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Fermented foods, which include classics like Sauerkraut and trendy drinks like Kombucha tea, are gaining popularity as the new super food. New studies are showing that this ancient food preservation process offers numerous health benefits. Fermented foods reduce inflammation, improve immunity, digestion and gut health, support weight loss by enhancing metabolism, improve mental health, and even reduce the risk of heart disease.

Fermented foods are like gourmet foods that help our gut microbiome flourish

The Fermentation Process

The fermentation of food and beverages is an ancient practice that has been used in every culture around the world. Germans make Sauerkraut; Koreans make Kimchi; and the Japanese use soy to make Tempeh, Miso, and Natto.

Fermentation transforms the food with the use of good bacteria, fungi or enzymes. During the process, natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating acids (like lactic acid) or alcohol. The acids break down the cell walls of the food and the nutrients are predigested by the beneficial bacteria. This not only preserves the food, but it enhances the food’s nutritional value, or the bioavailability of the nutrients. For example, the Vitamin C in cabbage becomes more bioavailable when it’s fermented to become Sauerkraut and Kimchi. The process also creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus that improve digestion and gut health. To learn more about the connection of our gut microbiome and health, we recommend our Ornish Living article, Your Gut Heart Health Connection.

Common Fermented Foods

The following are some common fermented foods, however, this list is not all inclusive. Others include beer, wine, fermented cheese and more.


This German fermented classic is made from finely chopped cabbage fermented by several lactic-acid-producing bacteria. The fermentation process releases many of the nutrients from the cabbage, making the fermented form higher in vitamins C and K, calcium, magnesium, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese. In its uncooked, unpasteurized form, sauerkraut contains many bacteria that may help maintain a healthy intestinal flora.


This traditional Korean dish is made from fermented cabbage, radish, scallion and cucumber combined with a variety of other seasonings. Kimchi is high in fiber and contains high amounts of vitamin C and several carotenes. Depending on the particular mix of ingredients, it’s also high in vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium and iron.

Pickled Cucumbers, Beets, Radishes, and Ginger

Pickled vegetables are fermented vegetables such as cucumbers, beets, radishes, cabbage or ginger. Pickled or fermented vegetables are among the healthiest food you can eat, packed with fiber, phytochemicals and probiotics. Do not mistake true pickled vegetables with store bought bottled pickles that are heated at high temperatures that kill of the healthy bacteria.

A Simple Guide to Making Pickled Vegetables

  • Chop or shred your vegetables or leave them whole
  • Add salt or brine (salt and water)
  • Add seasonings
  • Cover for 1 to 3 weeks or longer for the bacteria to grow and thrive


Tempeh is made from cooked and naturally fermented soybeans packed into a patty. Commercially prepared tempeh often has additional grains such as barley, brown rice or  flax seeds. It has a slightly nutty flavor, with a firm texture unlike tofu.


Miso is a thick concentrated soybean paste traditionally made from soybeans, but can also be made from garbanzo, adzuki or whole grains such as barley or brown rice. It’s made by adding salt and a fermenting agent, which is usually Aspergillus oryzae culture. Miso is most often used for soups, sauces, dressings, or marinades and is rich in B vitamins, prebiotics, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.


Natto is fermented cooked soybeans with a sticky, viscous coating. It can be used like a spread or in soups. It is high in protein and fiber and lower in sodium than miso or soy sauce. It is rich in B vitamins, iron and other minerals.


Kefir is a fermented yogurt-style drink made from any type of milk, cow, goat or sheep, coconut, rice or soy and kefir grains.


Yogurt is a form of fermented milk made with a variety of bacterial cultures such as lactobacillus, but many others may also be involved in the process. Yogurt is typically easier for lactose-intolerant individuals to digest because much of the lactose has been digested, however, some individuals with lactose intolerance may still not tolerate it well.

Kombucha Tea 

Kombucha Tea is made with fermented black or green tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. It is made by adding the colony of bacteria with the sugar and tea, and allowing the mix to ferment. The resulting liquid contains vinegar, rich in B vitamins, and prebiotics.

Why Eat Fermented Foods?

Pre-and Probiotics

Fermented foods are rich prebiotics and are like gourmet foods that help our gut microbiome flourish.

Better Nutrition

Fermentation allows our healthy gut bacteria to thrive and provides enzymes for better absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. Some of the healthy bacteria produced during fermentation also produces essential nutrients such as B vitamins, Vitamin C, and K. Fermented foods are rich in phytonutrients, antioxidants, and live enzymes.

Improved Digestion

Natural fermentation of foods helps to break food down to a more digestible form along with natural digestive enzymes that aid in digestion. Harder to digest carbohydrates/sugars in food such as lactose, get consumed in the fermentation process making it not only easier to digest, but lowers overall sugar content. This, along with the presence of probiotics created during the fermentation process improves digestion. 

Cost Effective

Fermented foods provide an excellent source of probiotics which can be expensive if you’re buying supplements. You can easily ferment your own foods at home for pennies per serving.

Preserves Food

Fermenting foods have been a way to preserve food for centuries and across cultures long before refrigeration. Most fermented foods can last for months and some like miso will last for years without spoiling or losing nutrient value.

What is your favorite fermented food or drink?

Contributed by

Carra Richling
Registered Dietitian

Eat well, be well!

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