The Dos and Don’ts of Fermented Foods

If you are the adventurous type, you could also make your own fermented foods at home. Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, two Stanford microbiologists who are married and co-authored the new study, ferment their own homemade kimchi, kefir, kombucha and pickles. One of the simplest fermented foods to make is sauerkraut. Here’s a quick recipe. To get started, all you need is a head of cabbage, salt and a Mason jar.

TPP: How should I shop for fermented foods?

AO: If you’re like me, and you prefer to buy fermented foods, there are some important things to look for. Not all foods that are made through fermentation contain live microorganisms when they reach store shelves or your kitchen table. The dough that is used to make sourdough bread, for example, is fermented by bacteria (hence the sour flavor), but the microbes are destroyed during baking. Wine is made by fermenting grape juice. But commercial wines are filtered and processed to get rid of most of the live microbes.

Dr. Justin Sonnenburg said that to ensure the fermented foods you are buying actually contain probiotics, read the packaging and look for statements like “contains probiotics” or “contains live cultures.” Some packages might simply say “naturally fermented.” And some foods, like yogurt and kefir, will often list the probiotic strains that they contain on their label. You will typically find these fermented foods in refrigerated aisles at grocery stores.

TPP: Kimchi is too spicy for me. Is the spicy sauce part of the benefit?

AO: According to Dr. Sonnenburg, kimchi is exceptional because it’s relatively complex for a fermented food. “It has a lot of ingredients, and in some cases it even includes fish sauce or soy sauce, which are also fermented foods.” It’s possible that some of the spices in kimchi confer health benefits, he added. But the benefits seen in the new study were likely a result of more than just the spicy component of kimchi.

Most fermented foods contain fewer ingredients than kimchi, and it’s easy to find ones that are not spicy at all, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut. But there are many recipes for kimchi, and you might be able to find some online that are on the milder side, said Christopher Gardner, a co-author of the new study and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

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