So many foods and drinks come to mind when I hear the term fermented foods. This includes, sour milk, fermented porridge, tamarind juice, kimchi, yoghurt, cheese, fruits, sauerkraut, beer, kombucha, kefir, sourdough bread and the list is endless.
But did you know that aside from being a way to tweak, add or enhance the flavour and texture of foods, fermentation was primarily for the purposes of food preservation? In ancient times, fermentation was important because it helped humans store highly perishable foods and drinks for longer. Beyond preservation, fermentation enabled man to turn beverages from rice, fruits and honey to alcoholic drinks.
To date, fermentation is used to produce and refine foods/drinks such as cheese, wine, beer, porridge, milk and so much more. Today we shall look at the role fermented foods play in our body, including the health benefits of fermented foods.
- Fighting diseases and immune-boosting
Fermentation is the process by which naturally occurring yeast and bacteria are used to breakdown starch and sugar converting them to acids and alcohols.
Through this process, probiotics are formed making fermented foods a dietary source of good live organisms and bacteria. These good bacteria have a tremendous influence on the immune system, enabling it to fight against respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal diseases/disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, gas and bloating.
Research confirms that eating fermented foods or foods rich in probiotics like camel milk, sour milk, yoghurt, fermented porridge or cheese may help you recover faster when you’re sick. Here are the 6 benefits of camel milk you might not know
Example of Kenyan foods rich in probiotics includes; mursik from the Kalenjin community, fermented porridge, common in the Meru, Kikuyu and Kamba community, fermented fruit mashes such as mnazi in the coast, tamarind juice or paste and other fermented milk products.
2. Facilitates absorption of nutrients
Fermentation breaks down nutrients found in food making it easier for the body to digest and absorb these minerals. This is one of the reason yoghurt is recommended as a good alternative to milk especially for people who are lactose intolerance. This is how to manage lactose intolerance.
In legumes, fermentation breaks down compounds such as phytates or phytic acid found in beans, whole grains and nuts which hinder the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium.
These nutrients are vital for normal body functioning and fermentation increases their absorption into the body.
3. Increased enzymes
During fermentation, the functional microorganisms and bacteria produce enzymes responsible for breaking down the compounds into easily absorbed nutrients in the body. These enzymes enrich the quality of food, preserve and improve food safety as well as enhance the bio-availability of nutrients.
They also degrade toxic components, antinutrients such as phytic acid and produce antioxidants and other anti-microbial compounds which fortify the health of the body.
4. Mental health
Fermented foods have been associated with the improvement of the central nervous system.
Studies show that the probiotics found in fermented foods have a positive impact on psychiatric disorder-related behaviours such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, memory ability and autism spectrum disorder.
5. Mood and emotional well-being
According to research, the gut and the brain are connected. Hence as the probiotics in fermented foods contribute to a healthy gut they also contribute to a healthy mind. This is because the gut is linked to the brain through an enteric nervous system. Considering serotonin which is responsible for sending signals to the nervous system is found at the gut, whenever the probiotics restore the good bacteria in the gut they influence your mood and emotions and the overall wellbeing of the mind.
That said, to gain the full benefits of fermented foods, there are several things to consider when purchasing or storing fermented foods/drinks.
- Pasteurised and heat-treated foods do not contain the naturally occurring probiotics. Therefore if you are buying fermented foods from a shelf and they have not been preserved in a fridge this could be an indication that the foods have been pasteurised or heat treated.
- In relation to the previous point, fermented food should be stored in a fridge to slow down the fermentation process and to prevent the food from spoiling. However, if you would like your foods and vegetables to continue fermenting there’s no need to store them in a fridge. Besides, fermentation was introduced due to the absence of refrigeration. Therefore in most cases, a cold basement or pantry will do.
- Fermented foods rich in sugar, artificial sweeteners, corn syrup and or fructose will not contribute to the gut’s health as naturally fermented foods. Hence take this into account when buying yoghurt and Kombucha’s at the supermarket.