With the rise of antibiotics, pasteurization and other sterilization processes, healthy bacteria in your gut are under assault. Fermented foods can re-establish balance in your digestive system.

Are we becoming too clean? In a world of antibacterial soaps, pasteurized foods and house- hold cleaners that promise to rid us of germs, are we killing off the microbes that help to keep us healthy? When it comes to the health of our digestive systems, that may indeed be the case.

Fermented foods are one way to reverse that trend according to Nicole Campbell, a nutritional consultant with Organic Earth Market in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Eating fermented foods is one of the best ways for people to obtain the health benefits of healthy bacteria,” she says.

Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process known as lacto-fermentation. Similar to the process of fermentation in alcohol, lacto-fermentation occurs when natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in food and give off lactic acid as a by-product. The process helps preserve the food for longer periods of time and creates beneficial by-products including enzymes, B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and various strains of probiotics.

“Bacteria is the end product,” says Campbell.

Once the bacteria are consumed they give a host of health benefits. “It’s very beneficial for the digestive system. It creates a nice terrain of good bacteria in the gut and can help with problems like candida and irritable bowel syndrome.”

Natural fermentation can make food easier to digest and also helps to preserve nutrients. That goes a long way in helping to improve digestion, says Campbell. Many people are already fans of fermented food with- out even knowing it. Many types of pickles fall under the definition of fermented foods. So does sauerkraut, one of the signature dishes of Nova Scotian South Shore and German cuisine. “A lot of people eat sauerkraut because they like the flavour of it, without realizing it’s very beneficial for maintaining a healthy digestive system,” says Campbell.

Fermented foods are also a good choice for someone on a vegan or dairy-free diet, she says. “Someone who doesn’t eat dairy can’t take advantage of the probiotic benefits of yogurt, so fermented foods are a great alternative.”

Antibiotics can also have a detrimental effect on the good bacteria in our bodies—something that fermented foods can help correct.

Sauerkraut and its Asian cousin kimchi are just the tip of the probiotic iceberg. “Soy sauce is also a fermented food,” says Campbell. The popular sauce that’s been part of Chinese cuisine for nearly two millennia is made from fermented soybeans, grains and a fungus known as koji.

Kefir is similar to yogurt, except it’s more of a drinkable consistency. Made from fermented milk, the ancient central Asian recipe has been touted to reduce irritation in the intestines and prevent toxins and other pathogens from getting into the blood. There’s also coconut kefir made from coconut milk for those who may be sensitive to dairy. A good example is the Canadian best-selling Cultured Coconut available in a number of health food stores across Canada.

Kombucha, another drinkable product, is made from fermented tea, sugar, yeast, bacteria and healthy probiotics. The fizzy liquid is available as an additive in teas and juices and can be used to combat toxic bacteria in the digestive tract as well as aiding in digestion.

With the advent of pasteurization and other sterilization processes, probiotics and enzymes have been on the decline in recent decades. The secret to the attraction of fermented foods is the fact that the foods are essentially alive, says Campbell, not the sterile foods that have become a typical part of most diets.

“Fermented foods are an inexpensive way to add healthy food to your diet and to help create a proper digestive balance,” she says. “They should be a part of everyone’s diet.” While it’s good to introduce fermented foods into your diet, be careful to not add too much at one time as a rapid or sudden change in your gut biome can lead to gas and other unpleasantries for a couple of days.

Try out different types of fermented foods over time such as kombucha as a drink and mixing some sauerkraut into your recipes. You don’t have to go all in right away!

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