We’ve all been avoiding bacteria since we were kids. Thoroughly sudsing up hands, using bottles of hand sanitizer like they’re water, washing fruits and veggies before eating — these are all habits we’re encouraged to keep. But what if we told you that eating some types of bacteria could actually be good for you? Studies have found foods fermented by lactic acid bacteria (also called Lactobacillus) may actually help keep our gastrointestinal systems healthy and properly functioning.The Need-to-Know
Put simply, fermentation is an enzyme-controlled chemical breakdown of an organic substance (think of sugar turning into alcohol or the souring of milk). You’re likely already consuming fermented products on a regular basis: Bread, cheese, beer, and pickles are just a few examples (is this just a list of my favorite foods?). Some fermented foods contain organisms known as probiotics — a type of bacteria that produce lactic acid and have been linked to numerous digestive benefits This lactic acid should not be confused with the lactic acid our bodies naturally produce when oxygen levels in our blood are low. The lactic acid we’re talking about is produced by bacteria during the fermentation of different foods, and is considered to be very beneficial to our health when consumed. This type of bacteria can be found in many fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir (fermented milk), and even some fermented vegetables including pickles and sauerkraut.
In recent years, research on exactly how probiotics produce health benefits has expanded greatly. One study linked probiotics in some fermented foods to the maintenance of a healthy intestinal tract, boosting the immune system and reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance (just to name a few benefits!) Another study noted probiotics might reduce the concentration of enzymes that promote cancer in the gut. Kombucha, fermented black tea, has been linked to more considerable anti-diabetic capabilities than unfermented tea (at least in diabetic rats) though it’s important to note to that it can also easily make you sick if it’s not made correctly, so be wary of homebrews.
Your Action Plan
Humans have been ingesting probiotics in their various forms, including through fermented foods, for thousands of years with a generally good safety record. Negative side effects of fermented food and probiotic consumption are rare in healthy individuals, but adding probiotics to our diets does change our intestinal habitat and may result in unpredictable changes to the immune system in individuals with diseases or immune-deficiencies. For those healthy individuals who are interested in adding more fermented foods to their diets, you may not have to leave the house. Fermenting foods at home is pretty easy — just start with something simple (like this step-by-step guide to making kimchi at home).
But before you pull out the mason jars, make sure you do your homework: Incorrectly fermenting foods can lead to harmful and potentially toxic mold (no thank you!). Home canning can also put you at risk for Botulism, an illness sometimes caused by foods canned canned in jars that have not been properly sanitized (again, no thank you!).
If you’re trying fermented foods for the first time take baby steps and try some fruity yogurt (just make sure it contains live bacteria cultures — this should be noted on the side of the conainter) or a crunchy pickle with your sandwich. Fallen in love with fermentation? Pile on that sauerkraut and swap out some Greek yogurt for that sour cream next time you’re cooking! There are also an increasing number of creative and inventive chefs who are developing exciting (and delicious!) ways to bring fermented foods to the table.
If you’re not a huge fan of fermented foods but want to reap the same benefits through probiotic supplements, it’s worth checking with your doctor on the appropriate dosage. Supplements that contain Lactobacillus, a type of probiotic commonly considered ”good” bacteria and used to aid digestion issues, are measured by the number of living organisms in each capsule. Dosages can range from 1 to 10 billion organisms, taken in capsule-form and divided into three or four daily doses. And remember, probiotic supplements are not FDA-regulated at this time, so it’s always wise to do a bit of research before picking up just any ol’ brand from the store shelf.