Fermented foods – are they good for our gut?
As we become more aware of the importance of gut health, our interest in the benefits of probiotics and fermented foods is increasing too. Check out #fermentation on Instagram, and you’ll see almost 200,000 photos of kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi in glossy Kilner jars. But are fermented foods really good for the gut? And what about those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other frustrating digestive symptoms like bloating, where eating anything remotely unusual just seems to make things worse?
Let’s start with how foods are fermented. Covering vegetables, like cabbage, in salt water brine enables the growth of bacteria. These bacteria eat the cabbage’s natural sugars, producing lactic acid which gives a sour, tart taste. Voila, sauerkraut.
There are a lot of claims about the benefits of fermented foods, most prominently to do with probiotic or ‘good’ gut bacteria they produce. It’s true that we need probiotics to promote digestion and to support the immune system. But research studies on fermented foods are limited, and the jury is out as to whether their consumption actively promotes the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Still, they are unlikely to do any harm. And of course they have that lovely umami taste that adds another dimension to your dish.
If you’re on the low FODMAP diet for IBS or related digestive symptoms like diarrhoea and stomach pain, it can be hard to consume enough probiotics and prebiotics (‘food’ for good bacteria) as many of the foods temporarily removed during the plan contain them. Get your prebiotics from oats, bananas and small serves of higher FODMAP foods like beetroot, butternut squash and almonds. And as for those good bacteria? The great news for digestion-challenged foodies is that you can experiment with fermented foods. Try lactose-free or goat’s milk yoghurt; just check they contain live cultures. You can also eat tempeh, miso, sourdough bread made from spelt and fermented gherkins (make sure they are in brine, rather than vinegar). And if you really want to get on the sauerkraut train, you can even have a single tablespoon serve – up to half a cup if it’s made from red cabbage. If you have a happy tummy and you want to keep it that way, go for broke – see you on Instagram!