Fermented Foods 101

It may be as old as the hills – the history of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C. You’ve probably sampled its frothy or doughy delights – both alcohol and bread are made through yeast fermentation. Yet the exploding trend in fermented foods may have left you totally confused. What’s the difference between activated, sprouted and fermented foods? Are fermented foods really that good for you? Let’s lift the lid and see what’s brewing as we explore the modern day mystery of FERMENTATION.

First Things First – A SIMPLE Definition

This is where the magic starts to happy, when raw nuts, grains, beans and seeds are soaked just enough to activate their enzymes and wake them up in preparation to sprout. But instead of letting their little shoots grow, activated foods are rinsed, patted dry and left out to air dry for a few days.
e.g. 2Die4 Activated Walnuts, Raw Living Activated Sunseeds with Spirulina

Remember growing cress at school? Then you’re already a sprouting master. When activated foods are kept moist with fresh water, they’ll happily start to sprout. This encourages further breakdown of enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid, meaning you get more nutrients in each mouthful.
e.g. Sun&Seed Raw Organic Sprouted Sunflower Seeds, Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Wholegrain Cereal

Whether immersed in salt, whey, or a starter culture, all fermented vegetables need to be closely packed for their long soak. This inhibits the growth of oxygen-loving organisms and promotes the growth of anaerobic Lactobacilli, natural bacteria which feed on the carbohydrates in the vegetables and thrive in a salty environment. These bacteria are the good guys, probiotics that support digestion. Eat a small amount of fermented food each day – veg, grains, milk, nuts or seeds – to give your tummy some love.
e.g Biotiful Kefir, Laurie’s Original Sauerkraut, Clearspring Fermented Barley Miso

Why All The Hoo-Hah?

Unlike yeast fermentation that produces wine, beer and bread, we’re actually talking about bacterial fermentation, lacto fermentation specifically, which produces heaps of Lactobacilli bacteria. Remember learning about Louis Pasteur, the daddy of pasteurisation? Then you’ll recall how, in 1862, he proposed the idea of germ theory, pinpointing bacteria as the culprits behind decay and disease. With lacto-fermentation we’re heading in the opposite direction; encouraging bacterial growth on foods, not to spoil them, but to enhance their nutritive qualities.

For starters, larger more complex sugars are partly digested during fermentation, meaning they’re easier for us to digest. That’s why some people who have difficulty digesting the lactose sugar in milk get on much better with fermented dairy foods like yogurt, cheese and kefir. Also, vitamins and minerals become generally more bio-available, and bacteria manufacture even more to add to the mix – particularly the B vitamins and vitamin K.

But how do you know the end result is a functional food which benefits your health, and not just a pot of pickles? Let’s take a look at the research.

Recent Studies

Study 1:
Eating fresh and fermented kimchi improves markers of prediabetes
During this 16 week study, researchers found that participants with prediabetes decreased body weight, BMI, and waist circumference when they ate kimchi everyday. Other benefits recorded included significantly decreased insulin resistance, increased sensitivity to insulin, and a drop in blood pressure. What’s more, these health gains were more common in the group fed a 10-day-old fermented pickle, compared to those eating 1-day old fresh kimchi – 1 in 3 people vs 1 in 10.
[An et al, 2013, ‘Beneficial effects of fresh and fermented kimchi in prediabetic individuals.’]

Study 2:
Kimchi improves blood fats in healthy young adults
In this 7 day feeding experiment involving 100 healthy volunteers, researchers found that eating a portion of fermented kimchi everyday resulted in a significant drop in fasting blood glucose, total blood glucose, total cholesterol, and levels of the unhealthier LDL-cholesterol. While changes in fasting blood glucose levels were more significant in those eating a larger 210g portion, eating a tiny 15g serving still gave benefits. In general, these positive effects were greater in those with a higher total cholesterol and LDL-C, over 190 and 130mg/dL respectively.
[Choi et al, 2013, ‘Kimchi, a fermented vegetable, improves serum lipid profiles in healthy young adults: randomized clinical trial.’]

Study 3:
Drinking kefir decreases bacteria which drive tooth decay
A small-scale study found drinking 100ml of kefir everyday was as effective as a traditional sodium fluoride mouthrinse at controlling levels of mutans streptococci (MS) – a bacteria found in the mouth that contributes significantly to tooth decay.
[Ghasempour, et al, 2014 ‘Comparative study of Kefir yogurt-drink and sodium fluoride mouth rinse on salivary mutans streptococci.’]

Study 4:
Regular consumption of kefir improves chronic constipation
In a Turkish pilot study exploring the effects of kefir on bowel health, researchers found those drinking 500ml of kefir each day for 4 weeks had more frequent, less strained bowel movements, and reduced their use of laxatives.
[Turan, et al, 2014, ‘Effects of a kefir supplement on symptoms, colonic transit, and bowel satisfaction score in patients with chronic constipation: a pilot study.’]

Would you ever have guessed that spicy cabbage and soured milk could bring such a benefit to your everyday health?


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Over to you

Do you regularly eat fermented foods? Have you got a tried-and tested recipe that you can’t wait to share?

I’m all ears!

I really love hearing of what’s on your plate, especially when you offer to share with others in the Nutrition with Nina community, so thanks for taking the time to add your comments below.

Until next time,



1 Comment

  1. […] Read here for more on fermentation, and how foods like sauerkraut and kimchi can reinforce your dige… […]

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