Many traditional cultures resided in areas where crops are not available all year and there was no refrigeration, so they developed ways to ferment their foods in order to access them year-round. They also ferment their superfoods and sacred spices for medicine.
Now, the science has confirmed that fermentation can really amplify the nutritional power of the food, along with supporting your gut bacteria. In this article, we will cover the science behind why fermentation matters.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is a biochemical process where microorganisms consume components of the starting raw materials and generate broken down products. You may be familiar with vinegar, wine, beer, and yogurt, which are products of fermentation. People have also fermented every crop that’s ever existed - cabbage, potatoes, beets, and ginger. It allows these foods to store for longer, changes the flavor and texture, and releases certain nutrients. Fermentation gives chocolate, coffee, and vanilla their delicious flavors and antioxidant profiles.
What does fermentation do?
Traditionally, fermentation has been used in herbal medicine to improve the efficacy or reduce side effects for thousands of years 1. Whether these people knew it or not when they formulated these herbs, many herbs they used worked with the gut microbiota, or through changing the gut microbiome. In some cases, the gut microbiome is also responsible for activating the herbal components (‘actives”), or deactivating the toxic components 2.
Expanding friendly bacteria
During the fermentation process, the bacteria expand in numbers, so you end up with more probiotic bacteria. Therefore, fermented supplements also give you both probiotics and prebiotics (food for the probiotic), which are called synbiotics.
The most beneficial type of fermentation is lacto-fermentation, which cultivates lactic acid-producing bacteria. These are the same kind of friendly bacteria that produce yohurt, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. With current microbiology techniques and fermentation technologies, we can select for the most effective strains to target the fermentation formulas for specific health goals.
2) Digestive enzymes
The bacteria produce enzymes necessary to digest the initial raw material. Also, because the bacteria eats some of the initial raw materials, such as fiber, fermentation breaks down the cell walls and makes the fermented products easier to digest. When the cells are broken open, cellular content such as antioxidants and other substances with biochemical activities become more accessible 3. Lastly, the taste and the act of eating fermented foods also stimulate more stomach acid and digestive enzyme secretions, which improve digestion.
3) Beneficial bacteria metabolites (postbiotics)
During fermentation, the beneficial bacteria release metabolites, such as fatty acids, peptides, pigments, enzymes, vitamins, and growth factors 4. Many of these compounds have health benefits, such as inhibiting the growth of pathogenic organisms, balancing the immune system, and promoting healthy cell growth 1.
4) More active and better absorbed medicinal compounds
One of the biggest challenges of making medicine is to make sure the actives get absorbed and delivered to the target tissues. Many natural substances show great promise in the test tubes, but minimal results in humans because they are poorly absorbed.
Fermentation improves the absorption and bioavailability of herbal extracts. The fermenting bacteria can either facilitate the production of actives, or to convert the herbal actives into a smaller and more absorbable form 5.
5) Less harmful components (and side effects)
Many people mistakenly believe that natural health products have no side effects. But the truth is that anything that can heal you can hurt you. Many herbs have both disease-healing and harmful components, while others can become harmful at excessive dosages.
Fermentation can break down gut-irritating components, such as lectins, making fermented food more gut-friendly 6. It can also destroy anti-nutrients, such as phytates, making minerals more easily absorbed 7.
Fermented Foods and Supplements You should try
Fermented Turmeric and Ginger
Turmeric and gingers are very anti-inflammatory herbs. However, their anti-inflammatory actives are very poorly absorbed 8. The fermentation of turmeric improves its antioxidant content and antibacterial activity compared to the non-fermented version 9. In a small clinical study, fermented turmeric effectively reduced liver enzymes with no observed side effects 10. In scopolamine-treated rats (a model of memory loss), fermented turmeric protected neurons and preserveed memory 11. Therefore, we recommend Turmeric Power.
Beetroots are nutritious vegetables that have many properties that protect the heart and blood vessels. First, they are very high in a group of antioxidants called betacyanins. Second, they are high in nitrates, which increases nitric oxide that relaxes the blood vessels and improves stamina.
While the nitrates in beets seem healthy, some believe that it could cause cancers, like the nitrates found in cured meats 12. However, unlike cured meats, beets are full of antioxidants and vitamins that may inhibit the cancer-promoting processes caused by the nitrates 13.
Beets are high in oxalates, which can affect people who are sensitive to it or cause kidney stones. In people who are not sensitive, oxalates can bind up calcium in the gut and prevent calcium absorption. Fermentation can cut down up to 70% of oxalates, reducing possible side effects of beets 14.
In rats, fermenting beets increased the amount of betacyanins absorbed into the blood by 69%. Also, the fermented beets increased digestive enzyme levels, and the number of good bacteria that colonized in their large intestines 15,16. Therefore, fermented beets are excellent foods for gut health and microbiome. We recommend Red Beet Power for this.
If it’s a plant, you can ferment it. Sauerkraut and kimchi are two of the best-known fermented greens, but garlic, carrots, snap beans, and peppers can also be fermented. Fermenting vegetables makes them easier to digest, and helps you expand your gut microbiome with good gut bacteria.
Fermented vegetables have more antioxidants and folate than their unfermented counterparts. Also, the fermentation may unlock other beneficial substances such as calming neurotransmitter GABA, peptides, and conjugated linoleic acid 17.
Like beets, many highly nutritious vegetables are high in oxalate, which can inhibit calcium absorption. Consuming the fermented form can break down most of the oxalate and other anti-nutrients, so you can reap most of the benefits from your greens.
Most people struggle to get enough green vegetables daily, so we often recommend a green supplement. To get the best bang for your bucks and maximize your nutrient absorption, make sure it’s a fermented product, like Green Power.
Fermented supplement vs Food
While fermentation is a great way to supercharge your nutrition, it often adds a significant amount of salt or acid to your food. Therefore, you can't eat a lot of it, and these fermented foods are often just condiments rather than main dishes. It is hard to get enough plant-based nutrients from fermented foods alone. Also, if you ferment at home, it is important to do it right to prevent bad bacteria or yeast growth, which can make you sick.
Supplements, on the other hand, pack a punch without the high sodium or acid content, so you can easily take enough. Also, you know that all the bacteria strains in your fermented supplements are carefully selected, so they are safer to consume.
With few high-quality fermented supplements around, we have combined our expertise with clinical experience to formulate and recommend the following:
- Turmeric Power, a highly bioavailable fermented turmeric and ginger root powder for maximum anti-inflammatory benefits
- Red Beet Power, a fermented beets product
- Greens Power, with a broad spectrum of very nutrient-dense fermented greens and fibers, along with Lactobacillus reuteri, a very beneficial probiotic 18
- Hussain, A. et al. Fermentation, a feasible strategy for enhancing bioactivity of herbal medicines. Food Res. Int. 81, 1–16 (2016).
- Wang, H.-Y., Qi, L.-W., Wang, C.-Z. & Li, P. Bioactivity enhancement of herbal supplements by intestinal microbiota focusing on ginsenosides. Am. J. Chin. Med. 39, 1103–1115 (2011).
- Hur, S. J., Lee, S. Y., Kim, Y.-C., Choi, I. & Kim, G.-B. Effect of fermentation on the antioxidant activity in plant-based foods. Food Chem. 160, 346–356 (2014).
- Verbeke, K. A. et al. Towards microbial fermentation metabolites as markers for health benefits of prebiotics. Nutr. Res. Rev. 28, 42–66 (2015).
- Joo, S. S. et al. Therapeutic advantages of medicinal herbs fermented with Lactobacillus plantarum, in topical application and its activities on atopic dermatitis. Phytother. Res. 23, 913–919 (2009).
- Cuadrado, C. et al. Effect of Natural Fermentation on the Lectin of Lentils Measured by Immunological Methods. Food Agric. Immunol. 14, 41–49 (2002).
- Gupta, R. K., Gangoliya, S. S. & Singh, N. K. Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains. J. Food Sci. Technol. 52, 676–684 (2015).
- Gupta, S. C., Patchva, S. & Aggarwal, B. B. Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trials. AAPS J. 15, 195–218 (2013).
- Mohamed, S. A., Saleh, R. M., Kabli, S. A. & Al-Garni, S. M. Influence of solid state fermentation by Trichoderma spp. on solubility, phenolic content, antioxidant, and antimicrobial activities of commercial turmeric. Biosci. Biotechnol. Biochem. 80, 920–928 (2016).
- Kim, S.-W. et al. The effectiveness of fermented turmeric powder in subjects with elevated alanine transaminase levels: a randomised controlled study. BMC Complement. Altern. Med. 13, 58 (2013).
- Eun, C.-S., Lim, J.-S., Lee, J., Lee, S.-P. & Yang, S.-A. The protective effect of fermented Curcuma longa L. on memory dysfunction in oxidative stress-induced C6 gliomal cells, proinflammatory-activated BV2 microglial cells, and scopolamine-induced amnesia model in mice. BMC Complement. Altern. Med. 17, 367 (2017).
- Milkowski, A., Garg, H. K., Coughlin, J. R. & Bryan, N. S. Nutritional epidemiology in the context of nitric oxide biology: a risk-benefit evaluation for dietary nitrite and nitrate. Nitric Oxide 22, 110–119 (2010).
- Lechner, J. F. & Stoner, G. D. Red Beetroot and Betalains as Cancer Chemopreventative Agents. Molecules 24, (2019).
- Wadamori, Y., Vanhanen, L. & Savage, G. P. Effect of Kimchi Fermentation on Oxalate Levels in Silver Beet (Beta vulgaris var. cicla). Foods 3, 269–278 (2014).
- Klewicka, E., Zduńczyk, Z. & Juśkiewicz, J. Effect of lactobacillus fermented beetroot juice on composition and activity of cecal microflora of rats. Eur. Food Res. Technol. 229, 153–157 (2009).
- Klewicka, E., Zduńczyk, Z., Juśkiewicz, J. & Klewicki, R. Effects of Lactofermented Beetroot Juice Alone or with N-nitroso-N-methylurea on Selected Metabolic Parameters, Composition of the Microbiota Adhering to the Gut Epithelium and Antioxidant Status of Rats. Nutrients 7, 5905–5915 (2015).
- Melini, F., Melini, V., Luziatelli, F., Ficca, A. G. & Ruzzi, M. Health-Promoting Components in Fermented Foods: An Up-to-Date Systematic Review. Nutrients 11, (2019).
- Mu, Q., Tavella, V. J. & Luo, X. M. Role of Lactobacillus reuteri in Human Health and Diseases. Front. Microbiol. 9, 757 (2018).