The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods


Author:Leo Akin
November, 2014


The process of fermentation has been central to food production and preparation for centuries. Quite a number of new, tasty food products have been prepared by the fermentation of regular foods sourced from plants and animal. Basically, fermented foods fall between fresh and rotten foods. The actual process of fermentation is driven by microbes especially bacteria. It involves breaking down certain macromolecular nutrients into new, different, smaller nutrients.

The most commonly fermented foods are milk and vegetables. Others such as soy, fish, seafood, cocoa and even rice are fermented in different cultures too. It is important to note that fermentation is not equivalent to decaying even though the two processes are similar. Specific microbes are needed to ferment certain foods. Any bacteria-ridden food does not simply become fermented and wholesome. The change in composition, texture and taste of fermented foods are produced by specific microbes when active under certain conditions.

Fermentation as Food Optimization

Fermented foods are generally more palatable than the foods from which they are produced. Natto, one such example, is a Japanese delicacy prepared from soy. Furthermore, the process of fermentation can enrich the source food. For example, the fermentation of cocoa beans to produce dark chocolate deepens the color of cocoa beans, improves their flavor and removes distasteful phytochemicals such as tannins.

Yogurt, a classic example of fermented foods, is also an excellent demonstration of how the process of fermentation can improve the appeal of foods. During the fermentation of milk, lactose is broken down and pro-inflammatory milk proteins such as casein are reduced or removed. The resulting yogurt (when properly prepared) is not only healthful but tolerable to people suffering from lactose intolerance.

For vegetables and other plant foods, the process of fermentation can also speed up the breakdown of anti-nutrients such as phytates. Phytates bind minerals in the gut and inhibit their absorption. By reducing the phytate content of vegetables, fermented foods can improve the nutritional value of other foods in your diet.

The Vitamin K in Fermented Foods

One of the most prominent vitamins in fermented foods is vitamin K. It can be found in fermented foods such as cheese, kefir and natto. More importantly, fermented foods usually contain vitamin K2 (the more bioactive vitamer of vitamin K) in its most potent forms (MK4 and MK7). This is because fermentation produces vitamin K2 rather than vitamin K1. In fact, this is the form of vitamin K produced by intestinal microbes in humans.

Vitamin K2 is important to health in many ways. For example, studies show that it is essential for the proper mineralization of the bones. In fact, it is even more important than vitamin D in this role. By extension, vitamin K2 is also important for dental health.

One of the major reasons why you need vitamin K2 for strong bones is because it is required for fixing calcium to bone matrix. In its absence, increased calcium intake only raises blood calcium levels and this will lead to the calcification and thickening of the walls of the arteries. Therefore, vitamin K2 (and fermented foods) can improve cardiovascular health by lowering the risks of atherosclerosis and heart attack.

Fermented Foods as Sources of Probiotics

The most important health benefits of fermented foods are derived from their rich stores of probiotic bacteria. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that confer certain health benefits on their hosts. The human gut is populated by millions of such probiotic bacteria and they are essential to our health. Probiotics are especially important for protecting the immune system against pathogens, toxins and other foreign substances. These microbes ensure that the gut is a clearing room for the body by preventing these harmful substances from reaching the blood and triggering unwanted immune reactions.

However, this protection is lost when the population of beneficial microbes in the gut dwindles. The loss of a healthy gut flora can cause leaky gut syndrome, systemic infections, inflammation and autoimmune disorders. The probiotic bacteria in fermented foods can help restore gut microbiota by replacing the lost beneficial bacteria. Therefore, fermented foods can change the composition of the gut flora for the better. Available studies show that the long-term benefits of probiotics extend beyond improved gut health. The probiotics in fermented foods can also slow down aging and significantly lower the risks of chronic and age-related diseases.


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