Naturally fermented foods contain a multitude of friendly bacteria (aka probiotics) that your body needs to thrive.
Not only that, but fermented foods also add a wonderful, tangy flavor that can take your food from just okay to “Wowza! that’s good.”
Add some kraut to your salads or try fermented veggies on your next appetizer tray. You could even mix some coconut yogurt (or Greek yogurt if you tolerate dairy) into your smoothies or overnight oats.
(Sorry, even though alcoholic beverages are fermented, they don’t count). The alcohol and acids used to ferment those drinks make it nearly impossible for good bacteria to thrive—bummer for us wine lovers, I know.
Fact Check: Is It a Real Fermented Food?
When I was young, I used to detest sauerkraut. But little did I know, I wasn’t eating real sauerkraut.
With steely black hair and Russian roots, my mom’s mom was madly in love with her husband, my mom’s German dad, thus learned how to make his favorite German dish, called knoephla. Knoephla is basically a dumpling made from white flour and milk, sometimes served in soup.
It’s gluten-and-dairy-carb-city, and as her version didn’t contain any spices or flavoring, it tasted like flour paste to me. Even as a kid, I knew I didn’t like it. I was apparently destined to become a health coach.
My grandmother was a whiz at canning cucumbers with fresh dill, so dinner was usually pickles, knoephla with sauerkraut, and Tang. Remember Tang? That orange drink invented by Germans that became popular in the U.S. when NASA used it on spaceflights?
Tang was my grandmother’s way of showing us that she loved us—it did contain vitamin C, along with a whopping 29 grams of sugar per serving. As a result, my cousins, my sisters, and I were bouncing off the playset in the backyard while she made the knoephla.
Like Tang, food companies started making convenience foods, and my grandmother’s sauerkraut came in a can. Here’s what she didn’t know: It was just cabbage soaked in vinegar with preservatives made to taste like real sauerkraut.
Real sauerkraut is fermented—lacto-fermented, to be exact—and contains loads of healthy bacteria that keep your gut balanced. Once the canned stuff came out, my grandmother, along with women around the world, stopped making the real versions of fermented foods.
Over the next few decades and into the 1990s, the rates of chronic diseases skyrocketed. It’s not my grandmother’s or her generation’s fault, it’s simply the side effect of overconsuming highly processed food replacements.
Real Fermented Foods
The good news is that real sauerkraut is actually delicious, inexpensive, and almost ridiculously simple to make yourself at home with my sauerkraut recipe. You just need cabbage, salt, spices if you want them, a mason jar, and some counter space.
You can also buy fermented veggies. Just remember that the real thing will always need refrigeration at the store. Read the label and make sure they are fermented, not just simply canned in vinegar.
The fermentation process gives foods a naturally tangy bite, which from a culinary perspective adds flavor and interest to your dish while also cutting heavy, fatty flavors. That’s why you’ll usually see some type of pickle on a burger.
Fermentation happens when beneficial bacteria produce enzymes that begin to break down the starches and sugar in your food.
What is the purpose of fermentation? Fermentation makes food more nutritious, allows positive bacterial colonies to grow inside, and increases its shelf life. It also produces a delicious tangy taste and plenty of amino acids.
What is the difference between a pickled vegetable and a fermented vegetable? Fermented foods are tangy because of lacto-fermentation, while pickled vegetables are soaked in vinegar. Fermentation adds far more health benefits than pickling.
Fermented pickles are making a comeback, which is good news for your gut health—give them a try and enjoy the flavor along with the natural probiotics. Remember, you can find them in the grocery store’s refrigerated section with the other fermented products.
But pickles and sauerkraut are far from the only fermented foods out there. You might be surprised at how many foods full of microbial colonies there are!
Health Benefits of Fermenting Foods
Fermented foods are not just tasty but good for you. The lactic acid bacteria that provide the fermentation process are full of benefits, particularly for your gastrointestinal system.
Fermented foods are packed with health benefits, with their beneficial bacteria providing:
- Weight loss benefits, combating bloating and obesity
- Antioxidants, such as polyphenols and vitamin E
- Improved digestive health
- Strengthened immune system
- A more diverse array of gut bacteria, which has many benefits
- A way to restore the gut microbiome after antibiotics
- Cardiovascular benefits, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure
These tiny microbes are complemented by prebiotics. Prebiotics are whole foods full of healthy carbs and fiber that good microbiota love to eat. Try asparagus, bananas, or apples to incorporate prebiotics into your diet.
9 Examples of Naturally Fermented Foods
It can be hard to tell which foods have the microorganisms you need to strengthen your digestive and immune systems.
What fermented foods are good for gut health? The best fermented foods for gut health are:
- Kimchi. These are traditional Korean-style fermented veggies.
- Sauerkraut. Not the fake canned kind, but the natural, fermented stuff. It’s also naturally high in vitamins and calcium.
- Pickles. Again, not mass processed, but naturally fermented ones.
- Fermented veggies. Any kind of vegetable is great, such as pickled red onions or radishes made from the lactic acid fermentation process instead of simply being soaked in vinegar.
- Apple cider vinegar. Buy this fermented ingredient raw and unpasteurized for maximum benefits. The Bragg brand is a great choice.
- Kefir. Try this fermented beverage made from kefir grains. You can get it either coconut-based or milk-based if you tolerate dairy products.
- Greek or Icelandic yogurt. These are good choices if you tolerate dairy. Be sure to get them unsweetened or choose a variety that is low in sugar. I like the Siggi’s brand.
- Homemade coconut yogurt. This is an excellent option if you’re dairy-free. Find my recipe for coconut yogurt here.
- Kombucha tea. This popular drink made with fermented tea generally doesn’t contain high amounts of probiotics and usually contains added sugar. Choose no-sugar-added black tea kombucha for an occasional treat, but don’t rely on it as your primary source of probiotics.
These are the healthiest ways to get the probiotics that your body craves. However, there are other surprising fermented foods like miso soup, soy sauce, and sourdough bread starter. Don’t forget Asian dishes tempeh and natto, both made with fermented soybeans.
Incorporating Fermented Foods
There are three ways to incorporate a daily probiotic dose into your eating habits: buying or making fermented foods or supplementing with a probiotic. Why not try all 3?
Buying Fermented Foods
Purchase fermented foods to add to your fridge. As I mentioned before, real fermented foods are found only in the refrigerated section of your store. Look for raw (unpasteurized) and read about the company before choosing your product.
These days, it’s easy to find things like fermented “krauts,” fermented veggies, or kefir at the grocery store. Like all of the foods you purchase, be mindful of added sugars and don’t heat fermented foods, as the heat can kill the good bacteria. Enjoy them raw!
Making Fermented Foods
Make your own fermented foods at home. The process of lactic acid fermentation turns seemingly plain veggies like cabbage and cucumbers into deliciously tangy and nutritious foods like sauerkraut and pickles.
Homemade sauerkraut is one of the easiest and cheapest things you can make at home. You can also make your own yogurt at home, or two-ingredient coconut yogurt if you prefer dairy-free like me.
Take a high-quality probiotic supplement. If you find it challenging to incorporate fermented foods into your daily meal plan, or just want extra probiotics, a high-quality probiotic supplement can help.
Look for a dairy-free, no-sugar-added probiotic that contains at least 10 billion to 15 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) at the time of manufacture. Bonus points for one that contains lactobacillus.
I eat fermented foods as often as I can, but I’ll admit I don’t find a way to incorporate them every single day. I do take a probiotic supplement every day when I take my multivitamin.
What are your favorite probiotic foods? Let me know in the comments!
- Related actions of probiotics and antibiotics on gut microbiota and weight modification
- Probiotics and Gastrointestinal Conditions: An Overview of Evidence from the Cochrane Collaboration
- Effectiveness of probiotics on the duration of illness in healthy children and adults who develop common acute respiratory infectious conditions: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- The gut microbiome: Relationships with disease and opportunities for therapy
- Can probiotic yogurt prevent diarrhoea in children on antibiotics? A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study
- Cardiovascular benefits of probiotics: a review of experimental and clinical studies