The Benefits of Eating Fermented Vegetables

  • Harry White Master of Science - MS, Biology/Biological Sciences, General, University of Bristol, UK

Overview

Did you know that fermented vegetables offer a host of health benefits? Fermented vegetables provide health benefits from two main sources, living microorganisms and their metabolites (by-products). Fermented vegetables have been a culinary delight for generations, often brimming with tangy flavours and unique textures.

Fermented vegetables have undergone a natural fermentation process, where beneficial bacteria and yeast break down sugars and starches present in the plant matter. Fermentation not only preserves the vegetables but also enhances their nutritional value, flavour, and digestibility. 

This article will highlight some of the proven health benefits of fermented vegetables, considerations before you start consuming them, and how to incorporate them into your diet.

What are fermented vegetables?

When vegetables undergo fermentation, they are exposed to a saltwater brine or a starter culture, which allows the growth of beneficial microorganisms, such as Lactobacillus bacteria, and yeast. These microorganisms consume the sugars and starches in the vegetables, producing lactic acid, carbon dioxide, alcohol, and other compounds. This fermentation process transforms the texture, flavour, and aroma of the vegetables, making them acidic and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause spoilage or food poisoning.1

You can ferment almost any vegetable, such as carrots, cauliflower, beets, radishes, onions, garlic, peppers, and more.2 However, according to The Association of UK Dieticians, some of the most common fermented vegetables are:

  • Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
  • Kimchi (fermented cabbage and other vegetables with spices)
  • Pickles (fermented cucumbers)
  • Tempeh (fermented soybeans) 

Nutritional composition of fermented vegetables

Probiotics

One of the standout features of fermented vegetables is the presence of probiotics. These beneficial microorganisms are crucial in maintaining a balanced and healthy gut microbiome. Scientific studies have underscored the importance of probiotics in supporting digestive health and strengthening the function of your gut. 

Furthermore, fermented vegetables can improve your digestion by increasing enzyme activity, the bioavailability of nutrients in your food, and bolstering the immune system. Commonly used probiotic bacteria include lactic acid bacteria (LAB), such as Lactobacillus, Enterococcus, and Bifidobacterium, while yeasts and other microbes are also emerging as potential probiotics. Some probiotic cultures used commercially include the following bacteria:3,4,5 

  • Bacillus coagulans 
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus 
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus 
  • Bifidobacterium lactis 
  • Streptococcus oralis 
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds 

Fermented vegetables contain an enhanced nutritional profile, offering an array of vitamins like vitamins C and B, which are essential for energy, metabolism, and immune function. They also facilitate the absorption of iron from plant sources and the absorption of other minerals such as potassium. Some fermented vegetables, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are also rich in vitamin K2, which is important for a healthy heart and bones. 

Compounds like polyphenols and antioxidants are abundant in fermented vegetables.1 

  • Calcium and magnesium levels are highest in fermented carrots, broccoli, and red beets. 
  • K levels are highest in fermented broccoli and red beets. 
  • Vitamin A, carotene, and phenolic compounds were shown to be more abundant in fermented carrots, peppers, and broccoli. 

The fermentation process lowers the water content, thus raising the nutrient concentration in these vegetables.2

Health benefits of fermented vegetables

Fermented vegetables have been consumed for thousands of years in different cultures throughout the world. Traditionally, fermentation was a method of preservation but recent research has confirmed that fermented vegetables also offer many advantages for well-being, such as:1,6,7

Improved gut health: The gut microbiome is the collection of microorganisms present in the digestive tract. These microorganisms are vital in digesting food, producing vitamins, regulating metabolism, and modulating immunity. However, factors such as stress, antibiotics, environmental toxins, and processed foods can disturb the balance of your gut microbiome, leading to dysbiosis or an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that cause digestive issues such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and leaky gut syndrome. The probiotics present in fermented vegetables contribute to a flourishing gut microbiome, promoting better digestion and nutrient absorption.8

Enhanced digestion: Fermented foods aid in breaking down complex nutrients, making them easier for the body to digest and are particularly beneficial for individuals with digestive issues or sensitivities. For instance, kefir, a fermented milk drink, can increase gut microbiota composition and function, improve intestinal permeability and mucosal immunity, and enhance digestion and metabolic health.

Immune system support: The immune system is our body's first line of defence against illness, made possible by the intricate connection between gut health and immune function. The probiotics and immune-boosting compounds in fermented vegetables contribute to an active immune response. 

Weight management: Incorporating fermented vegetables and foods like yoghurt into one's diet can be a strategic move for those on a journey to manage their weight. The probiotics and fibre content in fermented vegetables may contribute to a feeling of fullness, potentially reducing overall calorie intake. 

Antioxidant: Oxidative stress, a key player in ageing and various chronic diseases can be mitigated by the antioxidant-rich nature of fermented vegetables.4 A literature review discussed how these foods reduce oxidative stress, potentially slowing ageing, fighting harmful free radicals, and promoting overall well-being.2 While research is ongoing, the potential of fermented vegetables in cancer prevention is a topic of interest. The diverse bioactive compounds found in these foods may contribute to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.5

Inflammation reduction: Probiotics in fermented vegetables can produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), anti-inflammatory molecules that nourish the cells and may help regulate the body's response to inflammation. Turmeric, kombucha, doenjang (a type of fermented soybean paste), kanjang/ganjang (a Korean soy sauce), and cheonggukjang/chungkookjang (fermented soybeans) have shown promise in reversing or treating neuroinflammation and some inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic inflammatory pain.10

Cardiovascular health: Fermented vegetables contribute to heart health by positively influencing cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Ongoing research explores the potential of fermented foods in cardiovascular disease prevention.11 To quote an article by The British Heart Association, “There is no harm in trying for most people; however, care should be taken to read labels before purchase and if there are any underlying health considerations”.

Diabetes management: The relationship between fermented vegetables and diabetes management is an area of active investigation. Early studies suggest that the compounds present in fermented foods may positively impact blood sugar levels. For example, cheonggukjang (fermented soybeans) has improved fasting blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.12

Enhancing mood and brain function: The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system between the gut and the brain. As probiotics support a healthy gut microbiome, research suggests that a balanced gut microbiome may influence neurotransmitter production, potentially affecting mood regulation. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may produce neurotransmitters like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These neurotransmitters could play a crucial role in regulating mood and reducing stress.4,10 However, the results are limited, and further research is required to confirm this.12

Challenges and considerations of consuming fermented vegetables

Salt content: Knowing that some fermented vegetables may have a greater salt content is crucial. Individuals on sodium-restricted diets should be cautious about their intake. Understanding the salt content and choosing lower-sodium products can assist in striking a balance.10,13

Allergies and intolerance: While fermented vegetables provide many benefits, people with certain allergies or intolerances should be cautious. Certain fermented items may contain common allergies, such as soy or gluten. Reading labels and selecting items that meet specific dietary demands is important.

Safety and hygiene: Given that the fermentation process is dependent on the activity of microbes, hygiene practices are essential. Fermentation must occur in a clean environment with adequate ingredient handling to prevent contamination and assure the safety of the consumable product. BBC Good Food includes various fermented vegetable recipes and safety and hygiene guidelines.

How to incorporate fermented vegetables into your diet

Embarking on incorporating fermented vegetables into your diet can be a delightful adventure. Start by experimenting with different flavours, then gradually increase your intake and range. Homemade ferments, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, can be a rewarding and inexpensive way to enjoy the benefits fermented vegetables have to offer. 

You can also elevate your culinary experience by exploring recipes incorporating fermented vegetables, either as a side dish or a snack. Add them to salads, sandwiches, wraps, soups, stews, stir-fries, or any other dish as desired. 

FAQ's

Are fermented vegetables safe to eat?

Yes, when prepared and stored correctly, they are safe to consume.

How long do fermented vegetables last?

Properly fermented and stored vegetables can last for several months.

Can I use any vegetables for fermentation?

You can ferment most vegetables, but some are better suited than others. Cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers are common choices.

Are there any potential side effects of consuming fermented vegetables?

Some people may initially experience mild bloating or gas when they start consuming fermented vegetables as their gut adjusts, but these symptoms often subside.

Can children and pregnant women consume fermented vegetables?

Fermented vegetables are generally safe for children and pregnant women. However, individual reactions may vary. You should consult with a healthcare professional, especially if specific health concerns or dietary restrictions exist.

Summary

The advantages of including fermented vegetables in your diet go far beyond flavour. These nutritional powerhouses have earned their place at the table by supporting gut health and mitigating the risk of developing certain chronic diseases (reference needed). 

The fermented vegetables industry holds enormous promise for people trying to better their health. These vegetables are a useful addition to your diet because of their probiotics, high vitamin content, and capacity to assist digestion and the immune system. The abundance of vitamins and minerals and the antioxidant effects offer a well-rounded nutritional experience. 

Fermented vegetables provide health benefits ranging from gut health and immune function to weight control and illness prevention. You can take a proactive step toward a healthier lifestyle by including them in your diet. 

References

  • Castellone, Vincenzo, et al. “Eating Fermented: Health Benefits of LAB-Fermented Foods.” Foods, vol. 10, no. 11, Oct. 2021, p. 2639. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10112639.
  • Tamang, Jyoti P., et al. “Functional Properties of Microorganisms in Fermented Foods.” Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 7, Apr. 2016. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2016.00578.
  • Kim, Binna, et al. “A Review of Fermented Foods with Beneficial Effects on Brain and Cognitive Function.” Preventive Nutrition and Food Science, vol. 21, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 297–309. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3746/pnf.2016.21.4.297.
  • Tasdemir, Seyma Sehadet, and Nevin Sanlier. “An Insight into the Anticancer Effects of Fermented Foods: A Review.” Journal of Functional Foods, vol. 75, Dec. 2020, p. 104281. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2020.104281.
  • Zhao, Yan-Sheng, et al. “Fermentation Affects the Antioxidant Activity of Plant-Based Food Material through the Release and Production of Bioactive Components.” Antioxidants, vol. 10, no. 12, Dec. 2021, p. 2004. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox10122004.
  • Şanlier, Nevin, et al. “Health Benefits of Fermented Foods.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vol. 59, no. 3, Feb. 2019, pp. 506–27. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2017.1383355.
  • Nkhata, Smith G., et al. “Fermentation and Germination Improve Nutritional Value of Cereals and Legumes through Activation of Endogenous Enzymes.” Food Science & Nutrition, vol. 6, no. 8, Nov. 2018, pp. 2446–58. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.846.
  • Pandey, Kavita. R., et al. “Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics- a Review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology, vol. 52, no. 12, Dec. 2015, pp. 7577–87. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-015-1921-1.
  • Dimidi, Eirini, et al. “Fermented Foods: Definitions and Characteristics, Impact on the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Gastrointestinal Health and Disease.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, Aug. 2019, p. 1806. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081806.
  • Paul, Alok K., et al. “Are Fermented Foods Effective against Inflammatory Diseases?” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 20, no. 3, Jan. 2023, p. 2481. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20032481.
  • Li, Katherine J., et al. “Fermented Foods and Cardiometabolic Health: Definitions, Current Evidence, and Future Perspectives.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 9, Sept. 2022, p. 976020. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.976020.
  • Hashimoto, Yoshitaka, et al. “Fermented Soybean Foods and Diabetes.” Journal of Diabetes Investigation, Oct. 2023, p. jdi.14088. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1111/jdi.14088.
  • Karbownik, Michał Seweryn, et al. “Association Between Consumption of Fermented Food and Food-Derived Prebiotics With Cognitive Performance, Depressive, and Anxiety Symptoms in Psychiatrically Healthy Medical Students Under Psychological Stress: A Prospective Cohort Study.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 9, Mar. 2022, p. 850249. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.850249.
  • Kiczorowski, Piotr, et al. “Effect of Fermentation of Chosen Vegetables on the Nutrient, Mineral, and Biocomponent Profile in Human and Animal Nutrition.” Scientific Reports, vol. 12, no. 1, Aug. 2022, p. 13422. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-17782-z.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Chimezirim Ozonyiri

Bachelor of Science - BS, Microbiology, General, Tansian University, Nigeria

Chimezirim has several years of experience in the healthcare, non-profit, and education sectors. She is passionate about health promotion and began her journey into health and lifestyle writing over two years ago.

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