Photo Credit: by @ironfan.tiffany
If you’re a kimchi or kombucha lover, you’re in for some good news. These unique and tangy foods are loved around the world for their distinctive flavor, but it turns out they may offer some health benefits, too.
Fermented foods contain “live cultures” that may have a healing or positive effect on your gut, which has a complex microbiome of bacteria living inside it to keep things healthy and moving. In many cases, bacteria cause infection or disease, but the right bacteria in the right context are actually a vital part of life and the homeostasis of the human body. Bacteria in the gut is a delicate balance: you don’t want too much or too little of the beneficial types of bacteria.
Scientists are now linking the gut (and its bacteria, which can be affected by fermented foods) to effects such as lowering hypertension, weight loss, and improved immunity and digestion. Want to learn more about the potential health benefits of fermented food? Read on.
What is fermented food?
Fermented food is food that has undergone the process of fermentation, a type of food processing technique. Fermentation is actually an ancient method of preserving food. Fermentation happens when bacteria and yeast break down carbs like starch and sugar. In other words, fermentation is a process of controlled microbial growth.
Bacteria and yeast are actually microorganisms that interact with the food and remain with them throughout the fermentation process. When you eat fermented food, you also consume these “live” organisms. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear fermented foods referred to as containing “live cultures.”
Fermented foods are popular in various cultures around the world. Some of the most commonly eaten fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, miso, kombucha, yogurt, sourdough, and some types of cheese. Even beer is fermented!
You can tell that a food has been fermented because it has a certain taste or smell or has undergone the fermentation process. Typically, fermented foods taste and smell both sour and salty. They have a pleasant taste to them: it’s a bit tangy with a complex sour and salty flavor that tastes or smells sour without being repelling.
Food like pickles and kraut that are fermented will be crisp or crunchy. That signature tang of sour and savory, which makes such foods distinctive, is why so many people love fermented foods. It’s a unique and complex flavor.
Is kimchi good for you? Health benefits of fermented food
Best of all, fermented food doesn’t just taste good. Studies are revealing that there may be health benefits involved, too. This makes sense since humans have been fermenting food for quite a long time!
The main draw of fermented foods is that they are packed with probiotics, which is especially good for boosting digestion. These live organisms that go to work to complete the fermentation process can also have a healing effect on your gut.
However, modern studies are revealing that fermented foods may be able to offer additional benefits like reducing your risk of heart disease and aiding in digestion, immunity, and weight loss. Scientists are also linking gut bacteria (and thus fermented foods) to hypertension, or high blood pressure.
MedicalNewsToday shares about a recent study that linked blood pressure to gut bacteria. The article states, “They found that in the participants with prehypertension or hypertension, there was a reduction in the diversity of gut bacteria. In particular, species such as Prevotella and Klebsiella tended to be overgrown.”
An article in the Boston Globe titled MIT researchers discover that probiotic could be used to fight high blood pressure states, “Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they may one day have a new treatment for high blood pressure that focuses on what might seem an unlikely place — your stomach. The researchers say laboratory tests show that a probiotic can boost beneficial bacteria in the human gut that prevent pro-inflammatory immune cells from increasing in number … The pro-inflammatory immune cells have been linked with hypertension, the university said, although the exact mechanism is not known.”
Supporting that idea, Harvard Medical School states: “So far, the evidence that foods and drinks rich in good bacteria can improve cardiovascular health is promising but limited.” In other words, so far the science looks positive, but it’s too soon to know for sure what the links between bacteria-rich foods and better heart health might be.
Those who take blood pressure medications, whether calcium and beta blockers like Bystolic or an angiotensin receptor blocker like Cozaar, may be thrilled by the possibility of fermented foods having the power to fight high blood pressure. However, it’s important to remember that you should never change your medication or prescription regimen without consulting your doctor first. There may be other factors at play, and you should always rely on the advice of your medical professional before making any changes or decisions.
Still, if you want to add more fermented foods into your diet, you can start with a glass of kefir or a serving of healthy yogurt in the morning (buy it plain and sweeten it yourself with fruit or honey!) and occasional servings of kimchi, kombucha, miso soup, tempeh, and fermented cheese.
Best fermented food recipes: easy kimchi recipe to make at home
Fermenting food is relatively easy to do at home and so it has grown in popularity in recent years, especially during the pandemic when people are spending more time at home.
Did you know that the “fermented” foods you find on grocery store shelves often aren’t fermented, they’re just made with vinegar? Fermented foods have to be refrigerated. Those that are on the shelf outside of refrigeration are typically boiled to kill the bacteria in order to make them shelf-stable (like a jar of pickles or sauerkraut), which means they lose their health benefits. That’s why it’s a good idea to ferment your own foods at home.
Plus, when fermenting vegetables yourself, you can customize the flavor to your liking by varying the ingredients, the length of the fermentation, and the amount of salt you use.
Want to make about 1 quart of cabbage kimchi with a prep time of just 30 to 45 minutes? Recipe website
Supporting that idea, Kitchn shares a recipe for how to make kimchi at home:
1 medium head napa cabbage (about 2 pounds)
1/4 cup iodine-free sea salt or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
Water, preferably distilled or filtered
1 tablespoon grated garlic (5 to 6 cloves)
1 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 tablepoons fish sauce or salted shrimp paste, or 3 tablespoons water
1 to 5 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
8 ounces Korean radish or daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks
4 medium scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Cutting board and knife
Gloves (optional but highly recommended)
Plate and something to weigh the kimchi down, like a jar or can of beans
Clean 1-quart jar with canning lid or plastic lid
Bowl or plate to place under jar during fermentation
* Cut the cabbage. Cut the cabbage lengthwise through the stem into quarters. Cut the cores from each piece. Cut each quarter crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips.
* Salt the cabbage. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Using your hands, massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit. Add enough water to cover the cabbage. Put a plate on top of the cabbage and weigh it down with something heavy, like a jar or can of beans. Let stand for 1 to 2 hours.
* Rinse and drain the cabbage. Rinse the cabbage under cold water 3 times. Set aside to drain in a colander for 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the spice paste.
* Make the spice paste. Rinse and dry the bowl you used for salting. Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, and fish sauce, shrimp paste, or water and stir into a smooth paste. Stir in the gochugaru, using 1 tablespoon for mild and up to 5 tablespoons for spicy (I like about 3 1/2 tablespoons); set aside until the cabbage is ready.
* Combine the vegetables and spice paste. Gently squeeze any remaining water from the cabbage and add it to the spice paste. Add the radish and scallions.
* Mix thoroughly. Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. The gloves are optional here but highly recommended to protect your hands from stings, stains, and smells!
* Pack the kimchi into the jar. Pack the kimchi into a 1-quart jar. Press down on the kimchi until the brine (the liquid that comes out) rises to cover the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of space at the top. Seal the jar.
* Let it ferment for 1 to 5 days. Place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow. Let the jar stand at cool room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 1 to 5 days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid.
* Check it daily and refrigerate when ready. Check the kimchi once a day, opening the jar and pressing down on the vegetables with a clean finger or spoon to keep them submerged under the brine. (This also releases gases produced during fermentation.) Taste a little at this point, too! When the kimchi tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. You may eat it right away, but it's best after another week or two.”
You can apply similar techniques to other vegetables if you want to expand your fermentation skills.
Fermenting is typically a very safe and easy process. But how do you know if a fermented food has gone bad somehow or you shouldn’t eat it? Fermented foods can be confusing because the fermentation process is natural and healthy, but other rotting processes that are similar are not desirable. Fermented foods should never be moldy or fuzzy. Jarred items like pickles or sauerkraut should not be mushy but crisp and crunchy.
If you are fermenting something in a jar, there will be pent-up gasses that emit a strong odor when you remove the lid. The smell will dissipate. It should smell sour and salty, but not nauseating. If a fermented food smells putrid or rotten, or repels you, it’s likely bad. If your nose or stomach tell you “no,” you should listen to them!
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