What are fermented foods? The must-have products behind the gut health trend

03 July 2023, 08:00 AM
  • From kimchi and kombucha to miso and natto, discover the health benefits of the growing fermented foods category
What are fermented foods? The must-have products behind the gut health trend

Fermented foods may have been around for centuries, but in 2023, the funky flavours of these products are a must-have for many health-conscious Brits. Despite some fermented foods already being a staple on retailers’ shelves – think wine, cheese and yoghurt, to name a few – the globalisation of the food and drink sector means that inspiration from abroad is more popular than ever.

Whether your customers are keen to discover the gut health benefits of fermented food and drink, or they want to learn more about the different types of fermentation, learn all this and more in our guide.

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are made when bacteria and yeast break down sugars in food and drink. Fermentation has multiple benefits, including increasing the shelf life of fresh foods to prevent waste and, according to some studies, improving our health and wellbeing.

Are fermented foods good for you?

Yes, although in some cases more research is needed to prove their health benefits. Many fermented foods contain live bacteria called probiotics, which can have benefits when eaten regularly. These good bacteria are important in a number of healthy bodily functions, from producing certain vitamins to helping to fight infection.

What does all this matter to speciality food retailers? Well, fine food businesses are uniquely placed to capitalise on the demand for natural, healthy fermented foods. These days, consumers are increasingly knowledgeable in their search for gut health products. “We’re finding that consumers are becoming increasingly more savvy. They want to know that the products they buy are genuine and really work,” Jon Walsh, CEO and co-founder of Bio&Me, told Speciality Food.

To help customers recognise which brands are the real deal, it helps for retailers to be in the know.

How healthy are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are understood to boast a host of health benefits, such as:
• Improving digestion and gut health
• Boosting immunity
• Lowering the risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease

12 examples of fermented foods and their health benefits

1. Kefir – Including this fermented yoghurt-like drink in your diet is said to improve digestion and reduce inflammation. It also contains helpful vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12 and calcium.
2. Apple cider vinegar – Created when yeast breaks down the sugars in apple juice while bacteria, known as the ‘mother’, makes the vinegar. ACV (with the mother – you’ll recognise it by its cloudy appearance) can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and keep you fuller for longer.
3. Kimchi – Found throughout Korean cuisine, kimchi is made from fermented vegetables, like cabbage and radish, and spices like ginger and garlic. It is said to help manage cholesterol and balance blood sugar levels.
4. Kombucha - A fermented tea made from either green or black tea. Kombucha has been shown to decrease blood sugar, lower cholesterol and even protect the liver in animal studies.
5. Cheeses – Yes, certain cheeses contain probiotics that contribute to gut health. These include both soft and hard cheeses – as long as they have been aged but not heated. The list includes Gouda, Edam, Gruyère, cottage cheese and more.
6. Miso – Popular in Japanese cuisine, this seasoning is made from fermenting soybeans with koji, a type of fungus. Possible health benefits include lowering blood pressures and protecting heart health. 
7. Tempeh – Also made from fermenting soybeans, this high-protein cake ticks two trend boxes, gut health and plant-based, as tempeh can be used as a meat substitute. It’s high in probiotics and is believed to boost heart health. 
8. Sauerkraut – This popular dish is made from fermenting cabbage with lactic acid bacteria, and it is high in antioxidants and believed to support digestive health.
9. Sourdough bread – Although sourdough bread is made with a fermented starter, it doesn’t contain probiotics. However, it’s still associated with numerous health benefits, like balancing blood sugar levels and improving digestion.
10. Natto – This Japanese food is made of fermented soybeans. Although it contains fibre and vitamins and is said to boost your immune system, its slimy, stringy texture and strong flavour have prevented it from reaching mainstream status here in the UK.
11. Kvass – This fermented drink has been tipped to be a hit in the non-alcoholic beverage space thanks to its naturally low alcohol content and beer-like flavour. It’s made from stale sourdough rye bread and contains probiotics.
12. Yoghurt – One of the most common foods on this list, probiotic yoghurt is milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria. It contains many healthy nutrients and is thought to reduce blood pressure, prevent weight gain and improve bone density. But remember, not all yoghurts contain probiotics.

What are the types of fermentation?

There are three main types of fermentation:

Lactic acid fermentation is the method behind most fermented food products, like sauerkraut, sourdough bread, kimchi and yoghurt. Lactic fermentation occurs when bacteria break down starches or sugars into lactic acid.

Ethanol fermentation or alcohol fermentation creates wine and beer, and it takes place when yeasts break down starches or sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Acetic acid fermentation produces apple cider vinegar and kombucha. This happens when starches and sugars from grains and fruit ferment, creating acetic acid, or vinegar.

Fermented food recipes

Whether you plan to create your own kefir or are looking for recipes that make the most of fermented ingredients to share with customers, find inspiration in our examples below.

Sourdough bread
Enjoy this recipe for the perfect sourdough boule.

How to make kimchi and other preserves
Food writer Heather Taylor shares her tips for making fermented jars of kimchi, pickles and more.

Spiced Stilton, Cheddar & Kimchi
Ready to spice up your kimchi? Look no further than this flavour sensation.

Miso Sticky Toffee Pudding
Find a new use for miso in this flavourful pudding.

James Martin’s Miso Butter Fudge
Nutty miso complements sweet fudge in this recipe.

Roasted Squash Grain Bowl with Miso-Tahini Dressing
Create a rich dressing for a colourful salad.

Homemade Lime Pickle
Fermentation for beginners: a simple, mildly fermented lime pickle recipe.

Vegetable scrap recipes
Try your hand at apple core vinegar or pineapple-skin tepache with these fermented recipes.

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