Good evidence fermented foods might be good for gut, and overall health says MU extension nutrition specialist

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Fermented foods have become very popular due to their purported health benefits. That leaves many to wonder whether this hot food trend has continued to grow due to the hype, or due to real evidence of health benefits.

“In recent years, we have a much greater understanding of microbes that inhabit our gut, and their relation to health and disease,” said Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

These microbes in the human body can help protect humans from disease-causing bacteria, help break down fiber and carbohydrates to give us energy, make vitamin K and some B vitamins, and influence our health in a variety of ways.

“What we eat has a great impact on this complex microbial community. For example, probiotics contain helpful, viable bacteria that can assist our bodies in balancing our levels of beneficial microbes,” said Duitsman.

Fermented foods can contain great numbers of probiotics, many of which can survive the journey through the digestive tract. Numerous research and clinical studies have investigated the positive impact probiotics, and fermentation of foods have on human health.

Reported positive effects on human health range from helping restore normal gut microbiota after taking antibiotics, to improvement of gastrointestinal disturbances such as constipation, diarrhea, and intestinal inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Evidence suggests that probiotics have positive impacts on inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune disorders, and improve immune system function in the body as a whole.

According to Duitsman, probiotics have also been linked to improved brain function, mood, anxiety, hypertension, and even weight management.

Before filling your grocery cart with fermented products, remember that many fermented foods in jars or cans have been pasteurized, or cooked at high heat, which kills any probiotics.

“Look for naturally fermented vegetables in the refrigerated section of the grocer such as pickled cucumbers, beets, onions, sauerkraut, salsa and kimchi,” said Duitsman.

The best recommendation is to try incorporating a few fermented foods into your diet. Duitsman offers this list of easy to find and try fermented food products.

  • Try a spoonful of sauerkraut on your next sausage.
  • Try kimchi, similar to sauerkraut, with a spicy bolder flavor.
  • Choose kefir and yogurt as good calcium sources over milk occasionally. Check for “live cultures” in yogurt, and avoid those with added sugars, preservatives or calories. Both kefir and yogurt are also great in smoothies.
  • Try kombucha, a fermented tea beverage sold in many grocery stores. If you find you like it, you can learn to make this drink at home, with lots of delicious variations.
  • Miso, a Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans, works in sauces, spreads, or soups.
  • Tempeh, also made from soybeans, has a nutty flavor and is great in stir-fries and soups.

“There is reasonably good evidence that fermented foods might be good for your gut, and your overall health,” said Duitsman.

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