Is Eating Fermented Food Good for You?

With the way some of us are guzzling kombucha and slurping yogurt, you’d think that fermentation had just been invented. While the idea of worrying about gut health is trendy, eating fermented food is an ancient tradition. Although we don’t need to ferment food today – we’re spoiled with grocery stores throughout the year – the question remains: is fermented food actually good for us?

According to Alan Bakalinsky, Associate Professor of Food Science & Technology at OSU, “Our ancestors had very limited means of preserving food but like us, had to eat during seasons when food could not be found or grown. Drying, heating, salting, [and] fermenting were among the tools they developed.”

Food is fermented when microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria are used to convert carbohydrates to alcohol or preservative organic acids. When you eat fermented food, you’re also ingesting probiotics—the “good” bacteria that promote healthy digestion. This can lead to increased immune function, among other things. Still, saying that fermented food is good for other health issues is complicated.

“Some epidemiological studies that correlate diet with health suggest that eating fermented milks is associated with a reduced risk for certain forms of cancer. Other studies are equivocal,” said Bakalinsky.

Mary Cluskey, Associate Professor of Nutrition at OSU, said that eating a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains does help maintain a healthy gut. Adding a bit of sauerkraut or yogurt doesn’t hurt. “Fermented foods are made with microorganisms, some of which – when consumed – further enhance the gut microbiota,” she said.

However, further research needs to be done before we can say—beyond a doubt—that fermented foods are a necessary part of a healthy diet.

“Healthy microbes in the gut contribute to control of harmful bacteria in the body and, in general, a healthy digestive system, among other bodily functions,” Cluskey said. “Some evidence of improved disease outcomes has been shown, but that is not completely clear.”

Bakalinsky spends a lot of time in his lab working with wine and a specific type of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which was first domesticated thousands of years ago. He said, “Today, we use this same yeast to make all sorts of other valuable fermentation products in and outside the world of food. And study of the organism itself has been a rich source of biological information that is relevant to processes and problems that occur in other organisms, including humans.”

If you’re interested in trying fermentation at home, Bakalinsky recommends starting with The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, stopping by Corvallis Brewing Supply, or checking out the Food Science & Technology Department at OSU.

When it comes to gut health, it’s best to pay attention to your own body and eat or drink what makes you feel good. Give fermented food a shot – your digestive system may thank you. If nothing else, most researchers agree that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease. That’s something most of us can get behind.

If you want to try some tasty food, Kirsten Shockey and her husband, Christopher Shockey, will be promoting Fiery Ferments, a cookbook that contains tons of recipes for fermented hot sauces, spicy chutneys, and more. They will be signing books and providing samples at a free event on Wednesday, June 7 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the First Alternative South Store Meeting Room.

By Anika Lautenbach