Fermentation is a process that has been around for thousands of years, an age-old practice that humans have employed mainly to preserve food and drinks. The earliest evidence of fermentation dates to as far back as 7000 BC.

Since then, the process has been studied and employed for various uses, from making alcoholic beverages to creating new flavors and textures in food to reducing cooking time and consequently saving fuel. 

Aside from these uses, modern-day research suggests that fermentation offers many health benefits on top of these functional benefits. Thus, more and more people are excitedly going back to our fermentation roots, giving traditional fermented foods and drinks a go and exploring new frontiers of fermentation, such as fermented supplements.

Fermentation 101

To understand why fermented supplements may be beneficial to health, it helps to understand the process of fermentation.

Fermentation is a process in which microorganisms, like bacteria and yeast, convert sugar and starch (carbohydrates) into other compounds like alcohol. The microorganisms then use this to fuel their metabolism.

The process alters food and drink in a number of ways: It gives them a different flavor (usually a more sour or tangier taste) and unique texture; it allows microorganisms to predigest the components, which in turn makes it easier for your gut to digest the fermented items; and it alters the nutritional profile of the fermented items—research has shown that fermentation curiously produces vitamins and minerals that aren’t present in some plants’ pre-fermented form.

The Benefits of Fermented Food and Drinks

In an article, U,K.-based nutritionist Jo Lewin writes that fermented foods have plenty of probiotic bacteria, which means consuming fermented food introduces good bacteria into your microbiome, or system of microorganisms. She cites some of the benefits of adding fermented food to your diet:

Better digestion. Since bacteria pre-digests some of the components, it’s easier for your system to digest these foods.

More nutrients. Some studies have shown that fermentation produces nutrients, like B vitamins, that aren’t present in the pre-fermented forms of certain plants.

Boosted immunity. Improving your gut health has an impact on the bigger picture. Consuming probiotics that come with some fermented foods strengthens the gut lining, which in turn strengthens your immune system.

Better absorption. Fermentation removes some compounds, like phytic acid, that keep your body from absorbing some nutrients. 

Better mood. Because the human body is a complex web that is all interconnected, improving your gut health can also improve the part of your brain linked to emotions.

How to Get Your Fill

There are a number of ways you can get the benefits of fermentation:

Fermented dairy. When dairy products are fermented, bacteria is produced to convert lactose—the main sugar in milk—into lactic acid, which makes it difficult for more harmful microorganisms to thrive. One of the more known lactic acid bacteria is Lactobacillus, which you may have seen in yogurt drinks.

Some of the beneficial compounds that may be produced through the fermentation of dairy products are Vitamin B12, folic acid, beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants, and in some cases, amino acids and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Some examples of fermented dairy are yogurt, cheese, and kefir (fermented cow’s or goat’s milk). To make sure you’re getting the benefits of good bacteria, keep an eye out for “live bacteria” on labels.

Fermented vegetables. In addition to keeping vegetables from going bad too quickly, fermentation may enhance their nutritional value. Studies have indicated that fermentation reduces phytate content (an iron and zinc inhibitor) of maize, soybeans, and sorghum and may also increase the bioavailability of some nutrients—this means that nutrients from fermented food are more easily absorbed by the body.

You can get your fill of fermented vegetables through kimchi and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) as well as pickles (cucumbers). Take note, though, that commercially available fermented foods may contain high levels of sugar and sodium.

If you have the time, making your own fermented vegetables gives you control over the ingredients you put in and thus increases the nutritional value you get from these items.

Fermented supplements. Supplements are capsules, gel caps, powders and others that contain nutrients to supply people with special nutrient needs (like iron for those with anemia) or to provide nutrients that may be missing from a regular diet. Multivitamins are an example of a supplement. Fermented supplements are vitamins and minerals whose components go through the process of fermentation before they end up in their final digestible form.

Fermented supplements are ideal for those who don’t like the taste of fermented foods and drinks but would like to reap their purported health benefits.

You can find a wide array of fermented vitamins and fermented minerals as well as organic supplement brands at Healthy Options. Keep in mind that the nature of a supplement is for it to be added to a diet, so it shouldn’t replace the nutrients you get from a healthy diet of whole foods, but rather give you a nutrient boost.