By Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
Probiotics are among the most highly used nutritional supplements today, with data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) showing that about 4 million (1.6 percent) U.S. adults had used probiotics or prebiotics in the 30 days prior to the survey.(1) Among adults, probiotics were the third most commonly used dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals, and the use of probiotics quadrupled between 2007 and 2012.(1) The 2012 NHIS also showed that 300,000 children age 4 to 17 had used probiotics or prebiotics in the 30 days before the survey.(1) While supplementation with probiotics is often beneficial and necessary for a therapeutic intervention, we can derive these same beneficial bacteria through fermented foods.
Fermentation has a long-standing history in various cultures, with numerous types of fermented foods serving as staples within the diets of traditional people. Sadly over time many of these traditions fell away and fermented foods fell out of favor in everyday cooking and dietary habits. Recently as part of a trend towards returning to more ancestral nutritional customs, fermented foods have made a resurgence.
The fermentation process was used by traditional cultures primarily as a method of food preservation. It proved to be a critical means of providing food security to early indigenous populations. In addition, fermentation can enhance a food’s nutritional status. The bacteria supplied to our gut via the fermentation process play an important role in human health by supplying essential nutrients, synthesizing vitamin K, aiding in the digestion of cellulose, and promoting nerve function in the gastrointestinal tract.(2)
While probiotic foods provide the bacteria that impart a variety of health-promoting benefits, prebiotics fuel the proliferation of probiotics in the digestive tract. Prebiotics are essentially “food” for the probiotic bacteria – forms of carbohydrates that strains of bacteria rely on for their own metabolic activities.
The following list(3) courtesy of the Institute for Functional Medicine highlights common probiotic- and prebiotic-rich food sources:
Health Benefits of Fermented Food
From a modern scientific perspective, fermented foods are primarily being studied for their functional compounds and potential application in disease management. A growing appreciation for the complex internal environment of the gut and microbiota that reside within the human body has lead researchers to look to the influence of this microbial environment on human health. Gastrointestinal and immune function are at the forefront of this research with the knowledge that the human gut is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms - ten times more than the human cells.(2)
Research has also shown evidence of fermented foods and the beneficial bacteria they provide influencing positive health outcomes in the following areas:
How to Incorporate Fermented Foods into Your Diet
Incorporating probiotic-rich provisions into your diet is easier today than ever before, with a variety of manufacturers now specializing in the production of fermented foods. Typically you can find these options in the “natural foods” section of your local grocery store. Brands such as Wildbrine and Ozuke as well as local producers here in Baltimore such as Hex Ferments specialize in delicious fermented foods ranging from Carrot Juniper Kombucha to Kale & Collards Kimchi to Red Beet and Cabbage Sauerkraut.
If you’re adventurous and want to try your hand at homemade ferments, the process is actually relatively simple: all you really need is a Mason jar with water, a high-quality sea salt (a good rule of thumb for salt in vegetable ferments is 1-3 tablespoons per quart of water), and your fruit or vegetable of choice. Cover the foods in your water and salt mixture, and leave them from two days to two weeks at room temperature (between 68-72 degrees). When starting out, be sure the liquid covers the ingredient you are fermenting, and do not open the jar until the process is over, as too much oxygen will ruin it. You'll know fermenting is complete when the jar lid no longer "pops" back when you push it down. Some lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables may get bubbly; this is fine and completely natural.
To kick-start your fermentation method, use a fermenting agent, such as whey from homemade yogurt or kefir, or a starter culture. You can find starter cultures online and at natural foods stores. Once your fermented product is complete, it should be stored at approximately 40 degrees (the top shelf of your refrigerator will normally suffice). Lacto-fermented vegetables will keep several months in cold storage; fruits and preserves should be eaten within two months of making. For more ideas, resources, and recipes, search online for sites such as CulturesForHealth.com and others to help you become a culinary curator of fermented fare.
About the Author: Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
As a clinical, integrative nutritionist with the University of Maryland Center For Integrative Health and Healing, Jason Bosley-Smith works to seek out the underlying cause of health imbalance and provides evidence-based dietary & lifestyle interventions to support his patients' health and wellness. Jason leverages the tools of blood chemistry analysis, nutritionally-focused physical examination, dietary enhancements, targeted supplementation, and lifestyle modifications to empower his patients to renewed vitality. Jason holds a Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health from Maryland University of Integrative Health and is a Licensed Dietetic Nutritionist with the State of Maryland. He is a Certified Nutrition Specialist, and is Certified in Functional Diagnostic Nutrition. Jason serves as faculty within the Integrative Sciences department at Maryland University of Integrative Health, and is a guest lecturer at George Washington University, the Institute for Integrative Health, and several other organizations. TO make an appointment with Jason, please call 410-448-6361.
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