Fermented food has made a comeback in recent years, partially thanks to the popularization of Weston A. Price teachings. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi aren’t considered to be the most appealing types of food; however, research exploring these and other fermented products on gut, brain, and body health has revitalized public interest. The fermentation process encourages essential bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria to flourish. This makes fermentation a good source of probiotics for vegans, since many fermented foods are plant-based. Vegetables are submerged in a salty brine during preparation to kill off dangerous, pathogenic bacteria. The good bacteria break down lactose and other sugars and starches in the food, making digestion easier. And once they reach your gut, they continue to help break down food and keep out bad guys like E. coli and C. difficile.
The Best Fermented Foods
When it comes to fermented foods, your options aren’t limited to sauerkraut or fermented soy. There are other fantastic options that are considered “fermented,” including tea, yogurt, and various vegetables. Here are 9 fermented foods you should include in your gut.
Yogurt has many benefits, mostly due to its rich probiotic content. Brands of yogurt that contain billions of live active cultures may support digestion, and some research indicates it could even benefit the skin. Raw, unpasteurized yogurt is ideal if you can handle dairy. Personally, I tend to skip dairy altogether, but you can find dairy-free yogurt options at many stores these days, some of which are made from coconut and almond milk. Be sure you’re choosing dairy-free yogurt that contains live active cultures, and try to choose plain, full-fat versions in order to avoid sugar. Yogurt that contains sugar can be counterproductive, as sugars feed pathogenic bacteria and contribute to sugar overload.
Natto is prepared with soybeans and is fermented so it forms the beneficial bacteria Bacillus. It’s an excellent source of calcium, iron, dietary fiber, and vitamin K2. You may not have heard a lot about it, but K2 is essential for heart health as it keeps calcium out of your arteries and gets it to your bones where it’s needed. Natto also contains nattokinase, a powerful anti-clotting agent that protects your heart and brain and lowers your blood pressure.
Kefir is a bit like yogurt, except that it's more of a drinkable consistency. Researchers report kefir may reduce irritation in the intestines, preventing toxins and other pathogens from getting into the blood. If you’re choosing to drink dairy kefir, make sure it’s organic and isn’t loaded with refined sugar. There are options for making your own dairy-free water kefir, and many health food companies online sell kefir grains specifically for this purpose. You can also check out our recipe for making coconut milk kefir.
Made from tea, clean water, sugar, yeast, and bacteria, kombucha has become popular recently for its probiotic qualities. Its fizzy bite is also popular among those used to drinking soda. Research finds this fermented tea fights off E. coli and Staph bacteria in the digestive tract, possibly protecting against illness and aiding digestion.
Traditional sauerkraut preparation uses water, salt, and cabbage, and very little heat is applied to the final product in order to prevent killing off beneficial microbes. The sour taste comes from lacto-fermentation, the breakdown of lactose by the probiotic bacteria native to the cabbage. A serving gives you a powerful dose of healthy probiotics that aid digestion. Research has found raw sauerkraut prevents cancer cells from forming. Be sure to purchase raw sauerkraut, or better yet, make it yourself with organic cabbage and Himalayan salt.
This spicy Asian fermented cabbage, similar to sauerkraut, provides you with loads of probiotics. Extensive research indicates it contributes to colon health, lower cholesterol, better thinking, a stronger immune system, healthy skin, and weight loss. Additional research also shows it has anti-oxidative, anti-aging, and immune-supporting properties.
This Indonesian ‘cake’ has a nutty flavor and chewy texture, and because of this, it is often used as a replacement for meat in many vegan recipes. Traditionally made from soybeans and a yeast starter, it undergoes controlled fermentation that makes it a great source of probiotic bacteria. Tempeh is also a great source of calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Yogurt and fermented dairy play an important role in Indian cuisine. Lassi is made by combining yogurt and milk (or water) and sometimes fruit and spices to create a great probiotic-rich drink. Like yogurt, lassi digests quickly, helps restore friendly gut bacteria, and soothes irritation in the colon. Again, I don't recommend consuming conventional dairy, especially from cows. If you are going to drink lassi, it's best to find a product using grass-fed, free-range goat milk. Goat milk tends to digest more easily. If you're vegan, try finding or making lassi with organic coconut or almond milk yogurt.
Other Tips to Support Digestion
Each of these 9 probiotic foods will help restore balance to your intestinal ecosystem, but they’re not the only way to support digestion. Prebiotics, or foods containing inulin, sustain your current gut bacteria by providing them the foods they need to thrive. Probiotic supplements like Global Healing's Ultimate Probiotic, my advanced formula with 36 probiotic strains with prebiotics, are a great way to support your digestive system.
- Vaughn AR, et al. Effects of fermented dairy products on skin: a systematic review. J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Jul;21(7):380-385.
- Carasi P, et al. Impact of kefir derived Lactobacillus kefiri on the mucosal immune response and gut microbiota. J Immunol Res. 2015;2015:361604.
- Cetojevic-Simin DD, et al. Antiproliferative and antimicrobial activity of traditional Kombucha and Satureja montana L. Kombucha. J BUON. 2008 Jul-Sep;13(3):395-401.
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- J-A Park, et al. Anti-obesity effect of kimchi fermented with Weissella koreensis OK1-6 as starter in high-fat diet-induced obese C57BL/6J mice. J Appl Microbiol. 2012 Dec;113(6):1507-1516.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.