This post was created in partnership with the dairy families of New England.
Fermented Foods from the Fridge
You’ve heard the phrase: Your health is your wealth. Well, if your health is your wealth, your gut health is priceless.
I should know.
A few years ago, I made a business trip to another country. During my stay, I acquired a parasite. (sad face)
I became very sick and needed nearly a month of treatment with strong antibiotics to get rid of the parasite. After that, it took months to heal and re-build the healthy gut I once had.
What is Gut Health?
We all have a digestive system. It helps our bodies digest the food we eat so we can absorb the nutrients from food. Within our gastrointestinal tract, or gut, live trillions of bacteria. Scientists call this our gut microbiome, which refers to the microsystem or environment contained within our digestive tracts.
Exciting and emerging research teaches us that our microbiome may be responsible for much more than food digestion. From happy, hopeful mood states to a robust immunity, we’re learning that a healthy gut microbiome is key to our health.
A Diverse Microbiome
Of course, when you have trillions of bacteria in your gut, some of them are going to be helpful, and some not so much. The balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut influence your health. While research has targeted the connection between gut health and obesity, brain function, immunity and more, probiotics and fermented foods are a common recommendation for helping the gut microbiome stay balanced and healthy.
Probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” according to a consensus panel from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization (FAO/WHO).
Research on probiotics in children have suggested the following potential benefits of probiotics:
Reduces inflammation of the gut in premature infants, and possibly prevents necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
Increases the good bacteria in the microbiome of healthy, breastfed infants
Prevents diarrhea in children taking antibiotics
Reduces crying in babies with colic
Reduces likelihood and symptoms of eczema
Prevents respiratory tract infections in day care and preschool
Reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS (studies are from adult subjects, yet medical practitioners are applying these findings to children)
While many studies on probiotics and gut health have been done, these studies highlight specific strains of probiotics. Experts warn that long term benefits and effects of probiotics on health are still unknown. Additionally, probiotic content varies from brand to brand in that they contain different strains of probiotics and combinations of them. Each strain of probiotic has a different effect on the gut, depending on the individual’s gut microbiome.
Fermented foods contain live microbes and may confer a beneficial effect on the gut. For example, fermented dairy products have been associated with a reduction in Type 2 diabetes in adults. Yet, experts point out that it can be difficult to tease out whether health effects come from live microorganisms or the nutritional quality of the food itself.
The bottom line: Fermented foods containing living cultures can add beneficial bacteria to the gut so your child can reap the health benefits.
In my work with kids, gut health comes up a lot. Parents are curious about whether they should start a probiotic, or not. Generally, if a child is healthy or has gut issues like constipation or lactose-intolerance, I like to see families increase their consumption of fermented foods.
Many parents recognize yogurt as a source of live and active cultures, yet, they don’t realize there are several other fermented foods from which to choose. The six I list here are kid-friendly fermented foods with which your child may enjoy.
6 Kid-Friendly Fermented Foods
1. Yogurt (with Live Cultures)
Made from milk that has been fermented with bacteria, yogurt has been shown to help with diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome in children.
Not all yogurt is equal, though. Some yogurts have live cultures, which means there are active probiotic strains within the yogurt. In other yogurts, the cultures have been killed during processing.
Tip: Choose yogurts with live or active cultures.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made by adding kefir grains to cow’s milk or goat’s milk. Personally, it’s one of my favorites and I’ve had great success introducing this option to kids, even picky eaters!
Even though kefir can have a sour flavor, many brands offer flavored versions like mango, strawberry and blueberry.
More potent than yogurt, kefir hosts a wide variety of gut-friendly probiotic strains. It’s also well-tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.
Tip: Offer a few ounces in the morning with breakfast.
Pucker up! Pickles may be fermented in a solution of salt and water, or in a vinegar solution. Cucumbers pickled with salt and water ferment over time. Coupled with the naturally present lactic acid in cucumber, this produces active cultures and a sour flavor. Pickles made with vinegar are not a source of live and active cultures.
Tip: If you’ve never tried pickling cucumbers in salt and water, give it a whirl!
Buttermilk may contain live, active cultures, however, the buttermilk products available in the grocery store may not contain live, active cultures due to processing. Always check the label for evidence of cultures. Cultured buttermilk can be made at home and is started with live, active cultures added to fresh milk or cream. The buttermilk is allowed to ferment, producing a cultured buttermilk. Cultured buttermilk can be an addition to baked goods like biscuits and to make delicious pancakes.
Most cheeses are fermented, but only some cheeses are a source of live cultures. You can find them by looking for a label that states “with live and active cultures.” Gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar cheese are examples that may contain living cultures.
Tempeh is a high protein meat substitute made from fermented soybeans. Fermentation lowers the phytic acid in beans, making nutrients like iron and zinc more available to the body for absorption. The process of fermentation also causes the production of vitamin B12, which is not typically present in beans, making tempeh a nutritious meat alternative for vegetarians.
Other fermented food sources can be found in the refrigerator! Look for sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, natto, and kimchi. And, of course, go ahead and try these with your child too!
I want to know…which are your favorite fermented foods?