Are fermented foods really all they’re cracked up to be?

Everywhere you look and read, fermented foods have become almost the holy grail of eating, and even ageing, well. But do they live up to the hype? Our resident dietitian Melissa Meier weighs in on this latest nutrition trend. 

As the role of gut health in good health becomes clearer, gut-loving foods are becoming more popular and enjoying their time in the sun. Of particular interest are fermented foods – you know, the trendy alternatives that are all-of-a-sudden in hipster cafes, like kombucha, tempeh, and sauerkraut. But are these foods really all they’re cracked up to be? Turns out, there could be a downside…

Health benefits of fermented foods

Fermented foods offer probiotics. Essentially, these are the good guys you want to call your gut home. In the right amounts, probiotics can support a healthy microbiome, help to beat bloating or stomach discomfort, keep your gut lining healthy and support immune function. Sounds great, right?

Of course, you can get probiotics from supplements – but it’s usually far cheaper (and easier) to turn to real food instead. You’ll find probiotics in humble everyday foods like yoghurt and sourdough bread, as well as kefir, kombucha, tempeh and miso, which have recently become mainstream.

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It’s worth mentioning that gut health and the world of probiotics is a relatively new area of scientific research – so there’s still a lot of unknowns. Nonetheless, the benefits of probiotics are thought to be strain-specific, so if you are popping probiotic supplements, it’s worth talking to a health care professional who can identify the right probiotic for you.

You might be interested to learn that probiotics are essentially pointless without their counterpart, prebiotics – that’s because prebiotics act as food for the good bacteria. They help to keep them alive and flourishing. Again, you can take prebiotics in the form of a supplement, but they’re also abundant in the food supply in foods like beans, chickpeas, brussels sprouts, peas and pumpkin.

When to use caution with fermented foods

And now for what you’ve come here for: do fermented foods really live up to the hype? I’ll start by saying that for the vast majority of people, fermented foods are more than safe to consume. They actually offer a range of health benefits and I’d encourage the average Joe to include them in their diet on the reg.

For some people, however, fermented foods could cause stomach discomfort in the form of bloating – but the good news is, this bloating will shortly pass, so it’s nothing too serious. For the select few amongst us with a histamine intolerance, fermented foods can be troublesome. Due to their high histamine content, fermented foods can cause anything from headaches and fatigue to vomiting and gut issues. Again, this is very rare, and not something the average person needs to worry about.

As a dietitian, I think the most important thing to consider is the nutrition information panel and ingredients list on whatever it is you’re consuming – because even if it offers probiotics, it’s not serving other aspects of your health well if it’s packed with nasties. So, scan the back of the packet and avoid products that contain added sugar or salt, are high in saturated fat, or pack a stack of kilojoules in tiny portions.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practicing dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.