Over the past decade the term ‘superfood’ has became a house-hold name and has seen many people fighting over the last bunch of kale in the supermarket! However, there is a new trend that has recently risen to the nutritional hall of fame: fermented foods.
I’m sure we all know a few friends that have traded in their morning coffee for a glass of kombucha, but is there any truth to the claims of endless health benefits associated with the ancient process of fermenting that has been practiced by humans for thousands of years? Can we supplement our physical health and performance by swapping our sweet potato for a side of kimchi? Let’s have a look at some of the facts:
What actually are ‘Superfoods’?
There is no official standard for what is classified as a ‘superfood’. It is commonly understood that any natural food containing a high-concentration of nutrients, such as antioxidants, qualifies for the title. A few of the favourites in this category include berries, acai, kale, chia seeds and coconut oil – extra virgin of course!
Despite the hype, it is important to take a holistic view of diet and exercise. Choosing your groceries based on high antioxidant content alone is not going to help you reach optimal health or that next fitness goal.
Why ferment your food?
The main reason that people ferment their food in the modern era is for the suggested health benefits that it provides. Fermentation is a metabolic process where organisms, such as bacteria or yeast, covert organic compounds such as sugars and starch into alcohol or acids.
For example: Lacto-fermentation uses bacteria to convert sugar and starch into lactic acid. This produces foods such as yogurt, fermented vegetables like saurkraut and kimchi, and cheese.
I have a ‘gut’ feeling about some of the benefits of fermented foods..
Fermented foods contain ‘good bacteria’ and microbes which can increase your gut health.
Other suggested benefits include:
- Increasing the levels of micronutrients in foods
- Aiding digestion. Fermented milk products for example can contain enzymes which help to break down lactose, potentially making it easier to digest for people who are lactose-intolerant.
- Increased availability of minerals. Some natural foods such as legumes and seeds contain phytic acid, which binds zinc and iron together. This means our bodies aren’t able to utilise these minerals. The fermentation process breaks this acid down, allowing our body to use those minerals.
- Changes taste: If you prefer a tangy or sour twist to your food, this could be for you. Similarly, the process produces carbon dioxide, giving the food a bubbly quality; like soft-drink but without the guilt.
Be sure to read the fine print
Lacto-fermented vegetables are one of the most common fermented foods in Australia. Be warned: these are not mass-produced. So if you are buying these products, such a sauerkraut, from the supermarket then chances are they have either been preserved using vinegar or the organisms are already dead. You would be much better served setting your kitchen bench up as a fermentation station, or visiting your local health-food store or delicatessen for these products.
If you do decide to ferment at home, hygiene during this process is very important as you are working with bacteria. So please take care to avoid contamination with microbes such as E. coli and botulnum, which have been linked to multiple illnesses.
Also be wary that some of these fermented products contain a high sodium content, particularly if lacto-fermentation has occurred.
The Verdict on Superfoods?
There certainly appears to be some health benefits associated with this latest craze, the most plausible being the live microbes that are added to the existing ones within our gut. This can aid in digestion and enhance our immune system functioning.
Some of the more far-fetched claims, such as reducing risk of cancer, do not appear to have any merit. In fact, the World Health Organisation has actually classified pickled foods as potentially carcinogenic.
My mantra as a physiotherapist is ‘knowledge is power’. If a client understands their condition, what contributed to it and what will help them recover, they are far more likely to achieve great outcomes. The same goes for nutrition. Be aware of whether the so-called ‘superfood’ you are eating actually lives up to the promise.
Don’t forget that correct nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to optimal health. You also need to stay active and have an exercise routine that works for you.
Feel free to give us a call at SPS, where we pride ourselves on being experts in exercise prescription and advice.