The Real Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

The art of fermentation produces food filled with active, live cultures. Learning how to ferment food can provide a more nutritious and digestible diet, but be wary of health claims that seem too good to be true.

| January 30, 2013

With extended resources from an expert “fermentation revivalist,” The Art Of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) provides essential wisdom for cooks, homesteaders, farmers, gleaners, foragers and food-lovers of any kind who want to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for arguably the oldest form of food preservation, and part of the roots of culture itself. In this excerpt, author Sandor Ellix Katz explains that some extreme claims about the health benefits of fermented foods as “panaceas” are exaggerated, though he believes eating these foods can help overall well-being. 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Art of Fermentation.

Fermented foods, as a group, are highly nutritious and digestible. Fermentation pre-digests foods, making nutrients more bioavailable, and in many cases fermentation generates additional nutrients or removes anti-nutrients or toxins. Ferments with live lactic-acid-producing bacteria intact are especially supportive of digestive health, immune function, and general well-being.

As I write, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just published exciting new research establishing that gut bacteria influence immune responses far from the intestines, and specifically that they are associated with “productive immune responses in the lung” in response to influenza virus infection, and revealing “the importance of commensal microbiota in regulating immunity in the respiratory mucosa.”

Bacteria in our gut, potentially enhanced by bacteria in foods (as well as probiotic supplements), can have far-reaching and profound impacts on our health. In my own healing journey, I have found that live-culture foods help me feel good all around and give me a proactive way to help myself, as well as others. However, this does not mean that live-culture fermented foods are panaceas.

Many miraculous claims have been made on behalf of particular fermented foods, but I think it is important to approach such claims with skepticism. For instance, I do not think that daily consumption of kombucha (sugar and tea, partially fermented) is likely to cure diabetes, as claimed by some web promoters. I think people with diabetes should use kombucha only in moderation, if at all, and perhaps get their live cultures from less sugary ferments such as sauerkraut and yogurt.

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