Fueling the Body with Fermented Foods
While seeds and nuts will continue to reign supreme as the top superfoods for 2017, registered dietitians are simultaneously singing the praises of fermented foods like cultured yogurt and sauerkraut, according to national food trend survey “What’s Trending in Nutrition.”
The survey, conducted in December 2016 by Pollock Communications and Today’s Dietitian, tapped over 1,700 dietitians across the country to predict this year’s top 10 superfoods and other food trends. The results: not only did fermented or cultured foods (at times described as an acquired taste) outrank longtime favorite leafy green kale, they came in at number four on the list.
Food trends aside, Roni Enten Vissoker, an individualized biomedical nutritionist, says the interest in fermented foods reflect a larger shift in consumers’ mindsets on the positive effects of healthy food on the human body.
“There is a growing awareness of food and medicine,” says Vissoker. “It seems like the most popular food trends really have to do with healing the body and becoming healthier, even the role of food treating certain diseases.”
Vissoker, who recommends cultured foods to several of her clients because of their profound impact on health, hopes this particular trend is here to stay.
Believe it or not, many of the products we consume on a daily basis are fermented, such as coffee and even chocolate, but not all fermented foods are created equal when it comes to their health benefits. Foods like cultured yogurt and sauerkraut go through a specific type of fermentation called “lacto-fermentation” where the sugars in the milk and cabbage are converted into lactic acid by live bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, and other lactic acid bacteria (LAB). The lactic acid that’s eventually produced is what gives cultured foods their distinct sour smell and tangy flavor, and what safely preserves them for several months. As a result of this process, probiotics, or “good” bacteria, are produced.
Extensive research has been conducted on the impact of probiotics, also referred to as “beneficial” bacteria. Several studies have shown consuming probiotic-rich foods help to balance out the one hundred trillion bacteria in our gut, which can improve digestion and treat gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea. Probiotic foods are especially valuable for boosting the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the gut, can prevent allergies from occurring, ward off infections, protect against cardiovascular diseases, and even reduce cancer risk. Perhaps the most groundbreaking research is the emerging evidence that bacteria in the gut has an effect on the brain, a concept known as the “gut-brain connection.” While more trials need to be carried out, many moodrelated and neurological conditions like depression, Parkinson’s disease, and autism have been linked with gut bacteria. A recent clinical trial, organized by researchers at Arizona State University, found that 18 children with autism all under 18 years old showed improved gastrointestinal issues and behavior after being administered a regimen of antibiotics, a bowel cleanse, and a daily fecal microbiota transplant (aka stool transplant) from a healthy donor over an eight-week period. The exploratory study, published in Microbiome, revealed the children experienced an 80 percent reduction in constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and abdominal pain, and a 20 to 25 percent improvement in social skills and sleep habits that remained improved eight weeks after treatment.
When it comes to probiotics, lacto-fermented foods offer more than just good bacteria for the gut. The lactic acid that’s produced actually enhances the nutritional value in cabbage and other vegetables; enzymes and nutrients become more accessible to the body because the cell walls have been broken down by good bacteria. According to Vissoker, other types of fermentations such as yeast and mold may or may not be as beneficial as lacto-fermented foods. She adds that people with yeast and mold sensitivities should avoid things like sourdough bread (fermented using lactic acid and wild yeasts) and miso, which is made from fermented soybeans and undergoes mold fermentation, as these foods could exacerbate health conditions.
Fermented foods that are rich in probiotics, nutrients, and enzymes include:
Yogurt — made from cow, goat, or sheep milk. A rule of thumb—look for varieties with “live and active cultures.” Cultured yogurt is high in protein and vitamins, including B12 and K, potassium, zinc, riboflavin, calcium, and phosphorus. Several Cabot Creamery yogurts are IFANCA halal-certified. For those who avoid animal products altogether, yogurt can also be made by using microorganisms to ferment coconut, almond, and soy milk.
Kefir — milk product that tastes like a drinkable yogurt, made from cow, goat, or sheep milk. Kefir contains vitamins such as B12 and K2, calcium, magnesium, biotin, folate, and enzymes.
Cheese — made from cow, goat, or sheep milk. Cheese is an excellent source of protein and calcium. A wide variety of IFANCA halal-certified cheeses are available from Cabot Creamery and Mariposa Dairy.
Sauerkraut – made from cabbage. Sauerkraut is not only high in fiber, it also contains iron, copper, calcium, manganese, magnesium, B-vitamins, and vitamins A, C, and K.
Kimchi — often made using Napa cabbage and daikon radish that gets combined with scallions, cucumber, ginger, red chili, and garlic. Similar to sauerkraut, kimchi is also high in fiber and vitamins A, B, and C and is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Pickles — made from cucumbers. Pickles are high in folates and vitamin K.
Tempeh — made from soybeans. Tempeh is a great source of protein, fiber, and vitamin B2.
Miso — made from soybeans, barley, or brown rice with koji, a fungus. Miso is high in copper, manganese, and vitamin K.
Kombucha — made from black tea and sugar. Kombucha contains B-vitamins and enzymes.
The fermentation process as a whole is one of the most ancient forms of food preservation and continues to be widely used all over the world. Cultured milk products like kefir, known for its tart taste, is a popular drink across Eastern and Northern Europe, whereas dosas, a fermented crepe or pancake made from rice batter and black lentils, are a common breakfast and street food in Southern India. One fermented product that’s become increasingly popular in the United States is kimchi, a spicy, red fermented cabbage (similar to sauerkraut) or radish dish. While kimchi is widely consumed throughout parts of Asia, it’s most associated with being a traditional Korean food staple.
Chef Wook Kang, a certified executive chef based in Chicago and an American Culinary Federation member, says he’s not entirely surprised by kimchi’s popularity as Korean food has steadily attracted more attention over the last decade. He attributes some of kimchi’s newfound status to well-known Korean chefs such as Roy Choi, co-owner and co-founder of Kogi BBQ, a Korean taco truck in Los Angeles, and David Chang, chef and founder of Momofuku in New York, who helped introduce Korean foods to mainstream audiences.
“The fact that Korean cuisine is now a very influential part of the American diner, a lot of people are familiar with what kimchi is now,” says Kang. “And because of that Korean influence Americans are now more willing to try different foods.”
Kang, who is also an assistant professor and culinary instructor at Kendall College, often enjoys serving up kimchi as an accompaniment to bibimbap, a traditional Korean mixed rice bowl, or his best-selling beet salad with pickled watermelon radish; but one of his favorite fermented foods is none other than sauerkraut.
“It can be cross utilized for so many things,” Kang adds. “I can make a soup out of it. I can make a stew out of it. I can add one to a stir fry. I can eat it cold. I can eat it warm.”
Kang says what he appreciates most about fermented foods is the fact that they can transform even a simple sandwich, adding freshness to each bite.
“I like the fact that it’s a great palate cleanser,” says Kang. “It really makes things go smoother. For instance, if I’m eating something more Indian-based or Indian-inspired, a yogurt-based sauce really balances out a lot of the heat [and] intensity of the dish.”
Both Kang and Vissoker agree that in order to reap the most health benefits from cultured foods, you may want to try making them at home, as many fermented products sold in stores are the pasteurized kind, which kills off beneficial bacteria and other important nutrients. If you’re new to fermentation, Kang stresses not to overthink the process. He suggests people start out simple by making homemade sauerkraut, a process that can potentially help people understand the foundation of fermenting. All you need is sliced cabbage, salt, and time.
“It can give a novice cook some confidence,” says Kang. “Put in the right conditions, you will not mess up at all. Ultimately, if it doesn’t look right (i.e., mold) you should trust yourself and not eat it.”
There are also many starter cultures available that can be used to make everything from cultured yogurt to kombucha, but if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge by making your own fermented products, Vissoker says to buy fermented foods from your local grocer, health store, or farmer’s market that are labeled “unpasteurized” and have “live and active cultures,” as these will provide good bacteria. Just as the fermentation process requires time, she recommends people looking to try cultured foods for the very first time to start out slow, beginning with a half cup to one cup a day, then eventually working your way up to a serving at each meal. However, those with gastro-intestinal issues should consult with their practitioner before adding fermented foods to their diet.
“You’re talking [about] a very large number of bacteria, sometimes in the trillions of units of bacteria,” Vissoker adds. “Even though it’s a good thing, it can sometimes cause some digestive side effects that are unwanted initially, such as bloating or gas, for people with unbalanced gut bacteria.”
While many of these fermented products have been around for centuries, there is still so much to learn in terms of their impact on the human body. What we do know about cultured foods is that a little goes a long way. Fermented foods are packed with healthy bacteria and other important vitamins and minerals that are essential for overall health, so it should come as no surprise that these nutrient-rich foods are well on their way to becoming a long-standing superfood of the future.
Aysha Hussain is a New York-based writer and journalist. Aysha was featured in The New York Times’ “We, Myself and I,” and her work has been published in Newsday and Muslim Girl.