Kombucha. Tempeh. Kefir. Kimchi. You’ve probably heard a few of these names before. Fermented and pickled foods have become health-conscious individuals’ favorites in recent years. But if you haven’t started noshing on them yourself, you may be wondering, what’s all the fuss about? As it turns out, these foods – jam-packed with healthy bacteria – can do wonders for your body. Here’s what to know – and what to eat to reap these feel-good effects.
20. Pickled fruit
When you think of pickles, you think of salty, crunchy sandwich toppers – not fruit. And yet pickling the sweet stuff can make for an interesting flavor profile that’s good for you, too. After all, the bacteria that grows while your food ferments can be a huge boon to your gut health and bulk your immune system.
A tasty and easy place to start is with fermented blueberries, which you can make with the tiny blue fruits and some salt. After they sit somewhere warm for four to five days, they’ll become slightly tangier while retaining their sweet scent. At that point, they make a great addition to soups, or you can use the liquid to make a unique vinaigrette dressing.
19. Apple cider vinegar
Almost every entry on this list stands to improve your gut health – that’s the best news about fermented foods and all the good-for-you bacteria they contain. But apple cider vinegar comes with more than just a probiotic promise. This stuff – a versatile addition to your pantry – has a slew of benefits beyond the standard.
You can drink apple cider vinegar like a tea or mix it into dressings and other recipes. Either way, research has shown that it has anti-microbial, antioxidative and cholesterol-lowering properties. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s diet who wants to lose weight, as it has obesity-fighting components, as well.
18. Cultured coconut milk
It’s no big secret that traditional yogurt contains probiotics – a single cup might contain 25 billion cultures, the same amount you’d get from taking a supplement. However you get it, you want this bacteria in your body, as it improves digestion, staves off disease and helps maintain your figure.
Let’s say you can’t eat fermented dairy, though – can you still get all of that yogurt-y goodness? The answer is yes, of course. Try dipping your spoon into a bowl of cultured coconut milk yogurt, jam-packed with the same live cultures and probiotics that make the regular stuff a must-have addition to your diet.
Natto hails from Japan, where it’s a staple in the local cuisine. It comes from fermented soybeans, which create a strong flavor, high fiber content, slippery texture and, of course, probiotics aplenty. As you can imagine, natto boosts digestion with every serving. But it can make diners go more regularly because it treks through the body undigested, thus bulking up stool and making it easier to expunge from the body.
But natto has more to offer than just digestive speed. The soybean-based fare also contains vitamin K, which helps the body metabolize and use calcium, thus building stronger bones and preventing bone loss down the line. Interestingly, the Japanese staple also produces nattokinase, an enzyme that may prevent or help dissolve blood clots, too.
16. Wine and beer
Don’t start guzzling your favorite booze just yet – you won’t get the goodness contained within wine and beer if you drink too much. Doing that can cause bloating and weight gain, among other uncomfortable side effects.But both of these fermented bar must-haves can do your body good, when drunk in moderation.
As beer ferments, it doesn’t lose any of the vitamins from the barley, rice, wheat or corn from which it is made. So drinking a responsible amount can do good – stalling blood clots from forming and lowering your cholesterol. Meanwhile, the probiotics found in fermented grapes – aka wine – can boost energy levels.
The idea of drinking beet juice may not be the most appealing – at least, not until you ferment it. Then it becomes kvass, a fizzy drink with all the earthy flavor that the root vegetable has to offer. You could sip it solo, or you could pour it into vinaigrette dressings or even cocktails, if you’re feeling experimental.
Kvass has lots more to offer you than its unique taste, though. It contains B vitamins, which boost neurological and immune system function. The beet-based beverage also has betaine, which fizzles inflammation and wards off cell damage, too. And sipping the stuff can assuage digestive issues, cleanse your blood and even speed up an otherwise sluggish liver – great for detox.
14. Authentic fish sauce
Don’t be fooled – not all fish sauces will better your body with probiotic goodness. Some brands are made through a chemical process, which can mimic the flavor of fermentation but can’t quite match the quality of the traditional stuff. That’s made much more simply: whole fish get packed with plenty of salt and left to ferment.
Thanks to the fermentation process, fish sauce contains iodine, which boosts thyroid health. It also encompasses vitamin A, a vital element in good vision, and vitamin D, which helps build strong bones. For these reasons, you might consider choosing fish sauce over, say, soy sauce – the former has the same tangy flavor and is better for you.
You can work miso into marinades, dressings and soups, but start with a pinch – this fermented paste packs a flavorful punch. Yet it’s the health benefits that have the people of Japan beginning their days with a bowl of miso soup. The broth gets their digestion churning first thing in the morning and boosts energy levels – and who doesn’t need that?
Plus miso contains a slew of minerals and vitamins – including vitamin K, which maintains strong bones and helps blood to clot properly. The soybean paste also encompasses vitamin E, which fights off viruses and bacteria that enter the body. And as we already know, miso keeps digestion moving. A healthy gut makes us feel better both mentally and physically, so it’s worth noshing on this and other fermented fare.
Kefir gets its name from the yeast and bacteria colonies that transform goat’s or cow’s milk into a yogurt-like, probiotic-laden beverage. It only takes 24 hours for the kefir to ferment in the milk’s natural sugars, transforming it into this tasty beverage. And, because it contains so many probiotics, those with lactose intolerance can sip it – the live cultures help the body to break down lactose.
It turns out that kefir is a more potent source of probiotics than yogurt. Among these is Lactobacillus kefiri, which can safeguard your body against bad bacteria that may enter. And the fermented beverage has shown promising results in animal-based studies as a tool for stalling cancer cell growth, although research on humans has yet to be done.
11. Fermented (and regular) pickles
Good, old-fashioned pickles deserve a spot on this list, too. Surprisingly, these crunchy cucumbers spears have been on shelves for about 4,000 years. People realized that they could preserve veggies before they spoiled by pickling them. Now we know that pickling draws more vitamins and minerals out of the cucumbers, making them more potent sources of vitamins A and K, among others.
You can reap even more of these benefits by seeking out fermented pickles, which differ from the regular ones you’d find at the grocery store. Rather than relying on salty brine to preserve the veggies, fermented varieties rely on bacteria and yeast to do the same. And this process imbues the pickles with different benefits. Your digestion can improve after crunching into a fermented spear, as can muscle aches. Some athletes swear by a post-workout pickle to replace electrolytes.
Korean food aficionados will have dug their chopsticks into kimchi. Most of the time, the dish consists of fermented, salted cabbage, further enhanced by onions, garlic, ginger, chili pepper and other spices. Sometimes, though, recipes will incorporate other veggies for fermentation, including radish, scallions, bamboo shoots, beets, spinach and more.
No matter which vegetables appear in your kimchi, know this: it’s an excellent topping choice, nutritionally speaking. The nutrient-dense fermented fare can pare down inflammation, which, in turn, slows down the body’s aging process. This same property may make the Korean staple a heart-healthy food choice, too, as inflammation may also contribute to cardiovascular disease.
9. Crème fraîche
A recipe that needs thickening by way of dairy products may call for crème fraîche. You’ll find the stuff folded into soups for added flavor or dolloped atop desserts for added richness. And while you can pluck it from grocery store shelves, you can easily make the stuff yourself – especially if you want the cultured version.
You can buy cultured crème fraîche from the store, too. Just check the container’s label to make sure it has the feel-good probiotics you want. In purchasing the fermented cream, you’ll replenish your gut with all of the good bacteria that keeps it working at its best. Keep in mind that the regular version of crème fraîche – the one without cultures – doesn’t come with much to offer you nutritionally.
It’s hard to imagine that a sweet bar of chocolate might have a tangy, fermented ingredient contained within it. And yet you wouldn’t have your beloved bars and bon-bons without this food-prep process. Manufacturers have to ferment cocoa beans for up to a week before they can add them into the recipe and continue on with their chocolate-making.
Chocolate’s health benefits are plentiful, so long as you select a bar of the dark variety. Yes, high-quality dark chocolate proves highly nutritious, with copper, manganese, magnesium, iron and lots of fiber to go around, too. The candy also contains a wealth of antioxidants. Just remember you wouldn’t have any of this without a bit of fermentation to get the best out of the cocoa beans.
Tempeh has a lot in common with tofu, its arguably more famous plant-based cousin. Indeed, both products are made from soybeans. But tempeh gets fermented, which lends it a nuttier flavor, and it takes on a much firmer texture, as well. More importantly, this prep process makes tempeh a nutritious addition to any diet.
For one thing, tempeh contains gut-bettering prebiotics. You’ll find every single amino acid contained within this fermented soybean-based product, making it a complete protein for vegetarians who can’t get the same elsewhere. Plus soy protein has been shown to lower cholesterol levels, too.
It’s unclear if kombucha came from Japan or China, but the process for making it? That’s widely known. It all starts with green or black tea. Then, makers add sugar, yeast and certain strains of bacteria into the mix. After a week of fermentation, the one-time tea becomes a tangier and carbonated version of its former self.
Kombucha has a laundry list of noted health benefits. If its base tea is green, it may aid in weight loss and leveling blood sugar – both pros of sipping the hot, non-fermented brew. Plus kombucha can stop the growth of unwanted yeast and bacteria across the body. And it can even stop cancer cell growth, according to test-tube-based studies – so far, anyway.
Peruse the dairy aisle at your local grocery store, and you’re sure to find a few cartons of buttermilk. They’re not all the same, though – some come with probiotics, while others simply taste tangy and delicious. Now, this may surprise you, but bottles of cultured buttermilk do not contain the live, gut-healthy bacteria you seek.
So what you want is the traditional buttermilk. This version gathers up the liquid left behind after making butter. Once that ferments, you get a tangy, culture-filled jug of buttermilk. And once you pour that probiotic-laden concoction into your recipes, your gut health will be better for it.
Stadium hot dogs would not be the same without the invention of sauerkraut. The European staple has a simple composition – it’s cabbage shreds that have been fermented by way of lactic acid. The end result is a sour, salty-tasting topping that can last for months in an airtight container – ready for whenever you grill up some weenies for dinner.
To get probiotic benefits from your sauerkraut, make sure you choose an unpasteurized option. The fermented cabbage has a wealth of nutrients, from iron and manganese to vitamins B, C and K. Plus it has both zeaxanthin and lutein, antioxidants that improve eye health.
3. (Some kinds of) cheese
This one feels pretty similar to beer and wine, in that seeing cheese on this list might send you running to the fridge to get some ASAP. But these benefits mostly apply to raw cheeses, made from milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. It might be hard to find varieties to fit the bill but, once you do, you get the best of both worlds: a healthy snack and cheese, which normally don’t go hand in hand.
Check the label on your favorite cheese to see if it encompasses live and active cultures. You might find them in cottage cheese, as well as gouda or mozzarella. Once you find a raw cheese, you can dig in knowing you’ll get all of the regular benefits from eating cheese. Apart from enjoying its delicious taste, you get lots of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and more.
Love a salami sandwich? Well, your favorite kind of cold cut just so happens to make it from butcher to table with the help of fermentation. After the pork or beef base makes its way into the salami casing, it hangs in a humid, warm space to let the cultures grow for a few days. This process gives the lunchmeat its slightly tangy flavor, too.
Surprisingly, salami’s live cultures don’t disappear by the time the slices end up on your bread. Somehow they transfer from the meat’s casing, into the pork and onto your plate. And their presence can negate the nitrate concentrations that build up in salami. Plus the lunch meat contains a pretty varied and rich nutrient profile – all the more reason to pile it onto your lunchtime sub.
We don’t often think of carb-laden, baked fare as being good for us. But sourdough bread wouldn’t exist without fermentation – you need it to create your starter that begets loaf after loaf. And with a live and active base, you can probably guess that sourdough is one of the better, healthier breads for you.
Sourdough bread somehow maintains its prebiotic and probiotic properties post-bake, meaning that a slice can speed up your digestion. Fermentation changes the bread in a way that it’s gentler on blood sugar levels and boosts insulin sensitivity, too. Plus your typical loaf of this kind will boost your bodily levels with a slew of nutrients and antioxidants.