Among the many superfoods out there, few get discussed as much as fermented foods. From the live probiotics that these foods contain to their delicious taste, it makes sense why these foods are getting their time in the spotlight.

But even though you may have heard the term fermented foods before, you may still need to learn what they actually are, what they can do for your health, and how to include them in your diet. After reading this article, you will get some serious clarity on all of these topics and more.

What are fermented foods?

fermented foods
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When you bite into a hot dog that is topped with crunchy sauerkraut or you sip on a tangy glass of kefir, you are giving your body a boost of fermented foods. These foods are produced using certain bacteria, yeast, or other probiotic-containing organisms to break down sugars, facilitating a process called fermentation.

“Once used primarily as a way to preserve foods, fermentation is now a common culinary practice to create certain flavours as well as potential health-promoting foods,” Sarah Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN, a Massachusetts-based dietitian at Sarah Gold Nutrition, told Verywell.

One example of a food that leans on fermentation to enhance its taste and texture is olives. Olives would be too bitter to eat right off the tree thanks to a plant compound called oleuropein. People ferment olives to convert oleuropein into non-bitter products, making them more enjoyable for consumers.

Examples of such foods include:

  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Sourdough bread
fermented foods
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Fermented foods have been a part of a wide variety of cuisines from almost every culture worldwide. In the West, interest has increased in recent years, thanks to the potential health benefits linked to consuming them.

One of the main reasons why fermented foods are so beneficial for human health is because they contain live organisms that offer a health benefit, also known as probiotics.

When it comes to your health, probiotics may be able to:

  • Displace pathogenic, or “bad,” bacteria
  • Play a role in supporting immune health
  • Produce by-products and metabolites that support cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic health

Fermentation may also help enhance the bioavailability of certain nutrients, allowing the body to absorb more of them to reap the benefits.

Some data shows that consuming fermented foods may be linked to the following outcomes:

  • Weight loss
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
  • Reduced muscle soreness following acute resistance exercise
  • Improved mood
  • Improved gut health
  • Enhanced immune health

It is important to note that more well-designed studies are needed before we can definitively say that eating fermented foods can help people experience all of these health effects.

How to incorporate them into your diet

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Including fermented foods in your diet doesn’t have to mean learning how to make these items from scratch. You can buy many of them at the grocery store and learn to incorporate them into your daily routine.

Anzlovar recommended including a wide variety of fermented foods, as “variety is key as each food may offer different types or strains of probiotics”.

If you’re not sure where to start, Anzlovar recommends adding fermented items into foods you already eat.

“Try adding kefir to your morning smoothie or overnight oats,” she said. “Or add a tablespoon or two of sauerkraut or kimchi to a grain bowl or sandwich. You can also make a miso dressing to drizzle on a salad or roasted vegetables.”

There are two things to keep in mind to reap the most benefits from these fermented additions:

  • Mix up the types of fermented foods you include in your diet. Different foods offer different strains of probiotics.
  • Try to eat fermented foods raw whenever possible, since the heat of cooking can kill many strains of probiotics.

 Potential risks of eating fermented foods

Including fermented foods in your diet is a habit that comes with little risk for generally healthy people.

However, there are some factors to be aware of, especially if you aren’t in the habit of eating these foods every day.

“If you’re new to fermented foods, adding a lot all at once could cause some slight stomach upset, like excess bloating and gas as your stomach gets used to the increase in probiotics,” Kelsey Kunik, RDN, a Michigan-based registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness, told Verywell. “To avoid this, gradually introduce fermented foods into your diet.”

Kunik said that while fermented food is generally safe, because fermented foods don’t undergo pasteurization for the sake of preserving good bacteria, there is always a chance for bad bacteria to grow.

“While rare, salmonella and E. coli outbreaks have been traced back to fermented foods like kimchi and tempeh in the past,” she said.

Including fermented foods in your diet may be a simple way to support many aspects of your health, thanks to the live probiotics and other nutrients that are found in these foods. Kefir, miso, kombucha, tempeh, and other fermented foods can easily be included into an overall diet, and doing so may help keep your overall health in check in a natural way.

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