our microbiome

Did you know you could have somewhere between 2-6 pounds of bacteria in your digestive tract? Those trillions of microorganisms might have an influence on anxiety, depression, hypertension, and immune function.

The world of probiotics is still a vague grey area within the scientific community, there is a lot of misinformation, and research to be conducted. However, there is no doubt that our gut bacteria affects more bodily function than we previously realized.

In an emerging field of research, there are a few ways to feed your microbiome without fecal transplants or probiotic powders – introducing fermented food.

benefits of fermented foods

Fermented foods have been used as a preservation method for centuries (beer, cheese, yogurt, kefir, wine, sauerkraut, kimchi).

Fermented foods are full of pre-biotics that are essentially food for the bacteria in our digestive tract. What we eat can actually change the balance of microbes in our digestive tract. Eating a burger instead of a cup of yogurt can increase the populations of some types of bacteria and decrease others.

The foods we regularly consume on a daily basis will shape our intestinal microbiome. Eating kimchi every other week isn’t going to make as much of an impact as having a cup of kefir each morning.

how do foods ferment?

Fermentation is an anaerobic process where sugars are converted to acids, gas, or alcohol. The anaerobic process of fermentation inhibits certain microbes from growing that cause food spoilage making it a great method of food preservation.

When vegetables ferment, the starches and sugars in the food are converted into lactic acid by the bacteria lactobacilli. Lactic acid bacteria is pretty much the only living thing that can survive the highly acidic environment created by fermentation.

Even though fermented foods can be preserved on a shelf, they contain a live bacteria culture that changes and multiplies with time (hello probiotics).

pickled vs fermented

In the process of pickling, foods are placed into an acidic liquid with salt and herbs. This creates a similar sour and tangy flavor of fermented foods. The food is then sterilized by heat and pressure which destroys and inhibits the growth of bacterial microorganisms.

This is great for food preservation because it allows the food to be shelf stable without growing mold or going bad.

However, pickled foods no longer have live, active bacterial cultures present. Thus, making them a glorified condiment. I’m not knocking on shelf-stable pickles, just realize it’s not a source of probiotics.

eat fermented food

If you are looking for fermented food, you won’t find it on a grocery store shelf, go straight to the refrigerated section.

Just remember the shelf-stable ‘ferments’ are made using heat or pressure and don’t contain the live active cultures you’re looking for.

Remember, to reap the benefits of the bacterial cultures in fermented foods, they should be a regular part of your daily diet. Try incorporating fermented foods onto your plate a few times a week.

Pick one of these seven fermented foods below to try this week. Get some gut bacteria.


It’s no surprise that yogurt is at the top of my probiotic list.

Yogurt is one of the most versatile fermented foods you can have in your kitchen.

Plain Greek yogurt goes with just about anything. I add it on granola, into creamy sauces, whip up dressings with it, and it’s a key ingredient in one of my favorite cake recipes. The sheer versatility of yogurt makes itself a staple in my fridge.

On top of that, there are more flavored varieties of yogurt than I can handle. Made from dairy, almonds, coconuts, you name it – Whole Foods probably has it.

If you are buying a flavored variety make sure to flip the packaging to the back label. Ingredient lists are tell-alls. Check for added sugar in all forms. If you want to sweeten your yogurt add some fresh fruit or a drizzle of honey. Trust me it’s so much better than Yoplait.


When the origin of a food literally means “feeling good” I’m obviously intrigued.

The ancient Turkish derivative roughly translates into feeling good after you eat. This tangy fermented drink has been aiding indigestion for centuries.

how is kefir made?

Kefir in essentially a fermented drink that is cultured from little balls of bacteria. Sounds appetizing right?

First, little clusters of bacterial grains are added, then the milk is left to ferment at room temperature for approximately 24 hours.

Individuals with lactose intolerance can consume kefir because of the conversion of lactose to lactic acid via the enzyme lactase.

The lactic acid bacteria will multiply by the billions during the fermentation process resulting in dozens of bacterial strains. That means lots of probiotics.

The presence of lactic acid in kefir is what gives it that tangy acidic characteristic.

health benefits of kefir

The finished products contains twenty percent of our RDA of calcium, phosphorus, and riboflavin. It is a good source of vitamin B12, protein, folic acid, and vitamin K2. It also contains galacto-oligosaccharides which acts as a prebiotic for the intestinal microbiota.

Dairy kefir contains around thirty different strains of bacteria. All of these kefir qualities promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This makes it a much more potent probiotic source than yogurt. 

how to consume kefir

If you are badass enough, drink it straight. It’s tangy, creamy, and refreshing.

There are also several flavored varieties if you can’t imagine having it on its own. Just beware of the flavoring additives and sugar content when you check the ingredient list.

If you are still freaked out by fermented milk, don’t worry, there is a vegan option. Check your local health food store for coconut water kefir. Similar strains of bacteria that proliferate in coconut water vs. cows milk.

Ready to drink up?

Try swapping out your morning coffee and line your gastrointestinal tract with a nice little coating of friendly bacteria.


Miso is a paste typically made of fermented soybeans, although grains such as rice or barley may also be added. Miso literally beans fermented beans in Japanese. It has a robust umami flavor and can be added to almost any dish to lend a salty and savory flavor.

Besides the probiotic benefits, miso is a source of phytonutrients and antioxidants. It is a good source of copper, manganese, zinc, and virtually has no fat content. Think of miso as a probiotic with trace minerals and antioxidants.

how is miso made?

The process starts with soybeans. The soybeans are cooked then a bacteria culture called koji is mashed in with the soybeans. Koji is made from rice, wheat, or barley and has been inoculated with a fungus called Apergillus oryzae.

Once the bacteria is added to the soybeans the fermentation process is allowed to take place. The length of fermentation, type of grain, and amount of salt add all result in a variety of miso products.

guide to buying miso

Typically the darker the paste the stronger the flavor will be. There are four main types of miso paste that can be purchased in North America.
Shiromiso = white miso, Shinsu = yellow miso, Akamiso = red miso, Kuromiso = brown miso

There are several miso flavored products throughout supermarkets. However, the probiotic benefits come from unpasteurized miso paste. Go straight to the refrigerator section and find one of these fantastic pastes. The great thing about miso is a little bit goes a long way. Leftover miso can be stored in an airtight jar in the fridge for several months.

how to use miso

One of the largest pitfalls of miso is its inherent sodium content. The deep umami flavor doesn’t come without salt. One tablespoon of miso equals twice your daily allowance of sodium. Yikes.

This is why I use it as a salt substitute. If I’m making a bean and potato soup sometimes I will add a teaspoon of white miso right at the end (remember heat destroys probiotics).

If I’m whipping up a salad dressing a little dab of miso can transform the depth of flavor. Think of miso as a season that packs a probiotic punch – but don’t eat it by the spoonfuls.


Like miso, tempeh is primarily made of soybeans. You buy it in a firm block that looks a little funny and tastes earthy, nutty, and yet plain. Tempeh is best mixed with other foods or marinated for some added flavor.

how is tempeh made?

Unlike miso, when tempeh is made the soybeans are kept whole. The soybeans are cooked, fermented, and formed into a firm block or patty. The fermentation process is what binds the soybeans together. Some commercial varieties also add brown rice, millet, or other grains – so if gluten free is your thing check the ingredient list.The process starts with soybeans. The soybeans are cooked then a bacteria culture called koji is mashed in with the soybeans. Koji is made from rice, wheat, or barley and has been inoculated with a fungus called Apergillus oryzae.

Once the bacteria is added to the soybeans the fermentation process is allowed to take place. The length of fermentation, type of grain, and amount of salt add all result in a variety of miso products.

why you should eat tempeh

Since tempeh is a bunch of beans that makes it a good source of vegan protein.

Tempeh is also a great source of manganese, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, and riboflavin.

One cup of tempeh has 25% the daily recommended amount of iron. It’s also very low in sodium, unlike is pasty counterpart miso.

how to use tempeh

Since tempeh is basically a block of flavorless fermented beans it’s best to season this sucker.

The great thing about tempeh is that it’s a blank canvas for marinades, herbs, and spices.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes for tempeh:


We are finally on my favorite fermented food. I’m German through and through. My love of sauerkraut was instilled in me at a very young age by my great Grandmother. I eat it on its own, in sandwiches, topped on salads – wherever, whenever – I’ll eat some kraut.

With that being said, most sauerkraut in groceries stores is not the real deal. These pasteurized, shelf stable varieties won’t be packed full of probiotics. Opt for the refrigerator section to find the crispiest, fresh fermented varieties. The tangy flavor will be a treat for your taste buds. Ok maybe not, but I beg you to at least try it!

how is sauerkraut made?

It all starts with cabbage. The cabbage is sliced into small pieces, salt is added, and it’s pounded until the water within the cabbage is released. The cabbage then sits in this liquid while the lacto-fermentation process takes place. Hello, bacteria!

how to eat sauerkraut

Besides desserts, there really isn’t anything I won’t eat sauerkraut with.

Traditional uses of sauerkraut might be added atop a hotdog or deep within a Reuben, but play around and have fun with it. Sauerkraut can be a welcoming tangy taste in an otherwise boring dish. Just try it.


In Korea the fermented vegetables of choice is kimchi. A complex variety of flavors that will make your mouth sing. Spicy, sweet, and tangy are all words used to describe this fermented food. Not as versatile as sauerkraut because kimchi demands the spotlight as it’s a stand-alone dish in itself.

how is kimchi made?

Kimchi is a traditional dish made of fermented vegetables, spices, and salted seafood.

If fermented fish sauce makes your tongue get twisted, don’t worry, there are vegan varieties of this spicy side dish.

Much like sauerkraut, the process of making kimchi happens by the fermentation of the lactic acid bacteria from the vegetables.

It all starts with cabbage. The cabbage is sliced into small pieces, salt is added, and it’s pounded until the water within the cabbage is released. The cabbage then sits in this liquid while the lacto-fermentation process takes place. Hello, bacteria!

you should try kimchi

Napa cabbage and radishes are the base of many kimchi recipes, however, you will often find carrots, ginger, burdock root, celery, watercress, cucumber, parsley, chives, garlic, chives, mustard greens, and spinach. Essentially it’s a nutritional powerhouse full of dietary fiber and buttloads of good bacteria. Specifically, kimchi is high in vitamin A, K, C, and folate.

Like miso, kimchi also has a lot of sodium. Think of kimchi like a condiment that should be eaten in moderation. Its unique flavor doesn’t usually get paired with breakfast or burgers here in North America. But don’t let that stop you from sprinkling it in your diet here and there.

If five years olds in Korea can eat it, you can too.  


Kombucha is a deliciously fizzy, sweet, fermented vinegar drink that’s been around for thousands of years. I asked Google what the benefits of drinking kombucha were. Apparently, it can cure cancer. I’ll make sure to notify the American Cancer Society.

health benefits of kombucha

As a nutritionist, I err on the side of skepticism when learning about new health food product. In my book, scientific research still trumps thousand-year-old traditions. When it comes to kombucha there is not enough evidence supporting the health claims you’ll see plastered all over the internet.

Kombucha does have antioxidants, likely due to the green or black tea, which is the base of kombucha. The nutritional data for kombucha shows it is a relatively good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12. That’s more than I can say about a bottle of Dole’s orange juice.

how kombucha ferments

Kombucha is made by brewing black tea, adding sugar and bacteria, and letting the culture ferment. The yeast breaks down and feeds on the sugar ethanol, B vitamins, CO2, and acids are left behind.

This is a perfect feast for little bacteria. When the bacteria eat the ethanol, it produces acid, which gives kombucha a vinegar-like taste. When the bacteria digest the yeast the byproduct in CO2 which gives kombucha it’s fizzy quality.

kombucha = soda substitute

So what are we looking at? A beverage that has the fizzy characteristic of pop, is largely made of carbohydrates, has a little bit of caffeine, alcohol (2-5%), and vitamins.

Far from the cure-all health claims but not a bad substitute for a diet coke.

My interest in kombucha is largely due to the bacterial content. Clearly, probiotics are beneficial.  As a fermented product, kombucha contains bacteria, the strains of bacteria will differ depending on what tea is used in the brewing process. But it’s not my favorite fermented food. 

How do I think about kombucha? It’s a pretty good soda substitute that likely contains probiotics.

However, it’s full of sugar and has plenty of caffeine. It’s also quite acidic on your teeth. Don’t forget that 1% of alcohol 😉

Dare I say drink in moderation?