You may not think of “fermented” as a terribly mouth-watering description for food, but if you’re not incorporating these delicious superfoods into your diet, you’re missing out! Fermented foods of all kinds are exploding in popularity. Why? Because they’re full of probiotics (healthy bacteria), which help keep our digestive systems, or gut, healthy. Mounting medical research is linking gut health to conditions ranging from autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis to mood disorders like depression.
With the help of Susannah Schneider, a registered dietitian at OhioHealth McConnell Heart Health Center, we’ll take a closer look at five fantastic fermented foods, some you may already be enjoying without knowing it!
Let’s start with one of the most familiar fermented foods in America: yogurt. Yogurt is dairy fermented with cultures, or bacteria. These cultures convert the lactose in milk to lactic acid, which gives yogurt its thickness and tang and also makes for a more easily digestible food for people with lactose intolerance. Yogurt is also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. You can blend yogurt into granola for breakfast, enjoy it with your favorite fruit, or use it as a lower-fat substitute in recipes that call for sour cream or buttermilk. “When choosing yogurt for yourself or for your children, one thing to watch out for is excess added sugar,” says Schneider.
This traditionally German dish of fermented cabbage is eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day or piled on top of a Reuben, but its health benefits can be enjoyed anytime.
In addition to probiotics, sauerkraut is rich with vitamins, calcium, and fiber. But, Schneider warns, watch out for excess sodium: “Even with all the health benefits of sauerkraut, it is a high-sodium food and should be eaten in moderation. It may not be appropriate for individuals on a low-sodium diet due to cardiovascular disease or renal disease.” You can also skip store-bought sauerkraut and make it on your own, which gives you the ability to control the salt. It’s easy, and there are many online resources to show you how. Cabbage, salt, water and time are all you need.
South Korea’s national dish, kimchi is similar to sauerkraut in that it’s traditionally cabbage-based (napa cabbage, that is) and fermented, but also includes a variety of other vegetables, fish sauce or fermented fish or seafood, and a paste made with spices like red chili pepper. “Kimchi is a good source of fiber and antioxidants,” says Schneider. Crunchy, spicy and healthy. And just like sauerkraut, kimchi is not difficult to make at home, a perfect set-it-and-forget-it food. You’ll find a number of how-to videos online.
Kefir is milk fermented with kefir grains. Think of a slightly carbonated yogurt smoothie (That’s why they call it “the champagne of dairy.”). The fermentation process also removes most of the lactose so it may be a healthy dairy option for lactose-intolerant folks. “Kefir is packed with more probiotics than just about any food, and is also a great source of calcium and vitamin D,” says Schneider. Kefir is found in the dairy case of most supermarkets, but just like sauerkraut and kimchi, you can purchase kefir grains and make your own kefir. Plus, the grains grow, and you can use them over and over!
That’s right, pickles! Pickled cucumbers (kirby cucumbers are the kind you’re familiar with) are fermented by the brine they’re stored in. Pickles are super easy to make, just mix water, salt and spices, pour it in a crock of kirby cucumbers and fill it to the brim, store it in a dark, room-temperature area of your house for a week and bam! “you’ve made a low-calorie snack rich in probiotics and vitamin K, just keep your eye on the sodium,” says Schneider.
If you want extra help, join us for one of our nutrition classes at OhioHealth!