You probably know that glass (read: bottle) of wine you sip every week while watching all of the drama on The Bachelor is made through fermentation. But this process doesn't just produce alcohol. In fact, there are tons of nutritional (and yummy) fermented foods.
ICMYI, during fermentation, microorganisms—think: yeast, bacteria, and mold—break down the carbs in foods into various compounds like alcohol, lactic acid, and carbon dioxide, which act as preservatives and give fermented foods a sour taste. The result is foods that are rich in probiotics, says Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, a recipe developer at Cheerful Choices.
You're probably familiar with probiotics, which are beneficial live bacteria and yeast that can improve digestive health by restoring natural balance to your gut bacteria. They may help with GI issues like irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea. “There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests it can promote heart health, blood sugar control, and even support our immune system,” Burgess says.
The best part about fermented foods? You can totally DIY. You just need some jars, a salty brine, and time to let it sit. But, if you prefer to buy store-bought ones, know that you won’t miss out on the benefits of these pickled foods.
“Generally, the nutrition should be about the same, especially if the products you're buying use high-quality ingredients,” says Burgess. “However, at home, you can control the level of spices, salt, or sugar—whatever is needed in the fermentation process. You can also control more of the sourcing of the products too.” For example, if you go straight to a local farmer’s market, you can ferment better veggies.
Ready to dive in? Well, chances are you already have some of these in your cabinets or fridge. Here are nine fermented foods that have major health perks, according to an RD.
Yes, it’s that trendy drink you see on IG all the time. Kombucha boasts an extremely high amount of probiotics—up to six billion probiotic organisms per 16 ounces, says Burgess.
This healthy beverage is made from a mixture of green and black teas that is fermented with the help of a SCOBY (short for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). That means it’s also high in antioxidants that fight off free radicals.
When shopping for kombucha, Burgess says to look for “live active cultures” on the label. You'll also want to make sure there aren’t many added sugars. Because kombucha is tart, the sugar content in some products can be high to offset that natural taste. Burgess recommends finding ones that have 10 grams or less of sugar. Another way to choose a low-sugar product is to get kombucha that has ‘zero percent juices,' she adds.
Per serving: 29 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated), 8 g carbs, 8 g sugar, 10 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein.
Miso is a Japanese paste made from soybeans fermented with a mold called koji. Like all other fermented foods, miso promotes a healthy gut. “It's also a really great source of nutrients like manganese, copper, and zinc, which can help with our energy levels and brain health,” Burgess says.
If you’re not into miso soup, then try seasoning some salmon and other dishes with it.
Per serving: 34 calories, 1 g fat (0.2 g saturated), 4.3 g carbs, 1.1 g sugar, 634 mg sodium, 0.9 g fiber, 2.2 g protein.
Yogurt is made when bacteria turn the lactose in milk into lactic acid, but not all yogurts you buy in the store are created equal. “I feel like the yogurt aisle can be very confusing,” Burgess says.
Some yogurts can have up to 28 grams of sugar—our daily recommended intake, per Burgess. That’s why she suggests going for a plain, non-fat Greek yogurt with zero added sugars. Sure, it isn't the most delicious, but you can whip up some really great yogurt bowls with it. That way, you can control how much sugar goes into it.
Try sweetening this breakfast staple with a little bit of honey, fruits, or peanut butter. You can even mix in a small amount of the high-sugar yogurt you have in your fridge for a better flavor, says Burgess.
Per serving: 100 calories, 0.7 g fat (0.2 g saturated), 6 g carbs, 6 g sugar, 61 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 17 g protein.
Tempeh is a cousin of tofu; they can both be used as meat substitutes. But tofu is not fermented, whereas tempeh comprises whole soybeans that underwent fermentation.
Tempeh even offers similar benefits to meat. “It's a really great source of plant-based protein,” Burgess says. For a three-ounce serving, you get about 19 grams of protein, which is comparable to certain types of meats.
Per serving: 320 calories, 18 g fat (3.7 g saturated), 16 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 15 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 31 g protein.
When kefir grains are added to milk to promote fermentation, kefir is made. Kefir has a creamy consistency, which makes it a perfect complement to your morning smoothie. It can also be used in other dishes like pasta or a peanut butter dip.
This product is high in the amino acid tryptophan, which ignites our serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects our mood and sleep.
Per serving: 110 calories, 2 g fat (0 g saturated), 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 125 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 11 g protein.
Fermented cabbage and radishes make up this common Korean dish. These veggies are great sources of vitamins C and K, Burgess says, which helps with wound healing and bone strength, respectively.
“Kimchi can potentially help with weight loss because it is a really great way to add flavor and a little bit of spice without adding a bunch of excess calories that you would get from loading up on other sauces,” Burgess says.
Per serving: 23 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated), 4 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 290 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 1 g protein.
Sauerkraut is made from fermented cabbage, and it’s high in vitamin C. It doesn't get nearly the love it deserves. Burgess recommends adding it to sandwiches with a little bit of barbecue sauce. She’s even seen some people topping guacamole with sauerkraut.
“Don't force it. Maybe try it out. And if not, you can always enjoy the other fermented foods,” Burgess says.
Per serving: 16 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated), 3 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 219 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 1 g protein.
Apple cider vinegar can help lower blood sugar levels, so it can be helpful for people with diabetes. And you don’t have to stomach a wellness shot to take in the benefits.
“I like adding it into whole food recipes because those are going to give us the most benefits,” Burgess explains. “It's going to give us calories, protein, fiber, all that good stuff.” She uses apple cider vinegar to marinate chicken, dress her salads, and make an easy vinaigrette with olive oil, dijon, salt, and maple syrup.
Per serving: 3 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated), 0.1 g carbs, 0.1 g sugar, 1 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein.
Pickles refer to cucumbers that were fermented in a brine. It’s not the same as letting the cucumbers sit in vinegar, Burgess explains because that does not lead to fermentation.
“Cucumbers are a really great source of something called beta carotene, and this can protect the cells in our body from damage and therefore help reduce the risk of some certain kinds of diseases” by boosting your immune system, she says.
Per serving: 7 calories, 0.1 g fat (0 g saturated), 1.5 g carbs, 0.8 g sugar, 785 mg sodium, 0.8 g fiber, 0.2 g protein.