Despite being around since Neolithic times, fermented foods are a relative new guy to the nutrition trend party, at least in North America. With ringing endorsements cropping up all over the place promising everything from improved digestion to an enhanced immune system and longevity, it’s no wonder they are popular! Most proponents attribute the beneficial effects of eating fermented foods to the presence of natural probiotics (1), those friendly little gut bacteria and yeast we have previously reported on numerous times, like in A Gut Feeling.
But is this all hoopla or is this ancient food preservation method really the path to better health? What’s so special about fermented foods?
The first evidence of controlled fermentation comes from Asia around 6,000 BC with, you guessed it, wine as the first product. But beyond alcohol production, fermentation with bacteria, fungus and/or yeast is a common method for preserving grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy and even meats. Although popular throughout the world, most fermented foods aside from sourdough bread and yogurt have not been as popular in North America as they are elsewhere. So, what changed? Perhaps the expanding global palate or the trend towards “ancient” diets to cure modern maladies (see: Paleolithic Prescription?), but whatever the cause fermented foods have never been so accessible.
But are all fermented foods a good source of probiotics? In this part 1 of Foods with Funk, we go over the various types of fermented food products (at least those that are widely available) and which ones deliver on the probiotic promise and which don’t.
NOTE: Aside from probiotics, fermented foods may deliver other nutritional benefits like increased vitamin availability and digestibility (2,4,6) BUT we choose to focus on probiotic content because they get the most health buzz!
It’s important to note that not all fermented foods are a source of probiotics. A good rule of thumb? If it’s shelf stable, cooked or has been pasteurized, there are no friendly little microorganisms in there. Only certain kinds of bacteria and yeast that are known to confer health benefits are considered probiotics (2), namely bacteria classified as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, as well as Saccharomyces boulardii yeast (2,3,4,5,6).
The Real Bacterial Deal
The above foods are produced using fermentation, most often lacto-fermentation, and provide a source of live probiotics.
The Microorganism Maybes
Probiotic content depends entirely on method of preparation for these foods, so be saavy and read the label.
The Probiotic Impostors
These foods, while often fermented with yeast or bacteria, DO NOT provide a source probiotics due to processing, pasteurizing and/or cooking.
No Baloney’s advice? Know your fermented food frauds! Despite information floating out there in the ether (read: dodgy websites), many fermented foods touted as probiotic sources are not. Consuming natural sources of probiotics may be fantastic for your health (more on this in part 2, Foods with Funk: Is Fermented Better?), but you cannot possibly benefit from friendly microorganisms not actually found in your food!
In addition to our shelf-stable rule of thumb, start reading foods labels and ingredients lists to wade through the hoopla. Look for “live cultures” for evidence of actual probiotics.