Are all fermented foods good for your health? This is a question that often comes up when people begin to overhaul their diet and introduce foods they may not have tried before. The category of probiotic foods includes things like sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kefir, and yogurt, along with foods like kimchi or kvass that are less common in North America. So are all of these foods good for your health? Like many things in medicine, the answer is … it depends!
Fermented foods can play a really important role in rebalancing the gut flora and recovering from gut imbalances like Candida. However, every fermented food is different. Evaluating each one means looking at what has (or hasn’t) been done to it and what has (or hasn’t) been added to it. Let’s explore in greater detail what that means, and what you need to watch for it when it comes to fermented foods.
Fermentation & Food — Understanding The Basics
There are a number of ways to ferment foods, including acetic acid fermentation, alkaline fermentation, and more. However, fermented foods are usually (but not always) produced using one of these two methods:
- Fermenting sugar with yeast to produce sugar alcohols; OR
- Using lactic acid-based bacteria (e.g. lactobacillus) to act on dairy products or vegetables, which aids in their preservation and increases their good probiotic content. (In the case of Candida, this second method is particularly useful).
However, many mass-produced ‘fermented foods’ nowadays unfortunately have little actual ‘fermentation’ left in them (i.e. lacto-acidic beneficial bacteria). This is due to the range of added sugars, preservatives, colorings, or cheap vinegars used. These additives are used in place of a real fermentation process. Typical examples are the sauerkraut, kimchi, and olives that you find in your local supermarket. Additionally, many yogurts contain no probiotic bacteria at all by the time they reach the shelves!
When produced this way, these foods will give you virtually no beneficial bacteria. As you know, ‘good bacteria’ are incredibly important to maintain healthy digestion, regulate intestinal pH, and ‘out-compete’ pathogens like Candida for space in the gut. Meanwhile, the added sugars and preservatives like sodium benzoate place stress on your digestive system and the rest of your body. Foods like these are not really fermented, and are nowhere near as beneficial for your health as real fermented foods can be.
True fermented foods typically contain substantial amounts of lactic acid producing probiotic bacteria. These bacteria thrive during the fermentation process and give the fermented food its characteristic flavor.
I should add a note of warning here. Eating large amounts of fermented foods is not so different from taking large amounts of probiotic supplements. If you go too fast with these foods, they can lead to a Herxheimer reaction (i.e. Candida die-off) in those already dealing with a Candida overgrowth. In other words, don’t rush in and eat 3 bowls of sauerkraut! Pace yourself and start with small servings of one or two fermented foods per day, especially if you suspect that you are dealing with a Candida infestation.
So, which fermented foods should you actually be eating? Let’s take a look at the key things you should watch out for when selecting (or making) your fermented foods.
Beneficial Fermented Food Options
Making your own fermented foods is almost always the best option, if you have the time and motivation to do it. It’s easier than you probably realize, and this way you can control the process and the ingredients completely. A great resource on the topic is The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to ferment your own foods, don’t worry! There are plenty of healthy options available to buy. Consider the following tips as guidelines for helping you choose and consume healthy, Candida-fighting fermented foods:
- Look for foods with no sugar added.
As you know, excess sugars will feed a Candida overgrowth. Fermented foods will typically have some residual sweetness from the natural sugars that remain in the food, so there should be no need to sweeten them further.
- Look for organic ingredients.
A Candida overgrowth means that your liver is already overworked, so the last thing you should do is add extra pesticides and chemicals for it to metabolize. Furthermore, organic produce tends to be higher in nutrient content, so you’ll get more nutrition out of each bite! Great fermented food options that can be certified organic include:
- Kombucha (be careful with this, as the sugar content can be too high in some cases)
- Go unpasteurized (particularly with fermented vegetables and dairy).
Processes like pasteurization and sterilization kill the beneficial bacteria. Even if bacteria are added back in and cultured after pasteurization, remember the enzymes in the food are still destroyed by pasteurizing. Those enzymes help you to digest foods more easily. For someone with Candida overgrowth who is likely already experiencing digestive problems, pasteurization makes foods harder to digest and much less beneficial.
- Avoid added alcohol (although small amounts produced during the fermentation process are generally ok).
Alcohol is a liver toxin, and remember that Candida is already producing potent toxins like acetaldehyde. You definitely don’t want to add to your body’s toxic burden. There are lots of good reasons to quit alcohol during your Candida treatment.
- Consume your fermented foods along with fatty and protein-rich foods.
Fatty and protein-rich foods tend to inhibit the natural production of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in the gut. To offset this, it makes sense to eat a small portion of fermented foods at the same time. In your Candida diet, this may be things like meats, nuts, eggs, etc.