Spurred on by mounting scientific evidence regarding the potential benefits of probiotic bacteria, fermented foods have become trendy, bringing many traditional foods and cuisines into the culinary limelight.
Given that Korean skill in making fermented foods has been praised for nearly 2000 years, it’s no surprise that many Korean staples — especially kimchi — are at the forefront of the latest healthy food craze, with people adding kimchi into everything from tacos to grits.
However, as with many food crazes, it may not be entirely clear where the medical facts end and the marketing fibs begin; for every scientist cautiously suggesting that some bacteria may be beneficial for your digestive system, there’s a huckster claiming that their specially-formulated probiotic pill will cure your acne and make you look ten years younger. And, like any other kind of food, fermented foods can carry dangerous pathogens, potentially leading to serious foodborne illnesses.
So where do fermented foods really stand?
As this rather dry but widely-cited study suggests, some species of bacteria found in fermented foods appear to have very specific but clinically significant health benefits. For example, members of the diverse Lactobacillus genus, commonly found in just about everything from yogurt to sourdough bread, have demonstrated a range of therapeutic effects, from improving digestion to aiding immune function. During fermentation, lactic acid bacteria can apparently improve the availability of nutrients. Some other studies suggest that the bacteria in kimchi may control populations of H. pylori, the bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers.
Of note, many of the actual mechanisms by which these bacteria help us are unknown, hindering efforts by scientists to fully utilize probiotics in mainstream medicine. Furthermore, many so-called probiotic supplements are often filled with bacterial cultures that haven’t been shown to improve your health at all!
Still, the verdict’s in about the perks of probiotics. With the sheer variety of fermented foods out there — whether it’s doenjang or kefir or just plain old yogurt — there’s sure to be something to suit every palate.
By T. Kim