You’re probably familiar with sauerkraut, the tangy, fermented form of cabbage. You might have even munched on a plate of it on occasion – but did you know that you can ferment other vegetables as well? In fact, almost any vegetable can be fermented, although some are hard to find pre-packaged at health food stores – but, considering the health benefits, you might want to consider fermenting your own.
When you think of fermented food, dairy products probably first come to mind. Kefir and yogurt are two of the most popular fermented foods and ones that are readily available at most supermarkets. But when you’re choosing foods that supply your gut with healthy bacteria, fermented vegetables offer a number of health benefits that surpass even those of yogurt. Let’s look at some of them.
The Power of Gut-Friendly Bacteria (Probiotics)
Not surprisingly, most people eat fermented vegetables for the probiotic bacteria they provide, although many also enjoy the tangy taste that these veggies offer. When you ferment food, bacteria devour the starches in the food and release byproducts that create a favorable environment for healthy, gut-friendly bacteria to flourish. When you consume these foods, these gut-friendly bacteria enter your stomach and make their way to your intestines. Here, they nestle in and help to maintain balance within your digestive tract.
Once establishing residence, these bacteria compete with other less healthy bacteria for food and resources so the “bad guys” are less likely to survive. This ultimately creates a more favorable balance of bacteria within your gut. That’s important because studies suggest that these bacteria influence your immune system. If you have to take a course of antibiotics for an infection, studies suggest that probiotics may help prevent one of the most common side effects of antibiotic use, diarrhea. Plus, they help to restore gut balance after the havoc antibiotics inflict on the intestinal tract.
Even more concerning is when good and bad bacteria get out of balance, it can unleash harmful inflammation or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, make you more susceptible to infection. Plus, studies show that probiotic bacteria may help people who suffer from some digestive disorders, including the all-too-common syndrome of irritable bowel.
How do probiotic bacteria manage to accomplish these things? As mentioned, they compete with the “bad guy” bacteria for resources and reduce their ability to bind to your intestinal tract and gain a foothold. Plus, they produce chemicals that are harmful to other bacteria. They also interact with immune cells and impact their release of cytokines, chemicals that can be pro or anti-inflammatory. Surprisingly, more than 70% of your immune system lies in your gut and what goes on there can impact your body’s ability to fight off infection, at one end, and control inflammation, an overreaction of the immune system, at the other.
Not Just Probiotics, Prebiotics Too
Yogurt, kombucha, and kefir are a good source of probiotics but they lack a component that fermented vegetables have in abundance – prebiotics. Prebiotics are a form of fermentable fiber that probiotic gut bacteria thrive on. Therefore, consuming prebiotic-rich fruits helps cultivate an environment that’s friendly to the type of bacteria you want residing in your intestines.
Plus, a 2002 study linked prebiotic-rich foods with better weight control and a lower risk of obesity. Diets rich in prebiotics enhance satiety, so you eat less. It makes sense since prebiotics are high in fiber, a dietary component known for controlling satiety. Some studies also link prebiotic-rich diets with reduced release of ghrelin, an appetite hormone that boosts hunger.
Enhanced Nutrient Bioavailability of Fermented Vegetables
Bacteria involved in the fermentation process actually produce some vitamins, particularly vitamin K and some B-vitamins, but another way fermenting vegetables enhances nutrient bioavailability is by reducing the activity of “anti-nutrients,” like phytates that you find naturally in many plant-based foods. Phytates block the absorption of minerals, particularly zinc and iron, that block absorption of the minerals from vegetables. So, fermenting vegetables enhances their nutritional value as well.
As mentioned, during the fermentation process, bacteria produce enzymes that break down some of the components in the food. As a result, fermented vegetables are more easily digested than non-fermented ones since the enzymes produced during fermentation have already broken down some of the carbohydrates. So, you may have an easier time digesting fermenting vegetables as opposed to non-fermented ones. Nevertheless, start slowly. If you start eating three servings of fermented vegetables daily right away, you may experience gas and bloating. Start with one serving and gradually work up to two or three. That’s all you need to get the benefits and studies show even one serving a day is beneficial.
The Bottom Line
Studies show that probiotics from fermented vegetables and from fermented dairy foods are usually present in sufficient numbers and enough survive and make it to your intestinal tract to have an impact. So, eating fermented vegetables is a small thing you can do to nurture your gut as well as the 70% of your immune system that resides there. Plus, vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that your body needs for optimal health. The probiotics are a bonus!
Be aware that you won’t get probiotic benefits by buying canned sauerkraut or pickles, which are fermented cucumbers. These foods have been exposed to heat and any bacteria that were once there have been destroyed. You can usually find fresh fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, in the refrigerated case of natural food markets and health food stores, although they’re often expensive. A less expensive option is to make your own. You can find instructions on how to do this online.
Now, you know why fermented vegetables are such a healthy choice. When you eat a bowl of fermented vegetables, you get the fiber and phytonutrients that plant-based foods offer as well as living the living bacteria and prebiotics that fermented vegetables offer. So, when you’re thinking about gut health, look beyond yogurt, to the produce department and try fermenting your own. If you buy them pre-made, make sure they’re in the refrigerated section.
Br J Nutr. 2006 Jul;96(1):80-5.
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 55(7):2749-2754.