When most of us think of fermentation, we think of wine and beer, but fermented foods are increasingly popular and have been found to have a few surprising potential health benefits.*
The History of Fermentation
Fermentation has long been practiced as a culinary technique to preserve fruits and vegetables so as to keep the pantry full year-round, even when refrigerators, freezers, and other modern appliances didn’t exist. In many cultures, fermented foods such as kimchi are considered a staple part of the diet, allowing people to eat some foods out of season so as to carry them through the winter until next harvest.
Some estimates, based on measuring the chemical content of ancient Neolithic vessels, suggest that people began to intentionally ferment fruit, rice and honey around 10,000 years ago. Fermentation then became popular as a way of enhancing or altering the flavor and lifespan of foods such as cereals, dairy, vegetables, fish, seafood, and meats.
The Fermentation Process
In addition to keeping us fed year-round and providing us with such delicious things as miso and kimchi, fermentation has been shown more recently to have potential benefits for digestion, and even for emotional and cognitive health.*
The possible effects of fermented foods are due in part to the changes that occur in the foods during fermentation, including enriching the food with, for example, lactoferrin and bioactive peptides, and even creating new phytochemicals such as unique flavonoids.
Fermented Foods and Gut Bacteria
Fermented foods also modulate our microbiome, i.e. the bacteria that live in our bodies and that influence a number of parameters of health*. The make-up of bacteria in our gut can affect how we digest food, and can modulate immune responses and inflammation.*
Bacteria may even play a role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters that can influence appetite and mood.* Some bacteria are directly involved in the creation of neurotransmitters like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA), while others have an indirect effect on neurotransmitter synthesis.
Dietary Benefits of Fermented Foods
Some researchers have suggested the benefits seen with some ways of eating, such as the Mediterranean diet or traditional Japanese diet, may be due in part to the inclusion of fermented foods in these diets. Indeed, studies have found that traditional Japanese dietary practices (where the diet includes vegetables, mushrooms, fruit and fermented products such as tamari, miso, and other fermented soy products) have been associated with supporting emotional well-being.*
Additional research has found that fermented foods may support the body in regulating blood sugar levels already within the normal range while providing antioxidant activity to stave off oxidative damage.* They appear to help maintain the lining of the gut, supporting healthy immune and inflammatory responses and encouraging the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.*
By offering possible support for gut health, energy metabolism, and normal inflammatory responses, fermented foods certainly seem to have earned a place at the table.*
*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.