Eat your (fermented) veggies

(First published in March 1 issue of City Pages)

Our ancestors fermented food to preserve it. Turns out they were also helping their health.


Tony Schultz of Stoney Acres Farm sells jars of homemade sauerkraut at the Wausau Winter Farmers Market.

Three years ago, most of the customers coming into Family Natural Foods wouldn’t have been able to tell its owners, Stephen Hittner or his sister Katrina, what kombucha was.

Now, the Wisconsin Rapids-based business sells growlers of the brewed, fermented tea, Hittner says. The shop offers workshops on making kombucha and other fermented foods, and sells versions in his store.

Fermented foods have long been a passion of Hittner’s. He has spoken at the Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg and on Wisconsin Public Radio about the healthful power of these foods and beverages preserved by the power of good bacteria.

It’s becoming a familiar story as the popularity of probiotics, microbes that help keep the gut healthy, have found a renewed popularity. It would be tempting to call such foods—yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, for example—new age. But most of these foods have been a critical part of humans’ diet for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; foremost, because fermentation provided a way, before refrigeration, to preserve foods for long periods of time. So they’ve been around awhile.

But those foods also serve an important health role, research increasingly shows. It keeps your gut healthy by increasing the types of bacteria you need to most effectively digest food. And that in turn can have a profound impact on overall health. The digestive tract is more than 30 feet long, after all—that’s a big part of your body, and it relies on microflora to keep humming along. Gut health has shown to be related to chronic disease, nutrition absorption, the immune system and allergies, and even brain function.

Research shows that eating fermented foods introduces new healthy bacteria (probiotics) to the stomach, and foods such as fiber (prebiotics) help feed that bacteria.

Fermentation creates lactic acid that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria (which is why such foods keep for so long). It also breaks down nutrition content to its most digestible form, says Dr. Amy Myers, who runs health blog Fermented foods also create various strains of lactobacillus, which are found naturally in one’s stomach, Myers says.

Some fermented foods might seem exotic and strange. Natto, for example, is made from soybeans and has a pungency and stickiness that can be off-putting to most non-Japanese people but is very healthy and a great source of vitamin K.

Others are much more familiar. Anyone of German heritage knows sauerkraut, which is simply fermented, preserved cabbage. Korean kimchi is basically sauerkraut with the addition of spices and garlic.

Homemade sauerkraut has been a strong seller for Tony Schultz of Stoney Acres Farm. Schultz proudly displays big jars of sauerkraut in his stand at the Wausau Winter Market on Saturday mornings. The kraut was inspired by his German grandmother, who he remembers making large batches of kraut.

Farmers markets, or stores such as Downtown Grocery or Family Natural Foods are good bets for fermented items such as sauerkraut, since they sell the kind that contains live cultures. Sauerkraut bought off the grocery store shelf is generally pasteurized, which kills the very bacteria that makes fermented food beneficial, says Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler.

Ritzenthaler, a functional medicine practitioner with Innovative Health, eats homemade sauerkraut as part of his diet to ensure a healthy gut microbiota. In his practice, Ritzenthaler says people today are more open to trying fermented foods than in the past. “I think people are becoming more cognizant of what their GI (gastro intestinal) is and how fermented foods impact their health.”

Fermented dairy products are a good way to start, Ritzenthaler says, and he will recommend kefir or yogurt. “Usually if people are willing to try kefir, they will like it,” Ritzenthaler says.

Yogurt and its live cultures is a good way to start the day with healthy probiotics, says Mary Hilliker, nutrition coach and yoga teacher at 5 Koshas Yoga in Wausau. Added with fruit and nuts, yogurt makes a great breakfast.

Most fermented foods do have a certain, um, quality that some people find off-putting. So keep in mind that probiotic qualities can be found in non-fermented foods, Hilliker says. “In general, a mostly plant-based diet increases the amount of prebiotics and probiotics a person has in their diet,” Hilliker says.

Raw fruits and vegetables are loaded with lactic acid bacteria that’s good for gut health, Hilliker says.

Benefit of a healthy gut

If fermented foods help maintain gut health, what kinds of ailments can they help address? Here’s a short list, as found through clinical trials (from the science journals Inflammopharmacology and Gut):

• Balancing stomach acid

• Improvement of constipation and diarrhea

• Intestinal inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and colitis

• Immune system function

• Symptoms of lactose intolerance

• Prevent pathogenic or disease-causing organisms.

• There has even been some research into fermented foods reducing symptoms of peanut allergies, when paired with oral immunotherapy.

• Studies looking at kimchi have shown the smelly cabbage to have an anti-oxidant effect, promote anti-obesity in rats and improved immune system function. In a review of Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes, Dr. Harriet Hall says “This is exciting stuff! I wish I could be alive 100 years from now to see how research into the microbiome will change the practice of medicine.”

• Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that the growing research of the gut is “revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.”