Every food expert on the planet will tell you that the healthiest foods are usually the freshest. But the latest beneficial food group isn’t a bit farm to table—it’s fermented—meaning ingredients like cabbage and cucumbers have been left to sit and steep until their sugars and carbs become bacteria-boosting agents.
Wellness experts are currently enthralled by how these pungent, probiotic powerhouses, which boost the good bacteria in your digestive tract, can help heal a multitude of health issues, like leaky gut and IBS, and can even lead to weight loss, better skin, and boosted immunity.
More Reading: 3 unexpected ways to add fermented foods to every meal
One of the reasons? “The gut is the largest part of our immune system,” explains Drew Ramsey, MD, author of The Happiness Diet and 50 Shades of Kale. So it matters what you put in it. “Sugar and refined carbohydrates cause damage, while fermented foods heal.”
Ready to see what these (somewhat skunky) superfoods can do for you? Here are seven to try now. —Jennifer Kass
Note: This post was originally published on August 9, 2013, and updated on August 20, 2015.
A fizzy, fermented black tea that’s no stranger to New Yorkers, kombucha gives you a bang for your bacterial buck because of the variety of microorganisms it contains. “When you drink a bottle of kombucha, you’re drinking four to seven microorganisms all at once, building a really strong gut,” explains Michael Schwartz, the fermented-foodie founder of BAO Food And Drink. Just watch the sugar.
Turns out you should put sauerkraut, AKA fermented cabbage, on way more than your tofu dogs. It has a powerful impact on brain health, including depression and anxiety. “There’s a tremendous connection between gut and brain health,” explains Dr. Ramsey. If you’re the DIY type, try making your own. (Here’s an easy recipe!) Unlike non-refrigerated, store-bought varieties, homemade ‘kraut has no chemical preservatives or added sugar.
Pickles are the gateway ferment. Not only do they provide a healthy dose of probiotics, they’re a familiar food item and have a taste that many people already love—including those who may hold their nose at the idea of eating fermented foods.
Kimberley Snyder, celebrity nutritionist and author of The Beauty Detox Foods, loves coconut yogurt, because it’s a delicious, dairy-free way to work plenty of enzymes and probiotics into your diet. Though Greek and regular yogurt are also fermented foods, Snyder is less enthusiastic about them. “Dairy is extremely acid-forming in the body and difficult to digest,” she explains.
Jeff Cox, author of The Essential Book of Fermentation, loves miso for its nutritional profile. The paste made from fermented soybeans and grains is “full of essential minerals, like potassium, and consists of millions of microorganisms giving us strength and stamina,” he says. To make miso soup, just add a dollop to boiling water, along with some favorite vegetables, like onions, bok choy, or mushrooms.
Tempeh (fermented soybeans) is a complete protein with all of the amino acids, says Cox. He suggests using it as a yummy substitute for bacon in BLTs. Try flavoring organic tempeh with some tamari (also fermented), then add it to a sandwich with tomato, lettuce, and toast. Or eat it tossed in a bowl of steamed veggies.
Think of this spicy Korean dish—typically made from fermented cabbage—as a beauty food, as well as an energy-booster, says Snyder. It can help “enhance digestion and nutrient assimilation,” she explains. “You may also notice, with improved digestion, an improvement in the look of your skin.”