The world of probiotics is a complex one. There are lots of buzzwords and hardwired science, as well as manipulated claims and plenty of marketing. One thing has remained a constant over the test of time, and that is fermented foods.
Fermented foods contain cultures that our bodies love. They are enzymatic and bright, refreshing and tart, and alive. But what deems one thing fermented, and another simply pickled? Clinical Nutritionist Cassie Brown of Candid Health Wellness breaks it down.
“The real difference between pickling and fermenting is the added acid. Pickling is where you soak the foods in an acidic liquid to get that desired sourness. On the other hand, when food is fermented, the sour flavor exists due to a chemical reaction that happens with a food’s natural sugars and already-present bacteria.”
Sugars aren’t a bad thing, here. In fact, they’re crucial, and they don’t necessarily mean you’re eating more sugar. Fermented things require sugar; it’s part of the process, and it’s one of their “foods” that they consume to grow, aka prebiotics. But it’s much more than just sugars.
Brown goes on to say, “Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and pickled vegetables contain probiotics, which are live bacteria found in your gut. They work very hard to improve digestive health by increasing the variety of good bacteria and lowering inflammation. But you also need prebiotics to help feed the probiotics so they’re able to do their job (you can think of prebiotics as fertilizer for probiotics). Prebiotics are fiber-rich, and they benefit your intestinal health by improving bowel movements, creating a healthy intestinal barrier, and contributing to the overall health of your immune function.”
So, while pickled veggies are delicious and certainly very shelf-stable, they aren’t quite as teeming with probiotic bugs as fermented goodies. Live and active bacteria don’t always thrive in acidic environments, so there simply won’t be as many naturally occurring probiotics in your pickled foods. But that’s not to say there are none. Just don’t sub all fermented things for pickles and claim excellent gut-health efforts.
And as Brown points out, “As long as you’re not dealing with bacteria overgrowth, like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), then a small amount of fermented food every day is great for your gut health!” So make sure to check with your doctor or nutritionist before overloading on fermented goodies. As always, everything in smart moderation is the key to balanced wellness.
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