Why Eat Fermented Foods? October 26 2014

By Debby Raabel, RHN

Fermented, also known as “cultured” foods are high in B vitamins, protein and are full of enzymes which help to breakdown large molecules into usable units.  They are naturally “pre-digested” so proteins have been broken down into amino acids and starches have been broken down into simple sugars.  Therefore, fermented or cultured foods aid digestion, are easily assimilated, and provide energy in an efficient manner.

The process of fermenting foods was used primarily as a way to preserve foods, and ancient cultures seemed to realize that fermenting foods also added health benefits.  We in the west are familiar with fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, olives, pickles, vinegar, soy sauce, and sour dough bread.  There are many other less known fermented foods such as Kefir (fermented milk with kefir granules that are a combination of bacteria and yeasts), Korean Kimchi (fermented vegetables and seasonings) Kombucha (fermented tea from fungus) Tempeh (fermented soybeans) Miso, (fermented rice, barley and/or soybeans, with salt and the fungus kōjikin) and Kumiss (traditionally fermented mare’s milk), to name just a few.

Cultured foods contain lactic acid which helps destroy harmful bacteria in the intestines.  They are a natural acidophilus, that means they fortify the intestinal flora, the friendly bacteria which inhabit the intestines. These friendly bacteria get depleted through day to day modern living such as eating processed, chemicalized, preserved for shelf-life food, overuse of antibiotics and stress.  Including fermented foods in your regular daily diet will help restore these friendly bacteria in your intestines.

The lactobacilius acidophilus bacteria produced from fermenting foods, uses starches and sugars in foods as its food.  The metabolic by-product, lactic acid, actually preserves food by inhibiting other bacteria that cause foods to rot and putrefy.

Current scientific research is exploding with an abundance of studies confirming the health benefits of fermented food.  Many of these studies have focused on yogurt in relation to colon health, intestinal cancers, and immunological benefits. 

One 1998 study that did not involve dairy involved feeding fermented papaya to rats.  Researchers discovered that the fermented papaya preparation had antioxidant actions that protected against the age related and neurological diseases associated with free radicals.

Kefir has attracted a lot of attention with research scientists.  Kefir is quite different from yogurt except that both are made from milk and both are fermented.   While yogurt is made by fermenting milk with acidophilus bacteria, kefir is far more complex a fermentation; it is fermented using a culture of yeast and bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship.

A 2007 study paper found that both the yogurt and kefir extracts inhibited growth of breast cancer cells.  While yogurt was good, the kefir was far better at stopping cancer cell growth.

The kefir extracts had four times the inhibitory effect on the breast cancer cells than the yogurt did at one quarter the concentration. These researchers discovered that kefir extracts contain constituents that specifically inhibit growth of human breast cancer cells.

In another 2006 research study on the antitumor effect of kefir, mice were injected with breast tumor cells, then fed kefir. Researchers concluded that kefir stimulated immune system cells (IgA cells and T lymphocytes), and kept the immune system in a permanent state of readiness as long as there were breast cancer cells present. The kefir fed control group decreased levels of IL-7, which is important in estrogen dependent tumors. The kefir fed mice also had delayed breast tumor development, significant decrease in tumor volume, and decreased Bcl-2 protein, which stimulates growth in cancer cells, compared to the control group not fed kefir.  The kefir group showed significantly increased number of apoptotic cells. Apoptosis is an active cellular process in which tumorous cells self-destruct without injuring neighboring cells, or cause inflammatory reaction.

This same study also experimented with the feeding schedules of the two groups.  One group were fed kefir in 2 day cycles then no kefir for 5 days. The second group was fed kefir for 7 consecutive days then no kefir for 5 days. Interestingly, the mice fed kefir in 2 day cycles fared better than those fed in 7 day cycles. This interesting detail suggests to this writer that perhaps when it comes to fermented foods “less is more”?  I am not at all sure how to interpret this when it comes to healing or preventing breast cancer other than perhaps eating a small portion of kefir for 2 consecutive days, every 5 days should be a high in priority!