Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation and nutrition enhancement that humans discovered thousands of years ago through careful observation. Modern scientists have determined that the benefits of fermented foods and beverages include digestive support and improved mental health. A study published in the “Journal of Physiological Anthropology” in 2014 theorized that fermentation boosts the nutrient and phytochemical content of foods, leading to enhanced health benefits.
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Vegetables and Fruits
Common fermented vegetable dishes include sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage; pickles, or fermented cucumbers; beets and radishes; and corn relish. Kimchi is a Korean dish that includes fermented cabbage, onions and ginger. The Weston A. Price Foundation notes that people in China, Japan and Korea ferment many varieties of vegetables, including eggplant, carrots, squash and turnips, while Russians and Poles ferment peppers, lettuce and green tomatoes. Although less common, fruits such as watermelon rind and umeboshi plums may also be fermented.
In a study published in “Food Engineering & Ingredients” in 2008, researchers concluded that fermenting soy foods increased their amino acid content while also reducing their potential to cause allergic reactions in humans. Fermented soy foods include miso, a type of soy paste; tempeh; natto; and soy sauce -- all foods used regularly in Asian cuisines.
Fermented, or cultured, dairy foods have demonstrated beneficial effects on digestion by restoring healthy bacteria in the gut. According to University of Michigan Integrative Health, they also improve the digestion of lactose, or milk sugar, in people who suffer from lactose intolerance and help reduce the symptoms of digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Among the most common fermented dairy foods are yogurt, kefir, sour cream, buttermilk and cottage cheese.
The National Center for Food Preservation posits that the first beer was made by accident, when some barley grains were left in the rain and began to germinate. Beer is among the best-known and most-consumed fermented beverages, along with wine, which is basically any type of fermented fruit juice. Ginger beer is another fermented drink, as is kombucha, which is made from sweetened tea and often used as a digestive aid.