At the mention of fermented foods, you might think of the sauerkraut served alongside your bratwurst sausage or the pungent kimchi you sampled at a Korean restaurant. Likewise, small amounts of fermented miso, tempeh, tofu, and soy sauce are all staples among the traditional Asian diet.

Fermentation makes foods easier to digest. And the partial breakdown of lactose sugar during fermentation makes certain dairy products like yoghurt easier on the digestive system. While fermented foods have become trendy recently, eclipsing kale and even avocado to land the spot of No. 1 superfood in America, many people don’t know how extensive the category actually is. Literally, thousands of foods and drinks can be fermented.

Fermenting puts a food through a process called lacto fermentation, which (contrary to its name) has nothing to do with the lactose in milk. During that fermentation process, natural bacteria or yeasts feed on that food’s sugar and starch.

People didn’t always know about the benefits of fermented foods, which go back about 9,000 years. Instead, our ancestors used fermentation for more practical reasons: to preserve foods, keep those foods fresh longer, and improve flavour. Many of these production methods occurred by chance, and cultural traditions passed them down to subsequent generations.

Along the way, humans discovered that fermentation also provides many health benefits. During fermentation, bacteria synthesize vitamins and minerals, producing biologically active peptides with enzymes while eliminating some non-nutrients. They essentially help make nutrients more bioavailable for our bodies to utilize efficiently.

These biologically active peptides in fermented foods provide many health benefits, including:

  • Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), which can lower your blood pressure
  • Exopolysaccharides, which behave as prebiotics to feed your good gut bugs
  • Bacteriocins with antimicrobial effects
  • Sphingolipids with anticarcinogenic and antimicrobial benefits

The live microorganisms in fermented foods provide healthy bacteria for your gut. When you eat them, they help support and optimize your good gut bugs (or probiotics) and diversify those healthy bugs. That’s important because lots of things – including chronic stress, a diet high in processed foods and sugar, and multiple courses of antibiotics throughout your lifetime – can adversely alter your gut flora. When you eat the right foods, including cultured or fermented foods, you restore that balance between favourable and unfavourable microorganisms in the gut. And what affects your gut affects nearly everything in your body.

Fermented foods and drinks also provide many other benefits, including improving markers of mental health. That makes sense, considering that your gut manufactures many mood-regulating neurotransmitters including feel-good serotonin and relaxation-inducing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

One review of 140 studies over a 50-year period had “remarkably consistent” results: Fermented foods deliver large numbers of potentially beneficial gut microorganisms. Those live microorganisms in fermented foods also provide an antioxidant boost and lower inflammation. They can help reduce your risk for certain diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Their antimicrobial and antifungal benefits protect against bad gut bugs and support good gut health.

Fermented vegetables provide a tasty, inexpensive way to get tons of nutrients, meet your veggie quota, and feed the good gut bugs that contribute to vital health and well-being. So go ahead and start consuming more fermented and cultured foods and drinks!

Here’s a straightforward method of fermenting vegetables at home: