How fermented foods can boost your health

Another over-hyped fad? Not quite. There is some good science behind the fever for fermented food

Fermented foods have been part of our diet for thousands of years. Beer and wine are classic examples of fermented foods where yeast converts sugars to alcohol. Other types of fermented foods use bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, to make foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. And when you start talking about bacteria, you move into the realm of probiotics which come with a long list of health claims.

Probiotics and health

Probiotics are live micro-organisms which, when consumed in adequate amounts, offer some form of a health benefit. The clinical evidence for probiotics places treatment of diarrhoea (especially caused by antibiotics) at the top of the list. A potential benefit in treating irritable bowel syndrome looks possible too.

Inflammatory bowel disease, prevention of some infant allergies such as atopic dermatitis, and an overall general protection against infection deserves considering, but the science is still evolving. Researchers are now even looking at direct links between gut bacteria and obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes.

Fermented foods in the spotlight

Sauerkraut and kimchi

Two well-known fermented foods with strong cultural ties are the German staple of sauerkraut and the traditional Korean dish of kimchi. Both these cabbage-based dishes are made by lactic acid bacteria fermentation.

Several studies have found that kimchi may be a potent food for its ability to lower cholesterol and control blood glucose. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found kimchi eaten over seven days had beneficial effects on fasting blood glucose, total glucose, total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol.

Kefir

Kefir is an interesting probiotic food, because on the surface it appears similar to yoghurt. Kefir can be made from the milk of any ruminant animal, but is fermented with a different variety of bacteria to yoghurt and uses a starter culture that contains yeast. A scientific review published in 2013 found good evidence for its antimicrobial activity, improved gut health, anti-carcinogenic activity, control of blood glucose and cholesterol, improved lactose digestion and a stronger immune system. Quite an impressive list indeed.

Natto

Another popular non-dairy probiotic food is the Japanese staple of natto, which forms the base of miso soup. It is made by the fermentation of soybeans by the bacterium Bacillus subtillis. Natto offers some of the health benefits similar to soy foods, but with additional value coming from its probiotic properties.

Kombucha

Moving out of the realm of solid science, we have an emerging ‘star’ on the fermented food stage – kombucha. Kombucha is made from a sweet tea base that has been fermented with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Popular in the health food, juice and detox scene, it is sometimes called ‘mushroom tea’ – getting its name from the brown slimy crust that forms on the surface of the beverage.

Claimed to be a super health elixir with a long list of health benefits, kombucha is one drink where science has yet to catch up, with no human clinical trials published so far. Considering its boutique price premium, unless you plan to make your own, I would be looking elsewhere for my probiotic hit.

The health low down

The long list of health claims made about fermented looks impressive, but the evidence for some of them is still lagging behind. We have been eating fermented foods for thousands of years and they certainly have a role to play in any diet. While not a silver health bullet, when added to a varied diet, fermented foods have the potential to make it even healthier.

Recommended reading - Mindfulness

Experts

10 things you need to know about the mind

Psychologist Emily Toner takes us inside this mysterious mass of nerves and fibres in our heads.

Read more
Advice

10 ways to bring mindfulness into your day

Mindfulness isn’t just about meditation – here’s how to incorporate the art into your everyday life.

Read more
Guides

4 calming mindfulness apps

Meditation can be intimidating. Luckily there’s apps to make developing daily mindfulness a breeze.

Read more
Community

5 tips for mindfulness at work

How the practice of mindfulness can introduce awareness and acceptance to our workplace.

Read more
Lifestyle

6 essential apps for mind and body

Want to fuel your body, reach those targets and tune your mind? Let these apps sweat it out for you.

Read more
Advice

10 best mental health apps

Top apps for managing anxiety, boosting your mood and checking in with your mental wellbeing.

Read more
Lifestyle

10 fitness and wellbeing podcasts to get you inspired

Supercharge your motivation, learn something new, and be entertained with uplifting health podcasts.

Read more
Community

Capturing mindfulness

Pairing mindfulness with photography to become ‘photopresent’.

Read more
Community

Clear the mind, tone the body with reformer pilates

How reformer pilates can help you get long and lean – and move better every day.

Read more
Community

Free mindfulness training for groups

Build happier and healthier workplaces, classes, teams or groups with a free Smiling Mind program.

Read more
Experts

Flowing vitality: The Chinese medicine approach to exercise

How to balance gentle movement and intense exercise for energy, flow and nourishment.

Read more
Experts

Exercise for mental health treatment

Anxiety and depression can be exhausting, but exercise is one fantastic way of fighting back.

Read more
Community

Happy Melon Studios: Mindfulness meets exercise

Discover the yoga, pilates and meditation centre Happy Melon Studios.

Read more
Advice

How mindfulness makes you calm, clear and focused

Ready to silence your mind, untangle your nerves, and really connect with your world? Here's how.

Read more
Guides

How to be mindful at work

Soothe those office stresses and connect with coworkers to create a fulfilling work environment.

Read more
Community

How happy is your melon?

Follow yoga teacher Masha Gorodilova in the journey into the art of yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Read more
Experts

How to build mental resilience

Life has a habit of testing our limits - mental resilience is your chance to bounce back.

Read more
Travel

Mind, body and soul in Tasmania

Regular mini breaks can be a refreshing, cost-effective way to recharge.

Read more
Community

MindBodySpirit Festival

Find inner balance at Australia’s largest health, wellbeing and natural therapies event.

Read more
Advice

Mindful eating

Slow down your eating and really experience the flavours, textures and sensations.

Read more
Guides

Mindful in May

The true definition of a win/win: your daily meditation providing clean water for those in need.

Read more
Advice

Mindfulness in tennis

Play better by bringing your attention to the present moment.

Read more
Community

Mobile mindfulness

We look at how technology, meditation and mindfulness can work together.

Read more
In Brief

SAFEMinds for youth mental health

Helping equip parents and teachers to provide better support for young people who may be struggling.

Read more
Community

Smiling Mind: Mindfulness made easy

Making mindfulness meditation free, Smiling Mind improves the mental wellbeing of young Australians

Read more
Advice

Stephanie Rice on mindfulness and clarity

The Olympic superstar shares the clarifying influence of meditation on life in and out of the pool.

Read more
Guides

The art of mindfulness meditation

The General Manager of Smiling Mind shares how mindfulness meditation improves mental wellbeing

Read more
Community

Wayapa: Mindfulness and movement

Based on traditional Aboriginal teachings, this wellbeing practice encourages deep connection.

Read more

For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are instructions on how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.