Try These 8 Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut
Fermented foods are some of the most powerful foods for improving gut health. Here’s why.
For starters, fermented foods — such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir — are loaded with cultures of beneficial bacteria. This good bacteria aids digestion, reduces inflammation, strengthens your immune system, and prevents unhealthy bacteria from overpopulating your gut, which can lead to chronic digestive conditions such as candida, gut dysbiosis, and leaky gut syndrome (1).
Probiotic-rich foods also help replenish your body’s natural stores of healthy gut bacteria, which are destroyed by factors in our modern-day lifestyle we can’t escape, such as high levels of stress, antibiotic use, a diet high in processed foods, and environmental toxins such as pesticides.
Lastly, fermentation increases the nutrients and enzymes in a food, which not only makes the food easier to digest, but essentially turns it into a more nutritious version of itself (2).
People across the globe have been eating fermented foods since 6000 BC. At that time, fermentation was predominantly used to preserve food during times of famine, but research has proven the benefits of incorporating fermented foods in our diets today.
How Does Fermentation Work?
Fermentation is defined as the chemical breakdown of a substance (such as sugar) in an environment without oxygen and with beneficial organisms present, such as yeast, mold, or bacteria. When fermentation occurs, these organisms break down sugar or starches into gases, alcohol, or organic acids, such as lactic acid or acetic acid, the compound that gives apple cider vinegar its powerful antibacterial health benefits. (3)
Not all fermented foods contain gut-friendly probiotics. For example, sourdough bread is fermented with yeast but is baked at such a high temperature that the probiotics are destroyed. Beer, wine, and spirits are common fermented beverages, but the high alcohol content kills off all beneficial bacteria — not to mention they can harm your gut and liver.
So what should you eat? Here are eight nutritious, probiotic-rich fermented foods you can start adding to your diet today.
Top 8 Fermented Foods
Sauerkraut is more than just a condiment lurking in your fridge.
Sauerkraut is simply lacto-fermented green cabbage, which is fermented by a strain of bacteria found on cabbage called lactobacillus. Lactobacilli is present in soil (and therefore certain plant foods), as well as in some dairy products.
Aside from being rich in probiotics, sauerkraut is also a good source of fiber, B vitamins, calcium, and magnesium. Many health experts recommend adding 1/4 cup of sauerkraut to one meal per day to improve the digestive system and promote clear, glowing skin. This is because the health of your gut is related to the health of your skin (a connection called the gut-skin axis). (4)
You can add sauerkraut to anything and everything, including scrambled eggs, salads, open-faced sandwiches, and homemade tacos. Sauerkraut is incredibly inexpensive and easy to make at home. All you need is sea salt, water, a glass jar, chopped green cabbage, and a little bit of patience as the fermentation takes place (at least three weeks).
Make Your Own: Homemade Sauerkraut in a Mason Jar
If you don’t have time to make your own, most health food stores sell sauerkraut. Just be sure to find a variety that’s unpasteurized — otherwise it won’t contain the good, gut-friendly bacteria.
Similar to sauerkraut, kimchi is a lacto-fermented cabbage dish. It has more flavor than sauerkraut because garlic and chili powder are often added, along with carrots and other veggies. Kimchi is rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, and lactobacillus bacteria. Kimchi is Korean and is often eaten as a side dish in Asian cuisine or simply eaten along with a bowl of white rice. But the flavor of kimchi is mild enough to add to any dish you can imagine — from stir frys to quinoa salads.
You can find kimchi in the refrigerated section of most major grocery stores, but if you have the time and patience, try making it at home. The recipe below yields 8 pounds of kimchi, which will keep your fridge stocked with probiotics for months. But fair warning: fermenting your own kimchi will stink up your fridge!
Make Your Own: How to Make Kimchi: A Step-by-Step Guide
Kefir is a fancy name for fermented milk that’s rich in probiotics and enzymes. Its slightly tangy and sour taste almost makes you feel like you’re drinking liquid yogurt.
Kefir is made through symbiotic fermentation — which means both yeast and bacteria are used together. To make kefir, you need active kefir grains (which aren’t actual grains but a bacterial culture) and cow, sheep, coconut, rice, or goat milk.
If you’re currently struggling with painful digestive symptoms or other gut health issues, we recommend choosing coconut milk over dairy milk because as a common allergen, dairy can be difficult to digest (even fermented dairy products). For an added nutritional bonus, coconut milk also contains fat such as lauric acid, which has antibacterial and antifungal properties. (5)
Kefir is said to contain a wider variety of bacterial cultures than yogurt, and these bacteria have the ability to actually colonize the GI tract — which means they may be more effective for reducing chronic digestive symptoms (6).
Depending on where you live, it can be tricky to find kefir starter grains since they aren’t sold in stores. But you will have success if you search online or visit your local health food store. The beauty of kefir is that it’s extremely easy to make, and you can use the grains over and over again.
Make Your Own: Coconut Milk Kefir Recipe
If you purchase kefir at your local health food store, read the label to make sure it has no added sugar. Flavored kefir can have upwards of 25 grams of refined sugar per serving. Instead, we recommend choosing plain kefir and adding your own sugar-free flavorings, such as stevia or vanilla extract. You can also make a kefir “milkshake” by blending it with some frozen strawberries or blueberries.
4. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has made a splash in the health realm, mostly due to its bacteria-fighting benefits. However, it also contains a beneficial bacterial culture called “the mother”: a cloudy, cobweb-like substance that floats near the bottom of the bottle. The mother is where all of the probiotics are concentrated and what gives ACV stronger health benefits than other varieties of vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar has a strong acidic taste, but you can mask the flavor by adding a few teaspoons to lemon water and honey, or adding it to your homemade salad dressings or slow cooker bone broth.
If you purchase apple cider vinegar from your local health food store, be sure to choose one that’s raw, unpasteurized, and “with the mother” so you don’t miss out on the probiotics. If you’re looking for a recommendation, Bragg’s Raw Apple Cider Vinegar is a popular, inexpensive brand that’s sold at most major grocery stores.
Make Your Own: How to Make Apple Cider Vinegar at Home
Miso means “fermented beans” in Japanese, and that’s basically what it is: fermented soy bean paste.
Miso is fermented with grains such as barley or rice and a bacterial culture called koji. Koji is a type of yeast that’s been shown to produce a number of enzymes that support digestion. This is part of the reason why miso soup is commonly served before meals. While miso soup is one of the most common ways to eat miso, you can use miso paste to enhance the savory flavor of gravies, salad dressings, and stir frys.
There are even sweeter varieties of miso, such as white miso, that can be used in desserts. (Take a peek on Pinterest and prepare to be amazed!)
Similar to the other probiotic foods we’ve mentioned, the beneficial bacteria are destroyed when exposed to high heat, so keep this in mind when cooking with miso. To preserve the probiotics, just add miso during the simmering process and be careful not to boil.
Make Your Own: How to Make Miso Paste
Natto is another traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. But unlike miso, the whole soybeans are steamed or boiled and then mixed with a bacteria culture called bacillus subtilis.
A unique health benefit of natto is that the fermentation process also produces an enzyme called nattokinase, which produces vitamin K2. In fact, one cup of natto provides 50% of the daily recommended value of vitamin K. Natto is also an excellent source of plant-based calcium.
The only downside to natto can be the flavor and texture. It has a unique (and for some, not-so-pleasant) aroma, and a gooey, stringy texture which can be off-putting for some people (either that, or you’ll really love it!). But even if it’s not your favorite food, the nutritional benefits are totally worth it.
Make Your Own: How to Make Homemade Natto
7. Yogurt (Grass-Fed Dairy or Coconut Milk)
Yogurt is made through lacto-fermentation with nut or dairy milk and a yogurt starter culture. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt is called transient bacteria, because they feed existing healthy gut bacteria as they pass through your intestinal tract. Unlike the bacteria found in kefir, they don’t colonize your GI tract, but they still have gut-supportive benefits.
Like kefir, we recommend coconut milk yogurt over dairy because it’s easier on digestion and contains fats like lauric acid.
If you do choose dairy milk, whenever possible try to find a variety that uses milk from grass-fed cows. Grass-fed cow milk is higher in anti-inflammatory omega–3 essential fatty acids and lower in pro-inflammatory omega–6s than conventional dairy milk. It also contains fewer antibiotics and hormones (7).
Make Your Own: How to Make Yogurt (Easy Homemade Recipe)
8. Beet Kvass
Earthy, slightly fizzy, and a little salty, beet kvass is a fermented drink known for being a powerful healing tonic.
Since beets are already rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, the fermentation process creates a nutritional powerhouse by making these nutrients even easier for your body to digest and absorb.
Beets are also rich in nitrates, which your body converts into nitric oxide — a compound that boosts blood flow, circulation, and energy levels. Beet kvass could be an ideal pre-workout drink to make your workouts stronger or a therapeutic food if you suffer from fatigue.
Traditionally, beet kvass was added to borscht, but you can drink it plain and add it to soups, vinaigrettes, or any other recipes that might need a hint of tart flavor. All you need to make beet kvass is salt or the juice from sauerkraut as a salt source, a few peeled beets, and water. The fermentation process takes between two to four days. You can also warm up the flavor with ginger, like this recipe does.
Make Your Own: Ginger Beet Kvass
As you can see, there are plenty of fermented foods you can try to find out which ones are your jam. By consistently including fermented foods in your diet, you can expect to experience less bloating, regular, bowel movements, glowing skin, fewer sick days, and even a happier mood. As Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut,” and fermented foods are one powerful way to create a solid foundation for health.
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