When talking about the fermented foods that have the most probiotics and health benefits, it’s important to understand that it’s not just about the TYPE of food, but also about HOW this food was produced.
To say in short, all types of traditionally fermented foods have enormous health benefits, and they are a true healing elixir for our gut. However, if not prepared correctly, they might not have any benefits at all, or they might even be harmful for us.
In our Healthy Cooking School we share a collective wisdom of several generations across regions about the traditional fermentation methods. Combined with our continuous scientific research, it allowed us to understand a few important things to always look at, when deciding if a particular fermented food is good for us or not.
(To see the full list of the healthy fermented foods, check out our list of 37 Fermented Foods from Around the World. If you want to understand why not all fermented foods are equal, and why some are healthier than the others, keep on reading this article)
Here is what to know about the fermented foods with the most health benefits:
Healthy Fermented Foods: made without vinegar
When thinking of flavourful fermented foods, many people imagine a taste of addictively delicious vinegary pickles on their tongue. Sadly, pickles that are made in vinegar, and ferments that are made through lacto-fermentation (i.e. without vinegar, using salt and brine), are two completely different things.
Vinegar serves the goal of preservation and added flavour, but it doesn’t add any health benefits to the ferments, in fact, sterilized vinegar pickles have no bacteria whatsoever. It includes the absence of good bacteria and probiotics. So, when you consume vinegar pickles, usually you pretty much consume just acid, salt and sugar. While it might taste wonderfully in your burger, it can cause potential problems for your digestion, especially when consumed in large quantities.
If you add a bit of unpasteurized raw vinegar to your ferments (like apple cider vinegar), then it will not harm the good bacteria and might even help it, but usually this is only possible with the homemade ferments – which brings me to the next point.
Healthy Fermented Foods: made at home
If you are after fermented foods not just for their taste, but also for their health benefits, you’ll inevitably have to learn how to make your own ferments at home. There are a few huge problems with the ferments produced at the industrial scale, let me explain.
First of all, 99% of ferments sold in the supermarkets are pasteurized. In other words, they are heated at high temperatures, and often it is not even stated on the label. It’s done for safety reasons and also to increase the shelf life of ferments and make sure that they don’t turn bad unexpectedly. For the sake of killing the bad bacteria, pasteurization kills all the good bacteria as well. As the result, all the health benefits and the probiotic qualities of the fermented foods are gone, even if they still taste really good. This concerns not only fermented vegetables, but also drinks like kombucha, so if you buy kombucha in store, you might just be drinking a regular soda, and not a probiotic drink.
Luckily, fermenting at home is really, really easy. For many recipes, it only takes 15-30 minutes of active time of preparation, and then a few days or weeks of waiting (and waiting must be the hardest part, as the ferments look so appetizing in the glass jars!).
Nowadays, you can even easily learn fermentation online: Happy Bellyfish offers an online course The Art of Fermented Foods. It breaks down 7 traditional techniques of fermentation, and shares 25 recipes, including homemade sodas and even condiments like ketchup.
Healthy Fermented Foods: made without excessive salt and additives
Many commercially produced fermented foods have unwanted additives in them, as well as excessive amounts of sugar and salt, that are absolutely not necessary for fermentation.
If you’ve read the famous book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us”, then you know that these substances are used merely as flavour enhancers, that make us so addicted to certain types of foods. Ferments and pickles are no different: if you compare a jar of pickled cucumbers made by your granny, and a jar from a supermarket, you’ll most definitely notice the difference. Besides, the salt used for the ferments is often of questionable quality, while the only types of recommended salt for healthy ferments are local rock salt without additives, pink Himalayan salt, Celtic salt or high quality sea salt, if you don’t mind it’s sharp flavour.
Healthy Fermented Foods: made without excessive sugar
The problem of excessive sugar usually comes up in case of fermented drinks, like kombucha and natural sodas. When these drinks are made, sugars are absolutely necessary, however, most of this sugar gets consumed during the fermentation process. That said, many producers often add significantly more sugar than it’s necessary for the fermentation process. For example, our teaching instructor in the Kombucha Masterclass recommends the amount of sugar, which is 3-4 times less than it’s stated in most of the available sources. As the person who’s been brewing kombucha for my entire family for ages, I can confirm that there is absolutely no necessity for more sugar to make a delicious, safe and healthy kombucha. The rest is just a matter of taste!
Moreover, even more sugar is often added to the fermented drinks produced on the commercial scale just before bottling, i.e. after the fermentation process, and therefore the consumption of sugar by bacteria, is complete. It’s done to make the flavor of the drink stronger and more attractive, but makes the otherwise healthy drinks as bad for us, as any other regular soda.
(If you want to learn more about the harmful effects of sugar, you can check out our free sugar detox)
As you see, for any fermented foods, it’s not enough just to be fermented at some stage of its production process, and there are a few nuances to keep in mind. If you are really concerned about the health benefits of fermented foods and want to get the most goodness for your gut from them, it’s worth it to start a small batch of your favourite ferment at home. Start with the easy things like sauerkraut and kombucha, and then slowly take it from there!
PS. Of course, if you have a trusted supplier of fermented foods near you, about whose method of production you are absolutely sure, and who doesn’t pasteurize their ferments, just go for it and enjoy them. Unfortunately in real life these types of producers are really hard to come by, that’s why we encourage people to try making delicious and easy ferments at home.