Benefits of Traditional Fermented Foods

2010•05•05 Jyoti Prakash Tamang Sikkim Central University

All around the world, fermented foods and beverages are part of the human diet. In some places they make up a minor 5 percent of daily intake, while in others their role can be as substantial as 40 percent.

Using native knowledge of locally available raw materials from plant or animal sources, people across the globe produce this type of food and drink either naturally or by adding starter cultures that contain micro-organisms. Micro-organisms transform these raw materials both biochemically (i.e., the nutrients) and organoleptically (i.e., the taste/texture/odour) into edible products that are culturally acceptable to the maker and consumer.

Fermented foods can be fried, boiled or candied, or consumed in curries, stews, side dishes, pickles, confectionery, salads, soups and desserts. They can be in the form of pastes, seasonings, condiments, masticators, and even colourants. Fermented drinks can be either alcoholic (such as beer and wine) or non-alcoholic, like butter milk, certain teas, or things that contain vinegar.

However, though most fermented foods have health-promoting benefits, their global consumption is declining as traditional food systems give way to the influence of a western diet and fast foods.

A world of therapeutic food

Many of the fermented products consumed by different ethnic groups have therapeutic values. Some of the most widely known are fermented milks (i.e., yoghurt, curds). Containing high concentrations of pro-biotic bacteria, these can lower your cholesterol level.

Kefir is easily digested and provides beneficial micro-organisms that contribute to a healthy immune system.

One fermented food that has received much attention is the viscous, acidic, mildly alcoholic milk beverage produced by fermentation of milk with a particular grain in Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries. Kefir is easily digested and provides the human body with beneficial micro-organisms that contribute to a healthy immune system — a boon to patients suffering from AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, herpes and cancer.  Traditionally it has been used for the treatment of tuberculosis and cancer. Another naturally fermented dairy product, koumiss, found in the Caucasus region, is used in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Photo: MF Corwin.

Antioxidant and other properties are reported in foods such as natto, a sticky Japanese dish high in protein. Photo: MF Corwin.

Other widely-eaten types of health-boosting sustenance include fermented soybean products found around Asia. Antioxidant and other properties are reported to exist in foods such as natto, a sticky dish high in protein and popular at breakfast in Japan, that may help prevent people from having brain haemorrhages. Natto is also rich in vitamin K2, which stimulates the formation of bones and might help to prevent osteoporosis in older people. Similarly, consumption of Indonesia’s tempe reduces cholesterol levels and, like China’s douchi, lowers high blood pressure.

Korea’s famous accompaniment, kimchi, may take the prize for most benefits however, reportedly helping to prevent constipation and colon cancer and reduce serum cholesterol, as well as possessing anti-stress effects and the ability to ameliorate depression, osteoarthritis, liver disease, obesity and atherosclerosis.

In the Himalayas, a fermented leafy vegetable product called gundruk and a fermented radish tap-root (sinki) have large amounts of lactic acids, ascorbic acid, carotene and dietary fibre, which have anti-carcinogenic effects. In order to gain strength, ailing persons and post-natal women in the Himalayas consume bhaati jaanr extract (a fermented rice food-beverage) and kodo ko jaanr (a fermented finger millet product) due to their high calorie content.

Fermentation’s magic

One of the important outcomes of food fermentation is the enrichment of food with essential amino acids, vitamins, mineral and bioactive compounds. For example, during tempe fermentation, vitamins like niacin and riboflavin are increased by using the starter culture Rhizopus oligosporus. Similarly, thiamine and riboflavin increase during fermentation of idli, the fermented rice and black-gram (a type of legume) product of India and Sri Lanka.

Pulque. Photo:  Shira Golding.

Pulque is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages and is prepared from the juices of cactus plants in Mexico. Photo: Shira Golding.

These clever processes developed by humans to extract additional nutritional value from food, are not only found in Asia. Pulque — one of the oldest alcoholic beverages prepared from the juices of cactus plants in Mexico — is rich in vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and biotin.

Another important reason to ferment foods is to coax micro-organisms into producing enzymes that also provide very useful services. These enzymes degrade anti-nutritive compounds and thereby make edible, with enhanced flavour and aroma, things that otherwise would be indigestible and/or unpalatable. Bitter varieties of cassava tubers contain a potentially poisonous substance that can be detoxified via lactic acid bacteria, as in gari and fufu, fermented cassava root products from Africa.

Many people suffer from lactose intolerance or lactose malabsorption, a condition that causes lactose, the principal carbohydrate of milk, to not be completely digested. The cultures used in making yoghurt and curds, contain substantial quantities of ß-D-galactosidase, something that is thought to help alleviate the symptoms of lactose malabsorption. Yoghurt, as a viscous food, may delay the stomach emptying and that way help lessen lactose intolerant symptoms.

Healthy, but not appreciated

Although fermented foods are marketed globally as health foods, functional foods, therapeutic foods, nutraceutical foods or bio-foods, due to urbanization, changes in life-style, and the shifting from traditional food habits to commercial fast foods, the production and consumption of traditional fermented foods is in decline.

Even when fermented foods are being consumed, they are increasingly likely to be from packets in supermarkets, rather than directly from households or a local family run business. This is leading to fewer and fewer people possessing traditional knowledge of fermented foods and the ability to make these from scratch. Reliance on fewer providers of fermented foods is also leading to a decline in the biodiversity of micro-organisms, or ‘microbial-biodiversity’. I will explore these topics in more detail in a follow-up article.

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For more on this topic, you may wish to read Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World, which was co-edited by the author of this article. With contributions from 24 seasoned fermentation authorities, this book is an up-to-date review on fermentation practices, covering its storied past, cultural aspects, microbiology, biochemistry, nutrition and functionality.

Creative Commons License
Benefits Of Traditional Fermented Foods by Mark Notaras is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Jyoti Prakash Tamang

Sikkim Central University

Professor Jyoti Prakash Tamang is an expert on fermented foods of the world, focusing on food culture, microbiology, nutrition, and functional property. He currently teaches Microbiology in Sikkim Central University, India. Previously he was a United Nations University Fellow and did post-doctorate research at the National Food Research Institute (Japan). Prof. Tamang has authored two books: Himalayan Fermented Foods: Microbiology, Nutrition, and Ethnic Values; and Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World — both published by CRC Press, Taylor & Francis of USA.

Join the Discussion

  • ashwila

    i’m proud of my dad’s achievement!!!!
    this is my father and his life’s hardwork n dedication….its an interesting research!!!

    • Thanks very much Ashwila. I would be proud too, these are valuable food traditions that hopefully his research can help preserve!

    • Tescott608

      You certainly should be proud of your dad.  In this brief article he has contributed to my life and dreams to pass on wholesome traditions to my children.  An older women recently agreed to teach me to make Kefir.  So this article has confirmed to me the importance of having such skills and keeping such wonderful food traditions.

  • Although it is a brief article written as an over view of the nutritional value of fermented foods, Prof.Tamang uses this opportunity to decry the modern trend of going away from natural home made food as tonic and remedies and the tendency to eat junk food leading to obesity and disease. I really appreciate his effort to touch upon most of the fermented foods albeit briefly. I was surprised to find “Idly” in his list. Good job! Keep it up!

  • youre welcome

    wow!!!!!!! this taught me alot you guys keep it up
    you might even write a book ( unless you already have ) so good on you guys for sharing this
    imformation with well the world so you are smart and you must of paid a lot of attention
    in school soo thank you well if i havent said well actually typed thanks

  • Jeannette

    I’m very interested in your book, which is due to release soon. By chance are there any recipes in the book in addition to the technical information?

  • marknotaras

    Thanks for your insights Jyoti – I think this is a part of food, even life, that many people including myself may not think so much about. I wonder if the correlations between fermented foods and good health, and even good environment, have been established scientifically? One of the necessities behind fermented foods seems to be, at least traditionally, that people had to make use of summer crops in the winter, and through history they devised ingenius ways to convert and store these to survive.

    Again we see, despite what economic models tell us to believe, that this paradox of choice exists when ‘consumers’ have too much choice, in relation to food. People almost expect to buy any product throughout the year because it can be imported cheaply, and harvested a long way away where we cannot see the true environmental implications. One obvious casualty will be fermented foods which are of course some of the healthiest.

    At least in Japan, fermented staple foods like soybeans, rice and fish (in the form of soy sauce, tofu, natto, miso, sake, bonito flakes) are the backbone to the healthiest diet in the developed world. But, sadly, meat consumption, predominantly imported, is slowly taking over (even surpassing fish in Tokyo recently). Furthermore, comparative advantage dictates that many of the fermented foods are controlled by a handful of large companies, and grown and processed cheaply in China (possibly GM). Thus, the skills to make things like miso from scratch are being lost in the process.

  • If people ate more fermented foods their digestive systems would be much healthier.

  • Mina

    This is my summary of this article.

    Magic of traditional fermented foods

    All around the world, there are many fermented foods and beverages
    for example, natto, kimchi, koumiss in the Caucasus region, gunmilk in
    the Himalayas, and so on. They form a part of human diet. Many of the
    fermented products have therapeutic values. Fermented milks such as
    yoghurt or curds contain high concentrations of pr-biotic bacteria
    which can lower your cholesterol level. What are some fermentation’s
    magical powers? One of them is the enrichment of food with essential
    amino acids, vitamins, mineral and bioactive compounds. Korea’s famous
    accompaniment, kimchi help to prevent constipation and colon cancer,
    reduce serum cholesterol and possess anti-stress effects. Pulque is
    one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in Mexico. It is made from the
    juices of cactus plants and rich in vitamins such as thiamine and
    niacin. The other is to coax micro-organism into producing enzymes.
    These enzymes degrade anti-nutritive compounds. Finally, they make
    edible, with enhanced flavor and aroma.
    However, the production and consumption of traditional fermented
    foods is in decline because of urbanization, changes in life-style of
    men, and the shifting from traditional food habits to commercial fast

    Kanagawa University Mina

  • Amina

    wow! this is great information for me as a food scientist

  • SS

    Would love to buy your book if it weren’t so expensive! Even the e-book is over $100. Have you thought about selling your ebook for somewhere closer to $20 to make it more accessible to people? Ashwila, maybe you could help your dad set up a blog of his own?

  • Sarah

    I would like to see the processes and recipes documented so that they are not lost in the drive to modernise and speed through life. The beauty of these is time as they prolong preservation with minimal refrigeration.

  • Eugene

    Russian Academic Boris Bolotov developted Fermented Foods for treatment a lot deseases. His book: ” How to be healthy in Unhealty World”.
    I am using some methods for myself.

  • Criss China

    Great and informative article. I really enjoyed learning about the different dishes and importance of tradtional fermented foods. Thanks Mr. Tamang!

  • Serene Tan

    There are now so many people suffering from irritable or chronic bowel syndrome from eating present day instant off-the-shelf fast food & convenient eating-out habit. Consuming fermented foods that contains probiotics is the answer/relief to these debilitating syndromes. We need to go back to basics!

    But the only way to properly preserve these home-style traditional methods of making healthy fermented foods in every nation – is to write down the recipes & ways of making it in detail, including mistakes to avoid. Then only will these traditions NOT be lost!

    So Dr Tamang, you may have some more information gathering to do to complete your good work! All the best to you!

  • James Alvin Ostrenga Jr.

    You would sell more books if it didn’t cost an arm to buy.

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