London is at the beginning of what can only be described as a fermentation craze right now. Taking note from our (clearly wiser) neighbours in Europe, as well as the wellness scenes in both Australia and America, our shelves are being filled with ferments. From the drink aisles packed with kombucha, kefir, tonics and shrubs, to the fridges full of sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh, our gut health has never been better.

“From the drink aisles packed with kombucha, kefir, tonics and shrubs, to the fridges full of sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh, our gut health has never been better.”

But why the craze? If there’s anything we’ve learnt from two years in the wellness industry (and many more obsessed with it), health trends come and go even quicker than fashion trends – or the British summer. So is that bottle of Booch kombucha just another to add to the ‘accessory of the season’ list, or is there a little bit more behind this one?

Our in-house naturopath, Anastasia, has been a fan of all things fermented long before they hit the shelves – in fact, she once sent our marketing manager on a wild goose chase around Berlin just to try and get hold of a bottle of Booch long before it had reached the UK. She explains that fermented products are the ultimate body-loving food as they increase and restore good gut flora, which leads to a better functioning, happy gut. And, as the (maybe not-so-popular) saying goes, ‘a healthy gut = a healthy body’.

pickled beetroot

But, what exactly is it about ferments that promote and create good gut flora? For most products, including fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha and tempeh, they’re rich in beneficial lactic acid-producing bacteria. In the digestive tract, these bacteria help ferment carbohydrates that we otherwise cannot digest. As a by-product, the gut remains acidic, which prevents harmful organisms from being able to grow, while good gut bacteria can firmly establish themselves.

“For most fermented products, they’re rich in beneficial lactic acid-producing bacteria.”

For anyone who has tried fermented products, you’ll agree that they have quite an ‘acidic’ taste – from the vinegar-like vibe of kombucha and kimchi, to the tart taste of kefir and sauerkraut. This flavour actually contributes a crucial role in this process. Fermented foods by nature are quite acidic, and so the beneficial microbes have had to evolve and ‘toughen up’ in order to cope with these sorts of environments. This, in turn, helps them to make it through the stomach, and do what they need to do in the intestine below.

“Fermented foods by nature are quite acidic, and so the beneficial microbes have had to evolve and ‘toughen up’ in order to cope with these sorts of environments.”

All sounds pretty good, right? If you’re anything like us, you’ll already be planning your next trip to Planet Organic, or figuring out how to start brewing your own kombucha. Except, as always in the food industry, ideas that start as great concepts aren’t always adhered to. In a world where everyone’s striving to have the cheapest product, or the product with the greatest mass-market appeal, or the product with the longest shelf-life, sometimes the original health appeal can be lost.

Fermented foods

Through a combination of both our industry knowledge and a slight obsession with all things fermented, we’ve learnt a few rules of thumb:

  • Kombucha can quite often be pasteurised, which makes all the gut-loving, probiotic claims completely false. Pasteurisation is used to extend shelf-life, but unfortunately, it kills off all the beneficial bacteria. Generally, we find all the cheaper options tend to be pasteurised (below £3), but it’s best to just check the shelf-life – anything over 12 months and it’s likely to have been pasteurised.
  • Your miso should be unpasteurised. To get the most health benefits from miso (which is made from fermented soybeans), it, again, needs to be the unpasteurised type. The main way to ensure you’re getting the highest quality miso is by heading straight to the chilled section of the store.
  • Check the sugar content on fermented drinks. Both kefir and kombucha can end up as sugary drink options if you’re not careful. Kefir is naturally quite a tart drink, so companies tend to add a lot of sugar to it to make it more appealing to most people’s taste-buds. There’s still a lot of good, low-sugar options out there though – just be sure to check the ingredients. As for kombucha, this is a little trickier. As you try more brands, you’ll realise that some are definitely sweeter, so it’s worth checking the sugar content to make sure all is ok. Scoby’s (which is an acronym for ‘Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast’) eat the sugar during the fermentation process, but if the process is shorter, or a lot of sugar is initially added, you’re still gonna end up with a sugary drink!
  • Avoid fermented vegetables with added preservatives. The same rule that applies to pretty much all pre-made food products is the same here: if you can’t read or recognise the ingredients, it’s probably best not to buy it. A lot of fermented vegetables have preservatives added to prolong the shelf-life, which likely means the health benefits are now little to none. Similar to the miso rule, head to the chilled aisle. All good, fresh krauts and kimchis need to be kept in the fridge, so just completely bypass the shelf-stable options and head for the good stuff (your gut will thank you).

Kerry Hopkins is Head of Marketing for POLLEN + GRACE (www.pollenandgrace.com)

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