Fermented foods – are they good for our digestive health?
From kefir to kimchi, sauerkraut to sourdough – are fermented foods worth it for our health? Find out more in my article.
As we become more aware of the importance of gut health, our interest in the benefits of probiotics and fermented foods is increasing too. Check out #fermentation on Instagram, and you’ll see over 1,200,000 photos of kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi in glossy Kilner jars. But are fermented foods really good for the gut? And what about those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other frustrating digestive symptoms like bloating, where eating anything remotely unusual just seems to make things worse?
Let’s start with how foods are fermented. Covering vegetables, like cabbage, in salt water brine enables the growth of bacteria. These bacteria eat the cabbage’s natural sugars, producing lactic acid which gives a sour, tart taste. Voila, sauerkraut.
There are a lot of claims about the benefits of fermented foods, most prominently to do with probiotic or ‘good’ gut bacteria they produce. It’s true that we need probiotics to promote digestion and to support the immune system. But research studies on fermented foods are limited (besides fermented dairy, such as kefir), and the jury is out as to whether their consumption actively promotes the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Still, they are unlikely to do any harm. And of course they have that umami taste which adds another dimension to your dish.
If you have IBS or digestive symptoms like diarrhoea, wind and bloating:
If you’re on the low FODMAP diet for IBS, it can be hard to consume enough probiotics and prebiotics (‘food’ for your good bacteria) as many of the foods temporarily removed during the plan contain them. If your digestive symptoms include diarrhoea, wind or bloating, large portions of fermented foods can make you feel worse. The great news for digestion-challenged foodies is that you can experiment with fermented foods to get the probiotic effects; just take it slow. Try:
lactose-free or goat’s milk yoghurt; just check they contain live cultures
tempeh: fermented soybeans, best in a bolognaise or stirfry
miso paste: stir 1tbsp of red miso into stews and sauces for rich flavour, or whisk 1tsp of white miso into salad dressings for sweetness
spelt sourdough bread from your local artisan bakery: spelt is lower in gluten than wheat; and the fermentation process is thought to break down fructans (a FODMAP), aiding digestion
and if you really want to get on the sauerkraut train, you can even have a single tablespoon serve of white cabbage sauerkraut or kimchi – and up to ½ cup if it’s made from red cabbage
Feed those good bacteria with prebiotics from uncooked oats (Bircher muesli or overnight oats are a great way to eat this powerhouse food), slightly under-ripe bananas and small serves of higher FODMAP foods like cooked or canned beetroot (1/2 cup), butternut squash (1/3 cup) and almonds (stick to 8-10).
If you don't have any digestive problems but want to support your gut health:
If you have a happy tummy and you want to keep it that way, stick to small portions at first and build up – see you on Instagram!
This article was first published on Nutritionist Resource