented
When I tell my patients about naturally fermented superfoods, they say, great I’ll pick up some at the grocery store! However, most canned sauerkraut, pickles, greek olives on the shelves, and buttermilks, yogurts, and kefir in your dairy section of your grocery store may not have been created through a natural fermentation process and may not contain the live bacteria.
In fact, many of these grocery store varieties of sour-tasting dairy foods are pasteurized, and the canned-shelf varieties can get their sour taste through the addition of vinegar (a fermented food in itself) and/or certain preservative-grade minerals like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate added to extend shelf life.
Most have lactic acid added to them rather than it developing naturally in the fermentation process described above. However, even these grocery store varieties of “fast” fermented foods give some health benefits in addition to their vitamins, minerals, proteins, fiber, etc, just not as much as naturally fermented that contain the live culture.
Unless your local grocery store has a special section for refrigerated health foods, you likely will have to go to a health food or natural foods store to get real, naturally fermented, nonpasteurized sauerkraut, pickles, olives, kefir, buttermilk and yogurt. You can also make your own fermented foods very easily. Fermentation starter kits are available, along with directions how to ferment many foods, in health food stores and/or online.
What Fermented Foods Are Available?
Sauerkraut is perhaps the most well-known fermented food. It is a staple in German and Polish cuisine. If you’ve ever eaten Korean food, you may have eaten kimchi, fermented spicy cabbage and other vegetables, which is a staple food in Korea. Sake, a Japanese rice wine, is also a fermented food, as are all wines, red or white varieties, and most beers. You’ve also likely eaten soy sauce on your rice if you eat Chinese food, and have at least heard of tempeh, fermented soybeans. Here are some other commonly fermented foods:
➢ Pickles, olives, onions, mustard greens – Omega 3’s, promote good gut bacteria.
➢ Yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, cheese – benefit digestion and stoke the immune system.
➢ Natto – Japanese, from which nattokinase is made, beneficial to heart health as it dissolves blood clots. Contains vitamin K2 which research has proven to prevent osteoporosis and breast cancer.
➢ Miso – Japanese. Miso is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Hiroshima victims who were fed traditional Japanese miso soup in the hospitals.
➢ Coffee – research shows coffee to have strong antioxidant properties and the ability to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics.
➢ Chocolate – contains important antioxidants, as much as fruit without the sugar!
You’ve likely eaten and enjoyed fermented foods for a long time and not known what a great health benefit you were getting from them. Who knew pickles and chocolate could be health foods? Read labels carefully and make sure they say either “naturally fermented” or contain “live cultures”, or “lactobacillus acidophilus”, to be sure you are getting the most health benefit from your fermented foods. Bon appétit!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.