Healthy Hollywood: Ask Keri Glassman — What Exactly Are Fermented Foods?

Nutritionist Keri Glassman, who regularly shares her expertise on Access Hollywood and Access Hollywood Live, is answering your nutrition, diet and health questions.

Want to know how celebrities are getting their fabulous post-baby bodies? And, if their diet plan is right for you?

This week’s question…

“I have been hearing more and more that fermented foods are good for me, but it sounds gross! What exactly are fermented foods and are they indeed healthy?” — Marcy H., Greensboro, NC

Keri says…

Let’s just put it out there — the word fermented is creepy. It sounds like something out of a Frankenstein movie. Because the word sounds so unappetizing, you find yourself skeptical of the kimchi, unusual vinegars and cloudy jars of vegetables at the health food store. More than that, though, you know that fermentation is a process, but you aren’t entirely sure how it all works. You are not alone. There are tons of benefits to eating fermented foods, so it is worth the read to get your ferment-o-phobia behind you. I may even get you to turn your kitchen into a laboratory.

What are fermented foods? You know about cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and vinegar — these are popular foods that are out of the fermentation closet and widely discussed in the wellness world. Sometimes fermented foods are labeled “cultured” or “pickled” but they all fall under the fermentation umbrella. They are most famous for a sour flavor that they contribute to foods. Did you know that chocolate, salami, beer, coffee and tea are also fermented before they can be consumed? The list goes on: miso, sourdough bread, kefir, buttermilk, tempeh, kombucha and wine, to name a few.

What is fermentation? Similar to canning, or refrigeration, fermentation is a process that helps to preserve foods and keeps them from going bad. When foods are fermented, bacteria or yeast are introduced to break sugars down into simpler molecules such as alcohols and acids. This process can be as simple as placing vegetables in a salt and water solution, though most often there is a starter culture (filled with friendly microorganisms like probiotics) used. Breaking down the food does two things that the foodie should be concerned with: first, it introduces tons of good bacteria into the food that increase nutritional value tremendously. Second, a ton of flavor is released (just think of the difference between eating a cucumber and eating a pickle)!

Why should you chow down? Fermenting a food begins the process of digestion before it even hits your lips. This helps to improve the body’s digestion process and the health of your digestive tract; it also makes the nutrition in your foods more available for absorption. Like those probiotics you may take, your body can also benefit from upping your fermented food intake when you are taking antibiotics, which may disrupt the balance of the digestive tract. You should also incorporate fermented foods more as you age and you begin to lose some of the natural enzymes that absorb nutrients. Some fermented foods may contain probiotics … in more varieties and abundance than you can get in a supplement. Just to clarify, probiotics are those friendly microorganisms that promote growth of good bacteria and the combination of fermented foods and probiotics can work together to maintain balance in the flora of your gut. There are lots of bacteria in your belly at all times, hard at work to keep you humming!

Introduce fermented foods slowly so as not to overwhelm your system. A little goes a long way. For the adventurous chef, make your own yogurt or kombucha. The process is surprisingly simple and interesting. Hopefully you’ll look at fermentation in a less Frankenstein-y way. Now, please pass the pickles.

Terri MacLeod & Keri Glassman

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