One of the most effective ways to improve digestive health is by eating traditional fermented foods rich in lactic acid–producing bacteria. These bacteria are what naturally make milk products go sour and vegetables ferment.
These types of foods have been dietary staples for thousands of years. Early writings show that Chinese workers ate fermented vegetables while building the Great Wall of China. The Japanese have routinely served a small serving of pickled vegetables with their meals. Centuries ago, the Koreans developed kimchi by acid-fermenting cabbage and other vegetables. In fact, lactic acid-fermented cabbage has been revered as one of the most beneficial healing agents since early humans.
Before Christ, the Greeks wrote about the health benefits of fermented foods like cabbage. The Romans used sauerkraut to treat and prevent intestinal infections. Captain Cook used sauerkraut and lime juice to prevent scurvy on his three-year journey around the world.
Throughout Europe, Russia, and the Balkans, sauerkraut has become entrenched in the diet after centuries of use. Many African cultures still routinely use lactic acid fermentation as a way of preserving gruels made from corn and sorghum. Even the people of India use a food paste made from the juice of sauerkraut.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
Lactic acid–producing bacteria are common in probiotic supplements—which is why traditional fermented foods are also known as “probiotic foods.” Lactic acid–producing bacteria help acidify the digestive tract, creating an environment conducive to the growth of all healthy bacteria. However, the health benefits of fermented foods don’t stop there.
There are four important health benefits of traditional fermented foods that explain why they are so crucial to maintaining a healthy gut:
- Traditional fermented foods help balance the production of stomach acid. Fermented foods and gut health go hand-in-hand. These foods have the unique ability to ease digestive discomfort related to having either too much or too little stomach acid. When the production of hydrochloric acid by the stomach is low, fermented foods help increase the acidity of gastric juices. When the stomach produces too much acid, fermented foods help protect the stomach and intestinal lining. As we age, our production of the digestive enzymes and juices required for proper digestion begin to decrease. Eating traditional fermented foods can help make up for this loss.
- Traditional fermented foods help the body produce acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter that facilitates the transmission of nerve impulses. Within the context of digestion, it helps increase the movement of the bowel and can help reduce constipation. It also helps improve the release of digestive juices and enzymes from the stomach, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. So by helping your body produce acetylcholine, fermented foods act as potent digestive aids.
- Traditional fermented foods are beneficial for people with diabetes. In addition to improving pancreatic function, the carbohydrates in lactic acid–fermented foods have been broken down or "pre-digested." As a result, they do not place an extra burden on the pancreas, unlike ordinary carbohydrates.
- Traditional fermented foods produce compounds that destroy and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Many pathogenic forms of bacteria are sensitive to acidic environments. This is true of both cholera and typhoid. In the early 1950s, during an epidemic of typhoid fever in Europe, fresh sauerkraut was reportedly an effective agent for killing the bacteria. More recently, German scientists were working with a strain of lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough bread, and discovered that it seemed to be more effective than other strains at killing microbes. In early lab results, it quickly eliminated the super-bugs currently resistant to most antibiotics.
Common Fermented Foods
Here are some examples of common fermented foods you should consider making a regular part of your diet. Remember: When adding fermented foods to your meals, the key is to eat a small portion of them on a very regular basis. Once or twice daily with meals is best.
Yogurt has been used for centuries to cure bowel troubles and diarrhea. In addition, regular yogurt (not the low-fat kind) contains the hormone-like substance called prostaglandin E2, which can prevent ulcers. But the type of yogurt you eat makes a difference. To make sure you choose the right one:
- Be sure the label says the product has "active cultures." Some companies pasteurize the product after it's been made, and this kills off the remaining beneficial bacteria, making it useless.
- Look for products made from L.acidophilus bacteria cultures. They will have the greatest benefits. Most yogurts are now made using L.bulgricus or S thermophilus.
- Avoid yogurts that contain sugar. (Usually the yogurts with fruit are loaded with sugar.)
- Add your own fruit. Bananas give yogurt a sweet taste and counteract the sourness. For a more consistent sweetness, try blending the banana into the yogurt in the blender.
- Consider making your own yogurt. (And yes, you can use pasteurized milk.)
Traditional fermented food cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and to a lesser degree, beneficial bacteria. Look for low-salt products.
Whey is the liquid remaining after the curds and cream have been removed from clabbered milk. You can use it in soups, add it to steamed vegetables, or mix it into fruit juice or blender drinks for extra zip.
Kefir is an excellent milk-based beverage that you can make by adding kefir grains to milk. (The grains are actually colonies of yeast and bacteria that look like cooked rice clumps.) In 12 hours, about four ounces of grains added to one quart of milk will produce the beverage.
You can make water kefir with unchlorinated water, kefir grains, and a little sugar. (There’s no need to worry about any negative health of effects of sugar in this case. The sugar simply feeds the kefir grains and gets transformed in the fermentation process.)
Other Fermented Beverages
Kombucha and ginger beer are other dairy-free, probiotic-rich fermented drinks. Naturally fermented and unpasteurized beers are another option. If you have a little spare time and a starter culture, you can make all kinds of great fermented drinks. I’ve been getting my cultures from Cultures For Health for quite some time.
I'm a huge fan of sauerkraut, but if you’re looking for a change from typical sauerkraut, there are a few delicious and interesting variations of it.
Kimchi (from Korea) utilizes garlic, ginger, and chilies to spice things up. And in parts of Germany and Austria, you can find their version of sauerkraut called sauerruben. It’s made just like sauerkraut except with turnips. It tastes similar to sauerkraut with just a hint of horseradish.
Curtido, is a Central American fermented relish similar to sauerkraut that contains cabbage, carrots, onions, jalapeno peppers, and oregano. It’s like a spicy coleslaw.
Some other ferented food options are natto, miso, tempeh, and fermented tofu.
Lactic Acid Yeast Wafers
Finally, while not technically a food, lactic acid yeast wafers work the same way lactic acid–fermented foods do, in that they help re-establish the bacterial flora of the lower bowel. If you begin to include traditional fermented foods in your diet, you probably won’t need the wafers—but the wafers can sure come in handy when you’re traveling to prevent diarrhea and other digestive concerns. For adults, two lactic acid yeast wafers with each meal will stop diarrhea, often within the same day. Lactic acid yeast wafers can be purchased online and through health care professionals who carry Standard Process products.