Fermented Magic? Maybe.

April 18, 2017 in Health by Joyce Bunderson

In all honesty, I don’t spend much time keeping up with the many claims about what is healthy, made by movie stars; TV doctors and personalities; un-credentialed, self-proclaimed nutritionists’; tabloids and/or magazine articles. On a certain level, I’d like to keep up with them; most especially because I’d like to warn my friends and the readers of this blog, when there’s something that may be dangerous. But the fact is that I have so many other interests and my commitment to keeping up with well-researched, medical science is very time consuming.

Speaking of health claims, recently, I’ve stumbled upon some information that many people are trying to eat more fermented foods. Certainly, fermented foods have been eaten by humans for millennia. Some of my ancestors enjoyed beer and sauerkraut; and others cheese and wine; and yet others pickles and olives. Decades ago, I added yogurt to my diet; and eventually, after visiting Greece, I switched to Greek yogurt. When my son came home from living in Japan for a couple of years, he shared some of his beloved kimchi. My American taste buds had tasted nothing more distasteful in my life – kimchi never got off the ground in my kitchen.

Why eat fermented foods? The rationale is that foods like kimchi, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha have millions of microbes in every gram. That’s as many or maybe more than the average American gets in their entire day’s intake. If a person consumes lots of fermented foods, it may become the near equivalent of having those microorganisms living within their body. But the fact is that we still don’t know how much benefit there is.

There certainly are some benefits of including fermented foods in our diet. One of the most researched examples is yogurt. The microbes in yogurt can change the lactose (milk sugar) that some people can’t digest; those people then benefit from the nutrients in milk without the discomfort of lactose intolerance. In addition, there may be lower risk of diabetes for those who consume yogurt.

Now having said that, there are some problems with some of the non-scientific sites that tout fermented foods. One of the problems is that most of the microbes are killed by the acid in our stomach prior to reaching our gut. That doesn’t mean, however, that those bacteria can do no good at all. Dr. Robert W. Hutkins from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources; Food Science and Technology Department has shared some really useful information online. If you want to better understand the challenges of changing the microflora in your gut, this is a wonderful researcher to start with. Part of his work, shows that the already established microbes have a certain power over the new transplants. I especially enjoy his metaphor of weeds growing in a lawn and trying to sprinkle grass seeds on the weed-filed lawn area, expecting a lush lawn as a result. The bottom line is that it’s complicated, but researchers are making great progress in this field

There is one very important word of caution in the possible decision to begin eating larger amounts of fermented foods; that is that some are very high in sodium. Salt is used in the fermenting process in many of the foods (check the label of the sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and so on). If you’re trying to avoid high blood pressure, these foods should not be consumed ad libitum. Asian people who eat the most salt cured vegetables like kimchi have a higher risk of stomach cancer.

As with most nutrition advice the most desired condiment, in my opinion, is common sense. If you love kimchi, then enjoy some. If your body responds to the additional salt intake by pushing up your blood pressure, then be forewarned. Is it fermented magic? Maybe; maybe not; hold on while people like Dr. Robert Hutkins find out.