Fermented foods bubble with health benefits

Casey Seidenberg / Special to The Washington Post /

Published Jan 17, 2013 at 04:00AM

I am on a fermented food kick. It started when I pickled the 14 cucumbers I discovered in my garden after returning from vacation this summer. We couldn’t eat that many, so I preserved them, and they make a mean addition to any sandwich, topping to salad or side to soup.

The fermentation kick persisted into the fall, when my older son showed signs of allergies and my daughter exhibited her first real cold. “Fermented foods help people stay healthy,” said Sandor Katz in his New York Times best-selling book “The Art of Fermentation.” I wanted my family to enjoy an illness-free winter, so the fermentation continued.

What exactly are fermented foods? Wine, beer and cider are fermented. Leavened bread is fermented. Dairy products such as yogurt, kefir and some cheeses are fermented. Pickled vegetables can be fermented. When fermentation occurs, the sugars and carbohydrates in a food convert into something else. For instance, juice turns into wine, grains turn into beer, carbohydrates turn into carbon dioxide to leaven bread and vegetable sugars become preservative organic acids.

Why does this process help people stay healthy?

Fermented foods aid in digestion and thus support the immune system.

Imagine a fermented food as a partially digested food. For instance, many people have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk. When milk is fermented and becomes yogurt or kefir, the lactose is partially broken down so it becomes more digestible.

Organic or lactic-acid fermented foods (such as dill pickles and sauerkraut) are rich in enzyme activity that aids in the breakdown of our food, helping us absorb the important nutrients we rely on to stay healthy.

Fermented foods have been shown to support the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract. In our antiseptic world with chlorinated water, antibiotics in our meat, our milk and our own bodies, and antibacterial everything, we could use some beneficial bacteria in our bodies.

When our digestion is functioning properly and we are absorbing and assimilating all the nutrients we need, our immune system tends to be happy, and thus better equipped to wage war against disease and illness.

I am not claiming that fermented foods are a panacea, but I do believe these foods encourage effective digestion and — along with sleep, exercise and a nutrient-rich diet — help nurture a strong immune system.

Are you turned off by the idea of a fermented food? Don’t be. Fermented foods are valued for their health benefits and as a means of food preservation, but they wouldn’t have been part of our diets for so long if they weren’t tasty as well. For some, a fermented, stinky cheese is a delicacy. And it pairs nicely with a glass of fermented red wine.

We have heard over and over again that we should eat as our ancestors ate. There is evidence that people have been fermenting foods since 3000 B.C., so if fermentation isn’t going back to our food roots, I don’t know what is.

Give fermented foods a try

To receive the health benefits and the flavors of fermented foods, you don’t need to make an entire meal of them. Just a little bit will do: a few sips of miso soup to begin a meal or a few pickles on a turkey sandwich. Incorporating fermented foods into the diet is simple:

• Replace regular bread with a fresh sourdough variety.

• Choose kefir and yogurt over regular milk. Both work well in smoothies.

• Kombucha is a fermented drink found in many grocery stores.

• Look for naturally fermented vegetables such as pickled cucumbers, beets, onions, sauerkraut, salsa and kimchi. These are sold in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, not with the shelf-stable foods. Add a spoonful to any dish.

• Use miso to marinate fish or in soup.

• Add a tablespoon of fermented chutney to cooked meat.

• Use naturally fermented condiments (found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store). Because my kids love ketchup and would put it on everything if I allowed, I have started making my own using the recipe in the cookbook “Nourishing Traditions.” My variety is fermented and thus has all the associated benefits, unlike most commercial ketchup, which is made with sugar or corn syrup and other additives.

• Look for a book about fermentation if you are inspired to try it yourself.

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