Cultures from all around the world have been using fermented foods in their diet since the beginning of agriculture. As researchers continue to uncover evidence of their beneficial effects, their popularity is spreading around the globe. Here’s a list of eight fermented foods you can feed your microbiome with today.
The health of our microbiome, the home to trillions of bacteria, depends on everything we do—from the food we eat and the water we drink, to what we wash our clothes and clean our houses with. The amount of genes these bacteria have when combined is almost 200 times more than we, humans, do. Making sure we have more “good” bacteria than “bad” and feeding them the right way is the key to optimal health.
Each person’s microbiome is completely different, and therefore, finding out what works best for you is a game of experimenting. One way we do know we can make an impact is by including foods rich in fiber (prebiotics) as they’re the food to our bacteria, by supplementing with additional bacteria (probiotics), and by adding fermented foods to our diet.
Fermentation is a metabolic process that uses naturally occurring bacteria to preserve, stabilize, and transform certain food materials. Back in the day, famine was one of our ancestors’ worst fears; to make sure they had enough food to survive, they needed to get creative and experiment. Luckily, fermentation proved to be the best possible way to do it, and it also brought incredible benefits to our gut health along the way.
No, it’s not a fad or a “yoga trend”; kombucha is really one of the best fermented foods you could add to your diet. We can actually thank the influencers of the world for bringing it to our attention, as this is one of those new “IT items” we can actually benefit from.
Kombucha is made with black or green tea, sugar (any will do, but better if it’s a less refined sugar like honey, coconut sugar, or fructose), yeast, and a culture of bacteria. Researchers all over the world are finding great results from their experiments and tests: The “good” bacteria in kombucha supposedly aids in lowering inflammation, helps with bloating, improves digestion, and alleviates most IBS symptoms.
Beware of one thing though: As with everything that gets widely popular, there will always be products labeled as something healthy—but when you carefully look at them, you find they’re packed with a bunch of additional stuff that isn’t as great for our bodies. Always check the label to see if the product has any additional hidden sugars, artificial flavors, colorings, fillers, or other unnecessary additives.
Sauerkraut—literally “sour cabbage” in German—has been a staple in most European diets for over 2,000 years. There’s actually historical evidence of its use in China during the building of the Great Wall of China, and that’s how it’s believed Genghis Khan brought it to Europe.
Made by a process of pickling finely shredded cabbage, it’s one of the easiest fermented foods to make at home. Lactic acid bacteria that start cultivating isn’t the only reason this food is so amazing for our gut health; it’s also full of fiber and vitamins which, when combined, create a real superfood!
Who knew food most Americans would consider just a condiment heaped on bratwursts at summer cookouts could be so good for you?
This well-known fermented drink is made from cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk and what are known as kefir “grains”—a specific type of yeast and cultures that clumps together in a way that looks like cooked grains, thus the name. It’s also been consumed for its health benefits for thousands of years, and it tastes and looks similar to yogurt (just a bit less creamy). If you’re pondering that flavor profile, think of the taste like a cross between regular milk and the tang/bite of plain Greek yogurt.
In addition to being a great source of probiotics, kefir’s pretty rich in vitamins and minerals, so including it in your diet supplies you with a whole bunch of nutrients, such as Vitamin K2, B12, biotin, magnesium, folate, and calcium. Because it has a slightly carbonated texture, pairing it with savory foods will do better than trying to sweeten it up. Everybody’s microbiome is different, though, so try experimenting and find out what works best for you.
Similar to kefir, yogurt is made by fermenting cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk, and even plant-based “mylks”! Yes, you read that correctly: You can be vegan or lactose-intolerant and STILL consume yogurt! The lactic bacteria turn lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid and create that well-known creamy and tangy taste.
Widely used all over the world, yogurts are a staple in various cuisines. They’re finding their way into our kitchens for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even as a snack option (especially with some granola and honey on top!).
As with kombucha, make sure to read the label and avoid added sugars, hidden artificial ingredients, colorings, E-numbers, and other ingredients that aren’t supposed to be there. Yogurt is fantastically healthy food, but not if half the serving is essentially strawberry jam or the like.
This spicy, traditional Korean fermented food is one of their most prized culinary inventions, as they add it to almost every dish and sometimes consume it with every meal. Kimchi is made by pickling all sorts of vegetables, from cabbage and beets to carrots and radishes, and adding a bunch of spices.
There are hundreds of different varieties depending on the vegetable and spice mix, so although trying them all would be near to impossible, check out your local health food or Korean store and discover your favorite kind. Because kimchi is so versatile, so is its nutritional profile. Depending on what a certain kimchi is made of, you can get all sorts of different vitamins and minerals added to the mix. Do your research and experiment!
One of the most popular Japanese foods, natto is a sticky dish with a strong smell made from fermented soybeans—if you assume, based on that description, it’s an acquired taste, you’d be correct. But when it comes to nurtients, it’s a real powerhouse. Not only does a 100-gram serving contain a fifth of your recommended calcium intake, natto is also packed with vitamin K2—one of the rare ways you can get the vitamin from plants.
Traditionally, natto was prepared by boiling and wrapping the soybeans in rice straw because straw naturally contains the bacteria Bacillus subtilis that’s needed to make natto. Today, it’s typically prepared in a more efficient factory-fashion.
The Japanese eat it with soy sauce, mustard, rice, eggs—you name it! They adore its strong flavor and slimy texture and use it to improve digestion of other foods, lower blood sugar, and speed up metabolism. Try finding it in a specialized Japanese store or Asian market, and read the label for any hidden ingredients that may be lurking within.
Another traditional Japanese staple, miso is a fermented paste made by combining soybeans with a mold called “koji” that’s cultivated from rice, barley, or even soybeans themselves. Miso dates all the way back to the seventh century when Emperor Mommu in 701 even established a way to regulate its production, trade, and taxation.
Today, it’s widely known in Japanese cuisine because it gives that unique “umami” flavor, and it’s making is even considered an art form. In addition to probiotic properties, miso packs a whole lot of antioxidants that researchers show help fight free radicals and are, therefore, a great addition to everyone’s diet.
Last, but not least, sourdough has been known for ages. Only recently has it gained popularity and started showing up in artisanal bakeries and as the best basic ingredient of the generation X “holy grail,” the avocado toast.
Made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria and yeast, sourdough places better on the glycemic index scale (a scale that measures the impact of food on our glucose reaction and insulin levels), and depending on the flour it’s made with, can have more fiber than regular bread.
You can find it in almost every store, bakery, or farmer’s market, but you can also learn how to make it at home and wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread.
There’s a reason why fermented foods had been cultivated in the early ages, but there’s a much bigger reason why they’re still being cultivated today—eating them makes us feel good. Whether we’re aware of them or not, their incredible gut-healing properties are hard to ignore.
Here we’ve tackled only a few of the most popular ones you can easily find in your neighborhood or the farmer’s market. A quick Google search will help you discover hundreds of fermented foods from all over the world. Even if you start using just one, know you’re doing wonders for your health, feeding your microbiome, and improving your overall well-being.