The unique properties and health benefits of fermented foods

Kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha aren’t just trendy foods that have gained popularity in recent years; they also happen to be products that rely heavily on the activity of microbes for their unique flavor, texture and health properties. In other words, they are all fermented foods.

The GMFH editing team sat down with Professor Robert Hutkins, from the University of Nebraska (USA) to discuss the unique properties of fermented foods, including their potential health benefits. Prof. Hutkins, who recently published the second edition of his textbook Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods, describes fermented food as a transformation of raw materials by the action of microbes. This process of fermentation generally transforms sugar into acid, alcohol, and gasses that give fermented foods their unique flavor. Some of these foods were discovered by chance – food was left out and microbes naturally started the fermentation process. Some foods are still made by spontaneous fermentation, but now starter cultures are more commonly used to streamline the process allowing better management of fermentation processes.

Fermentation not only gives fermented products a unique sensory signature but can also enhance the nutritional value and digestibility of foods in several ways. The process of fermentation can produce vitamins, anti-oxidants, and molecules that lower blood pressure and inflammation. Beyond nutritional value, fermented foods which contain live bacteria may influence the intestinal microbiota. Although the live microorganisms found in fermented food tend to pass through the gut transiently, if consumed regularly, they may be able to influence the gut microbiota by out-competing undesirable microbes. Prof. Hutkins emphasizes that there is a link between fermented food consumption and a reduced risk of some diseases. “Clinical studies focused on the benefits of fermented dairy products such as yogurt show improvements in bone health, blood pressure, and reduced risks of colon cancer and heart disease.”

As for the risks related to the consumption of bacteria via fermented foods, Prof. Hutkins reassures that fermented foods are generally safe for consumption by everyone. “Humans of all ages and cultures have been consuming fermented foods and beverage for thousands of years.” Of course, there are certain exceptions, however in general, fermented foods are staples all across the world, and we may all take benefit from making them basics in our diets as well.

Megan Mouw
Megan Mouw
Megan Mouw holds a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from McGill University (Canada). Driven by her experiences at UCSF medical center in San Francisco, Megan is passionate about the role that the gut microbiota plays in maintaining health and wellness. She is currently perusing graduate studies in Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of California Santa Cruz and hopes to share her love of science through writing.