Q&A: How do I know if the fermented foods I buy are truly good for me?

To kick off the new Q&A Wednesday section, I chose a question I am most often asked. Gut health, good bacteria, probiotics, digestive enzymes - these are all currently hot nutrition topics, that are on everyone's mind. Fermented vegetables, sauerkrauts, and kombucha are a growing segment in your health food store. However, it can be extremely daunting to know which one to choose. Here are my top tips to picking the "right" kind of fermented food.

First of all, let me start with saying, if you have no idea what I am talking about, no problem! Here is a little recap for you. Fermented foods are making a huge comeback. These have been part of our ancestral diet for centuries. In Germany, where I am from, cabbage was fermented to make sauerkraut for the winter. This way, even though there was no access to fresh produce, you were still able to enjoy a vitamin rich food during the colder months to boost the immune system. Every country has their own version of fermented food: kimchi from Korea (cabbage with garlic and chili), natto and miso from Japan (made from soybeans), tempeh from Indonesia (made from soybeans), curtido from El Salvador (cabbage, carrots, onions, lime), kisela repa from Croatia (shredded turnips with water and salt), kombucha from Russia (made from black tea, bacteria, yeast, fruit, and sugar), torshi from Iran (celery, carrots, cauliflower, bell peppers, cabbage, aubergines, vinegar), and sourdough bread from North America (wheat). These are just a few examples of the wide spread use of fermentation. Different foods can be fermented: beans, grains, vegetables, fruit, tea, dairy, honey, fish, and meat.

During the fermentation process, bacteria and yeast naturally present in the air start to break down the food, specifically the carbohydrates. This makes for interesting textures, tastes, and aromas. On the nutrient side, it makes the food more easily digestible, opens up more vitamins, and the food itself becomes a place for the good bacteria to live in. Since we now know that our gut is made of bacteria, and that our gut bacteria are often harmed by our environment (antibiotics, pesticides, stress, poor nutrients in food, etc), helping out the gut with some good bacteria is now the way to deal with bloating, indigestion, brain fog, low energy, a low immune system, and so much more.

Now let's look at specifically fermented vegetables. To make sure you get the most bang for your buck when you decide to purchase these, here are my top tips:

1. Check the label for "raw"

Fermented veggies should always say "raw" on the label. You do not want to get any that have been heat treated (pasteurized). Your easiest bet is to look for these only in the refrigerated section. Since these food are alive with bacteria, they need to be refrigerated. If you find sauerkraut in a jar on a shelf it has likely been heat treated, which means the bacteria are gone, as are most of the heat- sensitive vitamins.

2. Make sure it's fresh

Once you have bought your fermented product, make sure it's fresh by smelling it. Yes, there will be a very distinct sour smell, but it should never be slimy or smell foul. Remember, these products are living and breathing, so on occasion they can go bad. Then it's better to throw them out, and buy a new batch.

3. Look at the ingredients

When you buy fermented vegetables, there should be no added sugar, and no preservatives like sodium benzoate. The bacteria should naturally preserve the product for a specific time. Also, you don't want any added vinegar in sauerkraut. The sourness occurs naturally from the fermentation process. With other fermented vegetables, there may be some vinegar added. The only other things added might be salt, herbs, spices, and "starter cultures". Some companies add these "starter cultures" bacteria to start the fermentation process to get a higher yield of good bacteria in the end.

4. Organic is great but never a must

Of course finding an organic version is great. It means the veggies used were less sprayed with pesticides. However, if you can't find an organic version, rest assured. Specifically cabbage is one of the least sprayed veggies out there, so the health benefits of not organic sauerkraut far outweigh the not-eating-fermented veggies-option.

5. Make your own

Buying really good quality fermented products can get pricey or maybe you just don't have access o them. So you may want to think about making your own. That way you can also adjust the level of salt, the spices and herbs you use, as well as other veggies you may want to add for an interesting flavor profile. One of my favorite recipes is this red sauerkraut, which is very mild, and even Baby Zand is a huge fan of it! Making a batch takes hardly any time, especially if you have a food processor or shredder to shred all the veggies. Then you just let it sit, and let nature to its thing.

Have fun looking for new products out every month, try them out, and remember a little bit goes a long way. Fermented foods are always an addition to a regular plate filled with rainbow goodness. While we want more good bacteria, too much of a good thing can also throw off our gut flora. 1-2 Tbsp per meal are the perfect serving size!

I hope this answered your question about fermented foods. Let me know what's on your mind, I would love to hear from you. If you have a burning question you would like me to answer here, just comment below this post or send me a message.

Lots of love,

#fermentedfoods #cabbage