Traditionally, fermented foods have been part of the staple diets for many cultures. Today, many are revisiting the goodness of these fermented foods such as yogurt and pickles, though science has yet to confirm its benefits.

Both fermenting and pickling are ancient food preservation techniques. However, most pickles in supermarkets are not fermented and may lack the enzymatic value of homemade fermented vegetables.

A fermented food has been preserved and transformed by benign bacteria where the starches and sugars in the food are converted into lactic acid by the bacteria lactobacilli.

Probiotic food may do no harm but a balanced diet is important

Maintaining a diverse microbiome might keep the gut running more smoothly, but Alession Fasano, paediatric gastroenterology and nutrition expert at Massachusetts General Hospital suggested focusing on a balanced diet while having a serving of probiotic food once in a while.

These “good” bacteria are naturally found in the body and a healthy person does not need extra doses. However, a recent Swedish research by Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that the women in their nine-year study who consumed an average of two or more daily servings of yogurt or fermented milk products recorded a 38% lower risk of developing bladder cancer compared to those who never ate these foods.

But then again, a Chinese study warned that the higher the consumption of fermented foods especially pickled vegetables among men could result in a higher risk of developing prostate cancer.

While scientists are still looking at the health effects of these probiotic bacteria fermenting our food, the surge in probiotics continues. Here are some popular ones:

1. Tempeh

Tempeh is made from naturally fermented soybeans which has a slightly nutty flavour. It is a nourishing and inexpensive source of probiotics, and also a complete source of vegetarian protein since it contains all the essential amino acids.

A recent study from Malaysia which involved postmenopausal women found that calcium from tempeh was as equally well absorbed as calcium from cow's milk.

2. Miso

Miso is derived from the Japanese word meaning “fermented beans”. It is a thick fermented paste made from barley, rice or soybeans, and adds a unique flavour to broths and dishes. Its health benefits may be related to the fermentation by microorganisms like the fungus Aspergillus.

3. Sauerkraut

Touted as one of the healthiest foods that has been widely consumed throughout Central Europe and some parts of India, this fermented cabbage contains a healthy dose of probiotics and fibre. It is one of the oldest forms of preserving cabbage which is said to have healing properties.

4. Yogurt

Yogurt is the most popular choice when it comes to probiotics. It contains about 17 billion live and active cultures in a cup. Yogurt may help to smooth skin and soothe stomach upsets. “The beneficial bacteria in some yogurts balance the microflora in your gut, which can aid with digestion as well as keep you regular,” says Robin Plotkin, a culinary and nutrition expert.

5. Kefir

This milky drink contains about 30 different microorganisms and is a potent source of probiotics. The lactic acid bacteria turn the lactose in the milk into lactic acid, so kefir shares a somewhat similar sour taste as yogurt, though it has a thinner consistency. Kefir is traditionally made using cow’s milk or goat’s milk, and fermented with kefir “grains”, which can be used again.

6. Kombucha

Known as the “immortal health elixir”, kombucha has a rich anecdotal history and is fermented by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, promising benefits like improved digestion, mental clarity and mood stability. This tangy, effervescent tea is often enhanced with herbs or fruits.

7. Kimchi

Synonymous with Korean culture, this spicy, reddish fermented vegetable dish is most commonly made with cabbage (although many other vegetables are also used) and is a mix of garlic, salt, vinegar, peppers and other spices, which is a staple at every Korean meal.

Rich in vitamins A, B, and C, its biggest benefit lies in its "healthy bacteria" called lactobacilli, which helps with digestion and prevents yeast infections, according to a recent study. Some studies hint at its potential ability to curb the growth of cancer cells.

While these foods can be beneficial, they should not be seen as medicinal shortcuts. As Goldin says, “Fortifying yourself with a daily dose of fermented foods can’t hurt, but if you want to beat the flu, get vaccinated.” MIMS

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