The Benefits of Fermented Foods

By Debi Hopkins

There are a variety of different fermented foods available to supplement our daily diet.   Why should we seek to supplement our daily diet with fermented foods? 


Supplementing our diet with fermented foods offers us these health benefits:  it can help to reduce high cholesterol levels in our blood, it strengthens and supports our digestive and immune systems--- thereby helping our bodies to fight off and prevent diseases, like cancer.


Dr. Mercola ( ) has some very educational information on fermented foods on his web site. 


Some of what I have learned by researching this topic is that fermentation is an inconsistent process, and some consider it more of an art than a science.  Because of this, commercial food processors ignore the health benefits available to us from these fermented foods, because they involve more time and labor.  Instead, they have developed techniques to help "standardize" or provide more consistent outcomes in the form of food products and supplements.   This can be a plus for those of us who are not used to consuming a diet rich in fermented foods, and have not acquired a "taste" for things like unsweetened yogurt, Kefir, Natto, naturally fermented vegetables, sourdough bread, and Miso.  The fermented food most of us are probably familiar with is Soy sauce, or Tamari, a wheat free fermented sauce that is used in cooking and to season food much the same as soy sauce is used.


Technically speaking, anything that is "brined" in a salt stock is considered to be a "fermented" food, but that is where the similarity ends.   Each type of fermented food has specific and unique requirements and is produced using specific methods for that unique type.

Until I started researching this whole topic, I was unaware that commercially prepared black olives are not generally fermented, but are actually treated with a lye solution to remove the bitterness, then they are packed in a salt solution and canned.  Now I know why the health food store near our home (Wild Oats) has an olive bar!  I can't wait to check that out for lunch this week <grin>  They offer a variety of naturally fermented foods in their olive bar, which is right along side the salad and soup bar.

Most of us are probably not surprised that the  modern day food manufacturing companies have traded the health benefits that these naturally fermented foods provide for the more convenient "mass-produced" food items that we are more familiar with.   Take yogurt for example----many of the yogurts available on supermarket shelves  are so laden with sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) that they are little more than a glorified "puddings".   Not to mention that modern techniques used to manufacture them kill off most if not all of the lactic acid producing bacteria and short-circuit the healthy contribution they could be making to our intestinal and overall health. 


Making yogurt at home is a very easy, and rewarding!  I have been making kefir (a fermented milk product) for the past month or so in my home, and my two young grandsons and myself just love it!  Nothing could be easier to make either---after the initial process of bringing the milk to a boil and letting it cool down, before adding the freeze dried kefir starter mix, and then letting it culture at room temperature for 14-24 hours, every successive batch is made by just adding some of the old kefir to new organic milk, and letting it culture again at room temperature.  (See last months Family Homestead newsletter for more information on this topic.)  My next venture in kefir making will be to try and locate some live kefir grains and making it that way---I hear it is even better, nutritionally speaking, than kefir made using the freeze dried culture.

Soy is a hotly debated food product these days.   And many of us do not realize that most of the controversy is related to the non-fermented soy food products like soy milk;  tofu;  fresh green soybeans; whole dry soybeans;  soy Nuts;  soy sprouts;  and soy flour.  Why are fermented soy bean products healthy for us to consume  and non-fermented soy bean products detrimental to our health?


Non-fermented soy products contain phytic acid, which contains anti-nutritive properties.  Phytic acid binds with certain nutrients, including iron, to inhibit their absorption.  This is a direct, physical effect that takes place in the digestive system.  Their ability to bind is limited by the milligrams of phytic acid present.

If you read labels, you will notice how hard it is to avoid soy in processed foods these days.  Foods such as baby formula, meat substitutes, drinks and snacks almost always contain soy products of one shape or form.    Soy is sanctioned by the USDA, which cite the presence of isoflavones as a health benefit, which  scientists say can help to reduce one's risk of contracting cancer.

On the other hand, fermented soy stops the effect of phytic acid and increases the availability of isoflavones.  The fermentation also creates the probiotics, the "good" bacteria that our body is absolutely dependent on, such as lactobacilli, which increases the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilation of nutrients in our body.

Products using fermented soy include:  Natto (or Nattokinase, the enzyme you can find in supplemental form that is made when Natto soy beans are fermented);  Miso;  Tempeh;   Soy sauce;  and fermented tofu or fermented soymilk.

Many studies have shown traditionally fermented soy, which is the form that is very popular in many Asian cultures, aids in preventing and reducing a variety of diseases including certain forms of heart disease and cancers.

One study on the culturing method involved in the production of the Japanese traditional food "Miso"  concluded that the culturing process itself led to a lower number and growth rate of cancer cells.   


Researchers also found it was not the presence of any specific nutrient that was cultured along with the soy bean paste but the cultured soy medium itself that was responsible for the health benefits associated with eating miso.  Miso, a fermented or probiotic form of soy bean, is particularly rich in the isoflavone aglycones, genistein and daidzein, which are believed to be cancer preventatives.

The health benefits are found to be as good with natto,  according to research conducted by scientists in Japan, who have found that natto has the highest fibrinolytic activity among 200 foods available worldwide.  About 15 years ago, one of these same scientists discovered that an enzyme produced in the fermentation process, "nattokinase", is a very powerful agent contained in the sticky part of natto that dissolves blood clots that can lead to heart attacks, strokes and senility.  Natto also contains vitamin K2 and isophrabon, which help to prevent diseases such as osteoporosis and breast cancer and to slow down the aging process.  Four years ago, the World Health Organization reported that the Japanese, who consume large amounts of fermented soy foods like natto and miso along with green tea, ginger and ocean herbs, have the longest lifespan of any people in the world.  In this same study Americans didn't even make the top 20 for lengthy lifespans, which has much to do with a Western diet I'm sure.  Our Western diet consists mainly of foods that are processed and genetically altered.  Is it any wonder we hear so much about the rise of such detrimental health problems like heart disease, obesity, autism, ADD and ADHD,  and dementia?


I think in light of all of this wonderful information, it behooves us to turn back to the traditional ways our ancestors used in preparing their daily food menu,  to consume more fermented foods, and not rely as heavily on refrigeration and freezing of our food supply as a means of preserving our food.  Mankind has been eating fermented food for millennia, I think it's time we got back to practicing the same healthy ways of preparing our family's foods!


In Him,

Debi <><




Herbs and Family Health