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Fermented foods: The revival of an ancient diet practice

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute guest posts to The Baltimore Sun's Picture of Health blog (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth). The latest post is from Danielle Mein.

About 66 percent of our body's immune system resides in our gastrointestinal tract, according to BMC Medicine. Inside the gut reside about 100 trillion live microorganisms made up of an ideal balanced of harmful bacteria (like Escherichia coli) and beneficial bacteria (like Lactobacillus acidophilus). These beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, promote normal GI function, protect against infection, regulate metabolism and enhance the immune system. Therefore, having enough probiotics is essential for maintaining good health. This can easily be accomplished with fermented foods — a "new" health trend with roots dating back to 6000 B.C. in civilizations all over the world including Asia, Africa, and even ancient Rome.

Historically, fermenting foods was a means of preservation. This practice eventually fell to the wayside as technology advanced in the food industry and the desire for convenient food increased. However, our ancestors were certainly on to something. Fermentation of vegetables or dairy products is a simple process that naturally converts sugar into lactic acid. The lactic acid prevents any harmful microbial growth while promoting the growth of probiotics and increasing the amount of vitamins our bodies are able to absorb.

Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, miso, natto, various other fermented vegetables, and the popular beverage kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented tea with fruit juice and sugar added for taste. After fermenting for sufficient time, most of the sugar is "eaten up" by the probiotics leaving a very low-calorie, low-sugar, carbonated beverage rich in probiotics and vitamins.

Any fermented food can be made either at home or commercially. However, keep in mind that the length of time a food is fermented determines the amount of probiotics formed. For instance, commercially produced yogurt is typically only fermented for a few hours whereas homemade yogurt may be allowed to ferment for as long as 24 hours, yielding a greater probiotic count. True fermented vegetables will not have vinegar in the ingredients list and must be refrigerated and unpasteurized, which is atypical of the sauerkraut and pickles we find for a couple dollars at the corner store.

Although fermented foods usually have a sour taste, which some people may dislike at first, our taste buds definitely adjust over time. These foods tend to be expensive, but they are extremely affordable to make at home.

Because the importance of probiotics for gut health and overall health is undeniable, including even small amounts of fermented foods in your diet may truly be beneficial. This simple, small change can help you achieve big changes in your health.

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