Benefits of Fermented Foods

Alicia Kaluza, MS, RD, LN and Julie Walker, Take Control Staff

Fermented foods are all the buzz lately. Even though they’ve been around since ancient times, their popularity in the U.S. has been increasing in recent years. They’ve been popular in Asian countries for centuries. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, through the action of enzymes. The science of fermentation is known as zymology, founded by French chemist Louis Pasteur. Beer, wine, and cider are made via fermentation, as well as the leavening of bread. Besides bread, other common foods made via fermentation include sauerkraut, yogurt, vinegar, olives, and cheese.

Fermented foods are recently becoming popular because of new studies surrounding gut health, the gut biome, and digestion. Researchers are beginning to link the bacteria in our intestines to health conditions, including obesity, our immune system, mental health, skin conditions, and cancer. Signs of an unhealthy digestive system include upset stomach, inflammation (bloating), weight gain, sleep disturbances, constant fatigue, and food intolerances. The focus on improving gut health has led to the popularity of fermented foods.

If you’d like to incorporate fermented foods into your diet, the first thing to note is that not all foods are created equal. There are varying varieties and brands available in the grocery store. Some products may contain high levels of added sugar, salt, and fat. It’s important to read ingredient lists and nutrition labels when selecting a product. It’s also important to understand the process of how a product is made. For example, pickles made with vinegar are not created using a natural fermentation process, therefore they are not fermented. Look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label. If products are on regular shelves, they are probably not naturally fermented. Look for high quality products in the refrigerated sections of the store.

Fermented foods to consider include: kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, cheese, kombucha, miso, kimchi, salami, yogurt, sourdough bread, and olives. Sauerkraut, cheese, salami, yogurt, and sourdough are probably familiar to you, so below is an explanation of the other foods, and how to try them.

Kefir is a liquid and curds made from milk, and can be found in the milk section of the store. Some people drink it, or it can be a great addition to smoothies, used in place of buttermilk, used in a salad dressing recipe, or to replace mayo in potato salad. It provides a buttermilk-style tang, and can be a fun way to switch things up. It can also be used as a marinade to tenderize meat, or substituted for milk in frozen desserts.


Tempeh is made from soybeans, and in the store, it looks like a densely solid soybean loaf. It’s found in the refrigerated section with other meat substitute products. When cooked, it has a nutty flavor, but solidly takes on the flavor of the foods and sauces it’s cooked with. It’s great in stir fry, tacos, curry, or as a replacement for meat in any recipe. Besides the fermented Kebenefits, it’s a great source of protein.

Kombucha is a drink that has become very popular, and for good reason, it tastes great. It’s an effervescent sweetened tea drink made with a variety of flavors. It has a slightly vinegar taste that does not appeal to some people. Hundreds of brands and flavors have been coming out lately, so be sure to read labels and look for added sugar or other undesirable ingredients. Some local microbreweries are starting to brew it, as well as a company in Bozeman called “Dean’s Zesty Booch.” If you want to try it for the first time, look for a flavor that you usually enjoy in other products. It’s also recently come out in the alcohol department as “hard kombucha.” It’s a great choice for a summer beverage, with only 100 calories and 1 gram of sugar per bottle.

Miso is another soybean product, and also of Japanese origin. It’s a paste. There are over a thousand types of miso, but generally can be put into the categories of either sweet or dark. Sweet miso is the place to start if you want to try it; and soup is an easy recipe to start with. You may have already had Miso soup at an Asian restaurant. Other uses include adding it to ramen, and making dressings and sauces.

Kimchi is a mix of fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, radish, and others. It’s a pungent side dish or condiment that originated in Korea. Bozeman must be the hub of fermented foods, because there is also a company there making custom kimchi, called “Farmented Foods.” Besides kimchi, they also make sauerkraut and spicy carrots. Kimchi makes a great topper for tacos, soup, or appetizers. Find it at the grocery store usually in the produce section by the tofu.

As evidenced by the many new products and businesses making fermented foods, they are becoming very popular. Try adding one to your weekly menu, or experiment with a new recipe that contains a fermented food product – it’s fun!