What is a Fermented Food and Why Should I Care?

By George Lewis

By George Lewis

Fermented foods are a hot topic in the health and nutrition world these days.  It seems like every time I pick up a magazine with an article about diet, one of the recommendations is to eat more fermented foods.  But what are fermented foods and why should I be eating them?

›Food fermentation is an ancient process in which food is exposed to bacteria and yeast for preservation and flavor enhancement.
›“It is a process whereby microbes turn the stuff of one generation of plants and animals into food for the next generation of plants and animals (Cox, 1).”  ›Beneficial microorganisms eat the natural carbohydrates, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.  ›Fermentation is generally considered a positive  occurrence and in the days before refrigeration, fermentation was used to preserve food.  The science of fermentation is called zymurgy.

Fermented foods are rich in enzymes the body needs to breakdown food.  These enzymes make it easier for the body to digest food.  Because fermented foods are already partially broken down, it is easier for the body to extract all the vitamins and minerals from the ferment.  Fermentation decreases the anti-nutrients in grains and breaks down lactose in dairy products, increasing their digestibility.   They are also high in B vitamins and full of probiotics. Fermented  vegetables show an increase in vitamin A and C. Fermented foods are powerful chelators, drawing toxins and metals from the body. Fermentation also increases the time before food spoils.

Consuming fermented food helps colonize your gut with good bacteria.  These bacteria aid your digestion and keep your “bad” bacteria under control.  Science is beginning to believe that around 80-90% of our immunity comes from our gut so anything we can do to make it healthy is a plus.

Recommendations for how many fermented foods to consume a day vary.  A general rule of thumb, suggests starting with about ¼-1/2 cup of fermented foods daily and then gradually increasing your consumption to include ferments with each meal.  A gradually increase in fermented foods is advised to allow the body to adjust to the new microorganisms, enzymes and probiotics being introduced to your system.  Using different types of fermented food throughout the day insures that you are exposed to a variety of  probiotics, microorganisms and beneficial enzymes.

Photo by Kevin Shine

Photo by Kevin Shine

So what are some good sources of fermented foods?  One of the most familiar is yogurt but many other choices exist.  Kombucha, a fermented tea, water kefir and jun are all beverages filled with probiotics.  They are lightly carbonated and can be flavored with just about any flavor you can image.  Fermented vegetables like cabbage, squash and fennel are also yummy.  Tempeh and miso are two examples that have been enjoyed in Asian cultures for thousands of years.  And of course, let’s not forget chocolate and red wine- two of my most favorite fermented foods.

See more of George Lewis’s photos on flickr.


Cox, Jeff. The Essential Book of Fermentation. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2013. Print.

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