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Fermented foods for a healthy gut

Fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi are the new superfoods, and rightly so. But they’ve actually been popular across cultures for centuries as a way to preserve food and drinks before there was refrigeration.

How are foods ‘fermented’?

Fermentation is a process where bacteria, yeast or fungi break down and convert the sugars and starch in the food to lactic acid. The acidic environment created by lactic acid acts as a natural preservative and also encourages acidic-loving bacteria to flourish. It’s a process used time and again to produce bread, wine, beer, chocolate, coffee, tea and yogurt.

In the case of vegetables, the process begins by chopping them up and squeezing them with salt to create a brine. Vegetables contain bacteria and once in this briny solution, the bacteria digest sugar and starch and proliferate. Where the real benefit comes in is that the bacteria includes some of the strains of beneficial bacteria found in our gut; Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. We call these bacteria probiotic bacteria.

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What are the benefits of eating fermented food?

Because these bacteria favour an acid environment, they are more likely to withstand the journey through our digestive tract to the colon and once there, they colonise and convey many health benefits. Just a few of these benefits include improving digestion, boosting immunity, maintaining a healthy weight and optimising cognitive function. This means that by eating fermented foods you are adding to the number and variety of beneficial bacteria in your gut, improving the health of your microbiome.

A healthy microbiome reduces the risk of leaky gut syndrome, allergies and intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome and other autoimmune conditions. You synthesise more vitamin B and K and as the beneficial bacteria proliferate, they crowd out harmful bacteria all of which is good for your energy.

Where do I get fermented foods from?

Fermented foods are easy to make yourself using cabbage, carrots, beetroot, radishes or apples. You’ll need salt, water and a sterilised jar. Kefir can be made with dairy milk or a dairy-free alternative and kefir grains or kefir powder and a sterilised spoon and jar.

Foods are widely available in the shops. If you do buy from a supermarket, make sure the product has not been heat treated and pasteurised; this renders the bacteria inactive. This is typically the product found on a shelf so go for the one in the fridge. Once home, keep it in the fridge. Also take care choosing yogurt and kombucha which can be heavily sweetened.

The fermented foods listed below contain an array of strains of probiotic bacteria and as many of the foods are vegetable based, they are a great way for vegans to improve their gut health.

Kefir

A cultured, fermented milk drink which originates from the mountainous region between Asia and Europe. It has a tangy taste a similar to yogurt but contains multiple strains of bacteria.

Fermentation makes it easier to digest, even by people who are lactose intolerant. It’s high in vitamins B2, B12, folate, calcium and magnesium.

Kimchi

A spicy fermented vegetable dish from Korea. It can be made with cabbage or other vegetables such as carrot, kohlrabi, green bean, onion or scallion and spiced up with garlic, ginger and Korean red pepper. This makes it a good source of vitamin A, B1, B2, C, iron, calcium and magnesium.

Kombucha

An ancient drink with a slight fizz that originated in China over 2000 years ago. Green or black tea is fermented with vinegar, bacteria and yeast. It is often found flavoured with herbs or fruit. Studies suggest that the drink has antimicrobial (fighting off e-coli and staphylococcus bacteria), antioxidant, anti-cancer and ant-diabetic properties. It contains polyphenols and B vitamins.

Lassi

A yogurt or buttermilk-based drink blended with water, spices and sometimes fruit from India. It can be sweet or savoury.

Miso

Originating from Japan, it is a thick paste made by fermenting soybeans and brown rice or barley with a fungus called koji. It is often added to soups to thicken or add the great umami flavour. It’s found in refrigerated section in supermarkets. It is rich in vitamins B, E and K, folic acid as well as beneficial bacteria. Miso made using whole grain is healthier than hulled grains. It is also high in sodium (salt).

Natto

A traditional Japanese food, often eaten for breakfast and combined with soy sauce. It is made by boiling soybeans, then fermenting them with the bacteria bacillus subtilis. It is very nutritious as a good source of protein, fibre, and micronutrients including iron, copper manganese, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium and vitamin C as well as probiotics.

Sauerkraut

With roots in Germany, Russia and China, sauerkraut (aka “sour cabbage”) is prepared by mixing cabbage with salt, then adding water. It provides a healthy dose of bacteria as well as fibre, Vitamins A, B C, and K, iron potassium, calcium and a host of other minerals. It is very easy to make and widely available to buy.

Tempeh

This Indonesian dish is made by fermenting whole soybeans in banana leaves until it forms a cake-like patty. Its texture and nutty flavour make it a popular meat alternative with vegans. There is more protein, fibre and B vitamins plus health benefits than unfermented tofu.

Yogurt

A semi-solid sour tasting food made by fermenting milk. It is probably the most popular fermented product found in nearly every culture around the world. It is an excellent source of protein, calcium, potassium, zinc and vitamins B6 and B12. Traditionally made using dairy milk from cows, sheep and goats, more recently vegan versions have become available using nut, coconut, soy and hemp milk. Shop bought brands can be highly sweetened and processed so choose live, plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

Learn more about nutrition in my best-selling book ‘How to Prevent Burnout’ and my latest book, Life Force. The revolutionary 7-step plan for optimum energy’.

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