There’s a new super food group on wellness experts’ radar, and it’s one that you’re probably already eating as part of your daily diet. While wholegrains like quinoa and barley, super seeds like chia and pepitas, and fresh fruit and vegetables, preferably in raw form, have long held favour with health aficionados for their nutrient power, it’s fermented food – the cured and pickled dishes that have been part of traditional diets for millennia – that is having a food moment.
What is fermented food?
Fermentation is the process that turns grape juice into wine, milk into yoghurt and cabbage into kimchi or sauerkraut. In technical terms, it involves using either yeast or bacteria to transform a carbohydrate into an alcohol or an acid. Foods that have been fermented tend to develop strikingly different textures, tastes and smells. They are also preserved by the process and are likely to last much longer than the food would in its original state.
What’s so great about fermented foods?
The bacteria commonly used in the fermentation process are actually a kind of probiotic. Probiotics help keep the good and bad bacteria in your digestive systems in balance. When you use an antibiotic to attack the bacteria that has caused you to be unwell, the antibiotic will also destroy the good bacteria in your system. As a result, you may experience diarrhoea, flatulence or stomach cramps. Some people take probiotic supplements, or foods like yoghurt that are good sources of natural probiotics, to help restore the good bacteria and settle their stomachs down.
Probiotics may also help with other health problems that might benefit from a boost of good bacteria, including thrush, urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome and other types of diarrhoea. A study from the University of Cambridge, published in 2014, has also noted a link between consumption of low-fat fermented dairy foods and reduced rates of type 2 diabetes.
It’s also worth noting that the nutrients contained in fermented foods are more readily absorbed by your body. That’s because the cell walls of the original ingredients are broken down by the fermentation process, making it easier for you to digest the good stuff. Cabbage, for example, contains vitamins C and K, but the body has a hard time digesting raw cabbage to reach those nutrients. When cabbage is fermented to become sauerkraut or kimchi, however, those nutrients become more accessible.
How do I start using fermented foods?
The good news is you’re probably already eating fermented foods. If you have yoghurt or cottage cheese in the fridge, or a jar of pickled cucumbers stashed somewhere, then you’re on your way. The list of fermented foods includes familiar items like blue cheese, sourdough bread and salami to a whole world of exotic ingredients from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Here are five of the best to get you started.
Yoghurt is probably the most familiar fermented food in Australia so you’re not going to have any trouble working it into your diet, adding a spoonful to your morning muesli, eating it as a snack with chopped fruit and nuts, dolloping it onto a hearty soup or using it in a salad dressing. Look for products that are made from L.acidophilus bacteria cultures.
Originating from Germany, sauerkraut translates quite literally as “sour cabbage”. In its simplest form, it uses salt to cure finely shredded cabbage, but modern, more gourmet versions tend to add in ingredients including carrots, chilli and apples and flavourings like garlic, juniper berries and caraway seeds. To get maximum health benefits, it’s best to make your own rather than use supermarket versions which are often heat-treated, which means they lose the beneficial lactobacillus bacteria, and may contain excessive amounts of sugar. If you can’t make your own, look for naturally fermented products at your local health food shop.
A standard of Japanese cuisine, miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and barley or rice malt. Use it in place of other salty flavourings like meat or vegetable stock, soy sauce or anchovies. It’s probably most commonly known in Australia as the base for miso soup.
Kimchi is to Korea what sauerkraut is to Germany – a traditional dish of fermented cabbage which these days is made more sophisticated by the addition of other ingredients such as radish, hot pepper and garlic. Kimchi is most commonly seen as a side dish or condiment.
Tempeh is a food product of Indonesian origin, made from fermented soybeans. It usually comes in a firm-textured cake or patty and has a mushroom, nutty flavour. Vegetarians often use tempeh where meat eaters might use meat – for example, in a stir-fry with veggies, in place of bacon in a BLT or on a burger.
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