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Fermentation—a chemical process by which a carbohydrate is converted into an alcohol or an acid—has long been used in cultures all over the world as a food preserving technique. While beer and wine are produced by ethanol fermentation, where sugars are converted to the alcohol ethanol, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt are made by lactic acid fermentation. A bacteria called lactobacilli converts the starches and sugars in fruits or vegetables into lactic acid, which accounts for the distinct, sour flavor and smell of these foods.
Fermenting foods increases their nutritive value; for example, higher levels of niacin and riboflavin are found in fermented yogurt. One of the main reasons why fermented foods are healthy is their high probiotic content.
Our body is always full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that our body needs to stay healthy. Although you can buy isolated probiotics to take as a supplement, fermented foods are a great, inexpensive source of these vital bacteria for our bodies. Fermented foods also give you a better variety of natural bacterial strains than a probiotic supplement can offer.
7 To Remember: Why Fermented Foods Are Healthy
So let’s get to our list. Here are seven health benefits of fermented foods:
- Probiotics improve digestion by enhancing the quality and availability of many dietary nutrients, making pH changes in the gut, producing vitamins and enzymes, and antagonizing pathogens such as Salmonella and some strains of E. coli.[1,2]
- The probiotics found in fermented foods are especially effective at fighting diarrhea.
- Probiotics have wide ranging effects that can reach even the lungs, skin, and joints.
- Studies show that probiotics enhance immune function.[1,2,3]
- They benefit lipid metabolism[1,4] and have antioxidant properties.[4,5,6]
- Probiotics and fermented foods exhibit anti-cancer effects.[1,7]
- They might even play a role in mental health by treating depression.
Increase Your Consumption of Fermented Foods
With such a wide range of effects that can benefit your overall health, fermented foods deserve to be a regular part of your diet. Here are some common options that can likely be found in your local grocery store:
- Cultured cheeses
Many traditional foods from around the world are also fermented. For example, injera is a type of fermented flatbread used in Ethiopian cooking, dosas are fermented crepes found in Indian cooking, and Salvadorean cuisine includes curtida, a fermented cabbage relish. Try out various types of fermented foods to find your favorite. (This primer about the book Fermented Vegetables has several tips within.)
Share Your Experience
What are your favorite fermented foods? Do you find eating these foods helps your digestion or benefits your health in another way? Share your experience in the comments section below.
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 J Physiol Anthropol. 2014 Jan 15;33:2.
Originally published in 2014, this post is regularly updated.