Fermented foods have been part of the human palette for centuries. Wine, bread and cheese are just a few of the more common items that are made with the help of microorganisms, which are integral to the process of fermentation.
Modern-day consumers have retained their taste for tangy, pickled products. For the wellness-minded, fermentation has the added benefit of healthfulness. Certain foods, like yogurt, have been shown to help digestion and boost immunity, and a select few, including sauerkraut, are the centerpiece of popular weight-loss diets.
Indeed, many fermented foods are foreign-born. One gaining interest currently is kimchi, or pickled cabbage, from Korea. The spicy mixture is often used as a meal accompaniment or the basis for stews. And there are other similar products from Asia, according to Yao-wen Huang, a food science professor at the University of Georgia.
“They include fermented pickles; fermented olives; miso, made in Japan with fermented soybean paste; tempeh from Indonesia, which is fermented soybeans; soy sauce, also fermented soybeans, with other grains, made in China; sufu, or Chinese fermented soybean curd; and kefir from Eastern Europe, a fermented milk with kefir grains,” he said.
The health secret in many of these products is the microorganism. In some it's yeast; in others, like yogurt, it's probiotics. Until recently, very few consumers had heard about the properties of these bacteria.
“In human intestines, probiotics convert carbohydrates, including lactose, into lactic acid, which may lower the pH, creating an environment that prevents spoilage microorganisms from growing,” Huang said. “Thus, beneficial bacteria may help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal disease.”
As with any food, however, the interest in fermented foods needs to be tempered with knowledge. In this case, consumers need to understand that fermented products can be high in nitrates and sodium content. Both are naturally occurring as a result of the fermentation process, though modern manufacturing processes can increase their amounts. Nitrates are of particular concern, with a number of studies linking the preservative to several types of cancer.