The humble gut has a profound influence over our wider bodily systems. It is a linchpin of immunity, increasingly under threat from the modern problem of chemicals, un-foods and stress. With our internal flora imbalanced, health becomes compromised and we look to pharmaceuticals and supplements for realignment.
We wonder, as perhaps you do, whether there is any real benefit in taking pills to improve gut health? Whether they might actually cause more harm than good? So for those of us teetering on the edge of doubt, thankfully, nature has gifted us some powerful probiotics in the form of fermented foods.
Fermentation, the natural process of decomposition involving bacteria or yeasts, happens all throughout the living world. Its significance to digestive health is its ability to reinforce the gut-kind bacteria and nutrients available to our internal ecosystem. Wide-ranging benefits cited include the reduction of inflammation within the body, the relief of IBS and even, it is said, the prevention of certain cancers.
Whether or not today’s interest in fermented foods proves valid, common-sense tells us that, before we seek out manufactured cures, we might first explore the centuries-old remedies that have been used by cultures the world over. Particularly since these, once ‘exotic’, foods can be found in supermarkets and international stores, in almost every town.
Like yoghurt, kefir is a ‘live’ fermented milk product. Usually taken as a drink, it differs from yoghurt in the length of fermentation which determines the concentration of beneficial bacteria — often containing two or three times as many cultures as its lesser-fermented counterpart.
Perhaps one of the first natural probiotics, existing in various forms since pre-13th century, the potent combination of vitamins, minerals and desirable bacteria are believed to make this a powerful immunity booster. And though we may not have foreseen sauerkraut’s status as a food icon for today, countless newcomers and lifelong swear-by-ers praise its health-giving properties.
Asia’s answer to sauerkraut is fermented for a shorter period of time, resulting in a saltier taste. Both contain high levels of Lactobacillus which is thought to promote gut health and biodiversity. The differences between the two are in the plant parts used — kimchee favours the stems and leaves whereas sauerkraut uses shredded cabbage heads — and the addition of flavouring ingredients like chillies, garlic and fish sauce in the Asian variety. Both are low in calories but high in fibre, antioxidants and vitamins C and B.
Made of fermented whole soybeans; tempeh has occupied a space within Asian vegetarian cooking since at least the 16th century. It differs vastly from soy products like tofu, which contain antinutrients and phytoestrogens that hinder the body’s absorption of vital nutrients. Tempeh has a high protein quality and contains good levels of many B vitamins and beneficial bacterial strains. Links have been made between lower cholesterol levels and increased bone density in populations where tempeh is consumed regularly. It is even thought to hold antibiotic properties.
Nattō, also derived from whole soybeans, may be a trial for the unaccustomed. Traditionally served as a breakfast in parts of Japan — with soy sauce, Japanese onions and karashi mustard — the texture and aroma of the sticky beans are unusual for western tastes. As well as being a concentrated source of iron, calcium and a host of other vital minerals and vitamins, it is the presence of a bacteria named B. subtilis which is believed to make nattō healing for the gut.
In Asia, miso has long been used to combat ill health in its many forms. From fatigue to high cholesterol to heart disease. It is considered an anti-inflammatory food, soothing all manner of digestive traumas; from peptic ulcers to IBS and IBD. Again, miso is the product of whole, fermented, soybeans — though it can also be made from grains such as rice, barley and oats. It is the bacteria koji, and the balance of essential nutrients and phytonutrients, which are thought to contribute to improved digestion and reduced inflammation in the body.