While reading this post, please keep in mind that I am not a doctor and you should consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making changes to your diet or lifestyle. The views expressed in this post are my personal opinions only. I am aware that the IC diet advises against eating fermented foods. If you’re in the throes of a bladder flare up and have not yet made any dietary changes to address your condition, I would not necessarily start here. However, I do not agree with the IC diet and it is my personal belief that many with IC can benefit from fermented foods as long as they are raw and unpasteurised. The latter stages of this post, which discuss non-dairy sources of probiotics, apply to ONLY to ferments which satisfy these criteria and are not preserved in vinegar, alcohol or similar. If you have histamine intolerance, please disregard this post. Those with histamine intolerance often react badly to fermented foods and certain strains of probiotic, and it is beyond the scope of this piece to discuss that.
This is not a sponsored post. I have not been financially rewarded for writing it and the views expressed in it are my own.
If you’re a regular reader of these blogs, you’ll know that I place huge emphasis on keeping the gut in tip top condition as part of the quest for good health. No matter what people’s chronic health complaints are, I almost always find myself recommending that they Google ‘leaky gut’ and spend some time healing, sealing and repopulating their digestive tract. I believe that for many interstitial cystitis sufferers, properly addressing intestinal health allows them to make real headway in managing their bladder issues. With that in mind, I want to talk about some different types of fermented foods, what they taste like, and where you can get them!
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last decade, you’ve almost certainly heard of probiotics and their role in digestive health. If you haven’t, here is a super quick explanation. Humans are not sterile, standalone entities, but rather we are home to trillions of bacteria, with whom we enjoy a symbiotic relationship. There are different types of bacteria and although we need both the ‘good’ types and the ‘bad’ types, it’s important that the ratio between good and bad is favourable. If the balance becomes disrupted, we may experience a range of health problems, including but not limited to:
Bloating, wind, digestive discomfort
Diarrhoea or constipation
Food intolerances and/or cravings
Anxiety, depression, insomnia, behavioural problems
Skin irritations, eczema, psoriasis,
Heart disease, high blood pressure
Stress, alcohol, sugar, processed foods and antibiotics can all deplete our reserves of good bacteria, allowing the bad ones chance to proliferate. Probiotic supplements and foods top up our levels of good bacteria, to help us maintain an appropriate ratio and thereby promote good health.
I use a probiotic supplement every day and have done so for years. If you buy a good quality brand, you’ll know what strains of bacteria are present, how many of each is present, and the product will be guaranteed viable until the end of its shelf life. They can be especially useful if you have specific requirements, such as histamine intolerance, autoimmune conditions, or are going to be travelling.
Good ones are expensive, but I consider them insurance for my digestive system and would never be without them. The trouble with probiotic supplements though is that we don’t yet know very much about the bacteria that are supposed to reside within us. It has been estimated that only 10% of the types found in humans have been identified – and even fewer have been well studied. The science of growing and encapsulating probiotics for supplemental use is very recent, meaning it’s the same few strains that appear again and again. Product quality varies considerably from brand to brand, which is why researching and deciding on a probiotic you’re happy with is such a time consuming headache.
You don’t have to rely solely on supplements for your probiotic needs though. You can also top up on friendly bacteria by eating fermented foods or drinking fermented beverages. In the UK, most of us are familiar with yoghurt; however, other types of fermented products such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and tempeh are largely alien to us. While we may have heard of them on the internet, few outside the hardcore health community have actually tried them. I think there are two key reasons for this: a widespread squeamishness about eating new foods; and ignorance about where to buy them. Plenty of websites advocate making your own yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, but again, outside the truly dedicated alternative health community, I think this is an unrealistic ideal. It’s hard enough for most people to motivate themselves to cook a nutritious meal after work each evening – I just can’t see that the majority have the time, inclination or motivation to start whipping up batches of fermented foods on a regular basis.
This is a pity, because fermented foods have several advantages over manufactured probiotic supplements and they form a much-loved part of my daily regimen for the following reasons:
There are many more strains of probiotics present in fermented foods than we have actually identified and studied, so the variety you get far surpasses any manufactured supplement.
Traditionally-fermented foods and beverages have been consumed across the world for thousands of years. If ancient cultures relied upon them to promote good digestive health, ward off tummy bugs and safely preserve food in times before soap, antibiotics, or refrigerators, there must be a strong case for their efficacy.
When you consume fermented vegetables, you not only get the probiotic benefits, but also the fibre, vitamins and minerals from the vegetables themselves. They totally still count towards your five a day!
The fermentation process can render the food it acts on easier to digest, which is why some people who have a hard time with dairy products are still able to tolerate raw, unpasteurised yoghurt or kefir.
The bacteria present in fermented foods have survived and thrived in a strongly acidic environment during the fermentation process, so they are perfectly placed to survive the journey through the stomach and progress to the intestines, where they can actually colonise and do some good.
There may be synergistic effects from ingesting different strains of bacteria that have grown alongside each other in the natural fermentation process that surpass the effects of taking a one of the strains without its ‘friends’. This is only my personal theory, but it occurs all the time in herbal medicine, where different plant constituents often work together to exert more positive effects than an isolated compound. It is known that vitamins work synergistically, so it would make a lot of sense for microbiomes to do the same.
They taste completely delicious!
If probiotics are ever mentioned in mainstream media, the recommendation is that people try to eat more bio-live yoghurt, or that they use yoghurt beverages like Yakult or Actimel. For those who can tolerate dairy products, there is nothing wrong with enjoying some unsweetened, organic, probiotic yoghurt. However, commercial yoghurt is always made with pasteurised milk, which alters the nutritional profile of the dairy and makes it harder to digest. If you can get hold of it, it’s much better to use raw yoghurt – i.e. made with milk that has not been subjected to heat. The same is true of kefir, which is a traditional fermented beverage made from milk. Some commercial yoghurts are not just made from pasteurised milk, but are pasteurised again after they’ve been yoghurt-ed, thus emptying them of any probiotic value. Drinks like Yakult and Actimel are far from ideal, because they contain high levels of either sugar and/or artificial sweeteners.
Some people who can’t tolerate pasteurised dairy products are fine with unpasteurised versions. This is why so many websites advocate making your own yoghurt from raw milk. Raw milk itself isn’t easy to get hold of unless you’re lucky enough to live near a dairy that will supply it to you. Although there are plenty of websites that sell it, I would find it prohibitively expensive to use on a regular basis. Supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell it, so you can’t get it there. I did once buy a yoghurt maker and valiantly have a go at making my own, but I looked at the lumpy, messy end result and put myself off before I’d even started! It didn’t actually taste too bad, but it was nothing like the smooth yoghurt you get in shops and I wasn’t at all confident that I’d done it right!
Unfortunately, many people with compromised digestive systems or chronic health issues are intolerant to dairy products. For some, goat yoghurt and sheep yoghurt are viable alternatives, as they contain less lactose and are easier to digest. Like bovine dairy, they will be made from pasteurised milk (unless you buy raw yoghurt from small independent places), but they can still confer probiotic value, though I’d never rely on them as my sole source of beneficial bacteria. I hate the taste of goat products, but I have recently started using sheep’s yoghurt. I almost convinced myself I didn’t like it the first few times just because I knew it came from a sheep and not a cow, but I followed my own advice about introducing it gradually by mixing it with foods I like and I currently have it every morning for breakfast. It’s very delicious, and it’s made by Woodlands Dairy, which adheres to high animal welfare standards. You can get it in larger branches of Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer – oddly, Sainsbury’s sell the non-organic version, while Waitrose sell the organic version. Marks and Spencer rebrand it in their own pots and I think they also opt for organic, but I can’t remember, as my local store took it off sale temporarily over Christmas.
As far as non-dairy sources of probiotics go, the most well-known one is sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage. You can actually get this in many supermarkets, but unfortunately the ones you buy there have usually been pickled and pasteurised, which removes the probiotic properties. Sauerkraut only contains good bacteria if it is raw, meaning it must not have been heat treated at any point in its manufacture. Proper sauerkraut is not pickled in vinegar or made with alcohol, and it contains no preservatives. Ideally, it should be organic. Waitrose (Ocado) do sell raw sauerkraut, so you could get it there, but I buy mine from a fantastic company called Loving Foods.
I LOVE Loving Foods and get all my non-dairy fermented products from them. They are an online company and they deliver all across the UK as well as in Europe. All of their products are certified organic, are raw and unpasteurised, and are made in the UK, less than half an hour from Tiny Towers! Locally sourced ingredients are used whenever possible and the products are packaged in glass, not plastic. If you’re fancy enough to do your grocery shopping with Abel and Cole (this is one of my life’s ambitions, should you be interested) then you can get Loving Foods products from them as well.
Like Desert Harvest and Sweet Cures, I feel that the history of Loving Foods really inspires consumer trust. It is a family owned business, set up in 2006 by Faye Goldwater and her brother, Mendel. Faye was a sufferer of chronic IBS, but Mendel, a qualified nutritional therapist, helped her to adjust her diet and lifestyle to improve her condition. Passionate about healthy eating, Mendel began to make fermented foods for Faye and before long, they realised there was a real niche in the market for raw, organic, properly fermented foods. The siblings, together with Faye’s husband, Adam, set up business in a purpose-built garden shed and began producing cultured vegetables and beverages to sell.
Faye, Mendel and Adam have all suffered from immune-related conditions in the past and they had been preparing and consuming fermented foods for years before Loving Foods was created. I always think that when a business is borne out of necessity and personal experience in that way, the people behind it genuinely understand and care about the needs of their consumers. I’ve personally spoken to the CEO of Desert Harvest (and met her) and the owner of Sweet Cures and you can tell that they are completely passionate about what they do. They are proud of their company values and know that the people who shop with them are often ill, in pain, and in financial difficulties. It’s why I’m proud to supply their products and have no hesitation in using or recommending them. I really hope people will say the same about Tiny Pioneer one day.
The same ethos oozes out of Loving Foods. You can tell that the people behind it are really committed to making high quality foods and drinks that will benefit their customers. They continue to personally use their products. They have won awards for their products. They know their products inside out. And if you ring the company, chances are it’s the Director, Adam, you’ll speak to. It probably explains why Loving Foods scores 9.6/10 on Trust Pilot at the time of writing – that and the fact their products are delicious!
Now I know what you’re thinking. “That’s all well and good, Tiny, but I don’t want to eat fermented vegetables or drink fermented tea. It sounds disgusting!” I hear you. It makes me laugh to think of it now, but I put off trying proper sauerkraut for ages because I was totally convinced that it would make me sick. I definitely didn’t think it would taste nice, but I was honestly properly frightened that eating something fermented was like eating something rotten and that I’d get really ill. Until relatively recently, hardly anybody in the UK had tried those sorts of foods – I still don’t know anyone in real life who has, unless I’ve been the introducer – so it wasn’t like I had someone I could get reassurance from! There is nothing about veg that’s been popped in a jar and left for a week or two to ferment that sounds enticing if it hasn’t been a part of your upbringing.
There was also the very real issue of not knowing where to obtain proper fermented foods. Like with yoghurt, most of the websites or books I found that recommended eating kraut suggested you make your own. Nobody told you where you could get it from. Because I was so scared of being ill, I really didn’t want to make my own, and that presented a stumbling block for quite a long time. It’s all very well making your own fermented foods if you’ve got a lovely experienced grandma helping you to do it safely and properly. It’s quite another if you’re following online instructions and have a jar of what looks suspiciously like mouldy cabbage on your hands.
I first tried proper sauerkraut from a company that no longer exists, called The Cultured Cellar. If Loving Foods had a website back then, it certainly wasn’t one that showed up in my search results. I suspect they’ll have seen a huge spike in business when The Cultured Cellar closed down. Luckily when it did close, they appeared high on my search results and I’ve been using them ever since!
If you’ve never tried any real fermented vegetables before, sauerkraut is probably the one I’d start with. It’s only cabbage – there’s nothing exotic in there – and if you eat coleslaw, there’s really nothing to worry about with it. It’s just crunchy, raw cabbage mixed with salt. And it doesn’t taste rotten, off, dangerous, mouldy or anything! It tastes fairly similar to pickle, even though there is no vinegar in it. Like a mild pickle that wouldn’t make you pull the vinegar face. It honestly is very palatable on its own and actively pleasant if you have it with something. As I said in my blog post about avocados, when trying new foods you’ve really got to have them in context. You’d never try ketchup for the first time by squirting it onto a dessertspoon – you’d have a tiny bit on a smaller spoon, or dip your chip in it. I advise a similar approach with sauerkraut – put some on the side of your salad or on your burger and try it like that. Once you’ve realised it’s not so scary, there will be plenty of time for spooning it out of the jar on its own.
In spite of my fears, sauerkraut did NOT make me ill. If you’ve never had fermented foods before, it’s recommended that you start off with quite a small amount – maybe a teaspoon a day – and build up. That’s because introducing a load of new strains of bacteria to your gut all at once might be a shock to its system and can cause bloating, wind and discomfort if you overdo it. I didn’t have any symptoms like that, probably because I’d already been using probiotics for years and had done plenty of work on cleansing and healing my gut. It’s something to bear in mind though if your digestive health journey is quite new. You will NOT get sick from eating properly made sauerkraut, which is why I recommend that you buy it from the experts, at least to begin with! I tried making my own once, long before I found Loving Foods, and I ended up with a bowl of something that smelled so awful, I didn’t even dare to taste it.
Loving Foods make their sauerkraut the ‘wild’ way, using only cabbage and salt. They don’t add any kind of starter culture, so the only bacteria present in the fermentation process are those that were on the cabbage to begin with. Salt is used to prevent the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria and it also adds flavour to the end product. It is possible to ferment at home without salt if you’re extremely careful with your hygiene practices, but because they are producing it commercially, Loving Foods use salt to be extra safe. They have a five star hygiene rating at their facility and as their business has grown, they have been careful not to resort to mass-manufacturing techniques. They are dedicated to traditional processes and product quality, which Mendel oversees.
I don’t actually buy sauerkraut from Loving Foods anymore. That’s because I discovered kimchi and it is so tasty that for me there was no going back! I do like sauerkraut, but it’s very plain and mild compared to kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean food, similar to kraut, but with other vegetables such as carrots, onion, chillies, ginger and garlic included. Loving Foods make their kimchi in the same way as their sauerkraut – using salt and nothing else. They don’t use any sugar, fish sauce, or rice powder, so technically it is not a traditional kimchi, but the fact they use only vegetables and salt means it is vegan friendly. I love it. It has more of a kick to it than sauerkraut, although it’s not actually spicy – more like ‘flavourful’. The broader range of vegetables mean you get a more diverse range of nutrients, because obviously a carrot has different constituents to cabbage, which is different to ginger and so on. Like kraut, it doesn’t taste rotten or mouldy or in any way unpleasant, so it’s better to think of it as a lovely garnish than a fermented product if you’re squeamish. It is quite pickle-like and I love to mix it in salads (it REALLY brightens up the flavour of plain salad) or have it on the side of my garlic sprouts. I eat it every day – it even went along on my wee trip to Glasgow!
Besides standard sauerkraut and kimchi, Loving Foods also offer flavour variations. For example, you can get a red sauerkraut with red cabbage, carrots and beetroot; a kraut with caraway and juniper berry; and a kimchi with turmeric and black pepper. They also make a hybrid krautchi, which is like a cross between normal sauerkraut and kimchi. I’ve not tried them all, but there is plenty of choice, so if you’re shopping for the first time I’d recommend that you buy a few different flavours, because if you don’t like one, you might like another. I’ve never had one I didn’t like, but the standard kimchi is by far my favourite!
For those who are in stage one of a GAPS diet, or want something to add to juices or smoothies, you can also buy fermented vegetable juices. These are the brine by-products of the kraut and kimchi-making process and are packed with probiotics, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. It’s simply the spare juice that’s left over from the fermentation process, put into bottles and sold for drinking. They taste just like the kraut and kimchi themselves, except more salty and without any lumps! This makes them super easy to digest, so they’re ideal for people who need to be on a liquid only diet for a while or are perhaps ill and too weak to eat. I don’t use them myself, but I have tried them and they really don’t taste like you’d imagine fermented cabbage juice would taste!
The products I like best of all from Loving Foods are the fermented beverages. You might already have heard of kombucha, which is a fermented green tea traditional to China. Filtered water, green tea and cane sugar are fermented using a starter culture called a SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Unlike vegetables, which can be fermented without a starter culture, green tea requires SCOBY to get the fermentation process going, because there are no bacteria present at the start. The SCOBY is a living, growing organism and it consumes the sugar in the green tea, fermenting it and producing vitamins, minerals, enzymes and lots of friendly bacteria. By the time is has done its work, there is hardly any of the sugar left, meaning that kombucha is perfectly okay for those who try to keep to a low sugar diet. (And I do keep to a low sugar diet and I recommend everyone to do so!)
Loving Foods offers kombucha in various flavours – all natural, of course – and my favourite is either blueberry and lavender, or lemon and ginger. I have high hopes that there will be a raspberry flavour or a dandelion and burdock flavour one day too! It’s hard to describe the taste – they certainly don’t taste anything like green tea, so don’t be put off if you don’t like tea. They’re a bit like a slightly diluted fruit juice, and they’re lightly fizzy. I find that some batches are fizzier than others and if you prefer your drinks flat, just open them a bit before you need them to let the bubbles dissipate, or stir them out!
Jun is very similar to kombucha, except that the sugar is replaced with honey, which the SCOBY consumes in the same way. Jun is thought to have originated in Tibet and has been described as the champagne of kombuchas. I could not agree more. It is absolutely gorgeous! It does taste slightly different from kombucha, though I couldn’t explain how. I like them both, but jun definitely has the edge for me. For years I drank little else besides water. I avoid fruit juice, apart from a very small glass of diluted juice maybe a few times a year; I have an occasional decaf coffee or ‘pretend’ hot chocolate. I don’t like tea; I can’t have anything alcoholic; I don’t have any soft drinks, because of their sugar content and I don’t have artificial sweeteners. Sometimes, especially in hot weather, I used to wish there was something cold I could have that wasn’t just water. I was so excited when I discovered kombucha and jun – I hope the team at Loving Foods know how happy it makes people who have been on very restricted diets. It is just lovely to have something that tastes sweet and decadent, but is actually doing me good! I had a sip of a soft drink at Christmas and compared to jun, it tasted horrid, artificial, and sweet in a sticky, cloying way. I genuinely prefer the clean, fresh sweetness of kombucha and jun these days. If you really must drink alcohol, you could limit the damage by using kombucha or jun as a mixer and nobody would ever guess that it was a healthy alternative!
As with the fermented vegetables, you should start with just a small amount of kombucha or jun if you’re new to cultured foods. Adam recommends that working up to a third of a bottle a day balances out the cost and sugar content (this varies from batch to batch, but between 2 and 4.2g of sugar are left in every 100ml once the SCOBY has done its work – some of this will be from the fruit that is added for flavour) against the beneficial effects of the good bacteria, though it is perfectly fine to consume more. I use more than half a bottle a day, but less than a full one. Adam drinks more than I do, but that’s a perk of his job I should think!
Unlike probiotic supplements, it’s difficult to be precise about what bacteria are present in fermented foods and beverages. You won’t get a guaranteed dose of colony forming units (CFUs) of bacteria, nor a specified range of strains. Dr Mercola estimates that there are trillions of CFUs in a serving of fermented vegetables, although the ones his team tested had been produced with the help of a starter culture. Loving Foods have run tests on their products which show millions of CFUs per gram. This is certainly enough to pack a nutritional punch, given that you’ll be consuming several grams at a time! The exact amount present will vary from batch to batch and depends on things like the age of the product and its temperature. It is thought that the bacteria present in naturally fermented foods are better placed to survive the journey through the digestive tract and make a home in your bowels than those found in supplements, so you might require less CFUs to achieve results.
It’s similarly difficult to know exactly what strains of bacteria are present in fermented foods. Once again, it will vary from batch to batch, and over time. Raw cultured foods are live, which means the fermentation process continues even after they have been packaged. That’s why Loving Foods issue a warning on their website that there may be leakage in transit – sometimes the foods bubble right out of the jars, or make a fizzing noise when opened! This is quite normal, but it can be alarming if you’ve only ever had pasteurised products before! One study found that there were 28 distinct strains of bacteria present in some samples of sauerkraut. Another found 13 strains, but appearing in different amounts at different stages of the fermentation process. While it’s hard to identify species and quantities, it’s generally felt that eating/drinking a range of fermented products will supply your gut with a diverse assortment of beneficial bacteria.
I hope some of you will feel inspired to try some traditional fermented foods and drinks as a result of reading this. They really are a delicious addition to your kitchen! I said at the outset that this is not a sponsored post, and I am not part of the Loving Foods affiliate scheme. Here at Tiny Pioneer, we’ll only ever recommend products if we genuinely think they’re great! However, if any of you do decide to buy from Loving Foods, if you do so using this link, I will receive some reward beans as a thank you. What that means is that I get some loyalty points which can be used towards future orders. You don’t have to use the link, but thank you to anyone who does! And don’t forget to share your own link on social media so that you can get extra reward beans of your own!
Huge thanks to Adam Goldwater at Loving Foods for answering my questions so comprehensively.
Wishing you the best of health,
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