Fermented Food and Gut Health

A quick overview of what fermented food is and how it might help with gut health. Plus, dietician Karly Arko’s answers on how gut health pertains to cancer care and prevention.


A quick glance at any hip restaurant’s menu or list of current food trends will reveal that fermented foods are the big thing in culinary culture these days. Items like kimchi, from-scratch sourdough bread and ultra-thick varieties of yogurt are becoming increasingly popular, both due to their tangy flavours and their perceived nutritional benefits.

Fermentation refers to the process of converting carbohydrates into an alcohol or an acid, usually through the introduction of micro-organisms such as yeast or other fungus or bacteria. Anyone who has seen a yeasty bread dough grow and rise has seen fermentation at work, though most foods that are considered “fermented” go through a much longer fermentation process. The technique tends to appear in culinary offerings from around the world — sauerkraut, cheese, miso, kombucha, vinegar, some varieties of pickles, dosa, and various Asian condiments like fish sauce and Korean gochujang are all made with fermentation.

It’s definitely possible to ferment at home. Some items like sauerkraut can ferment via the lactobacillus that lurks on the surface of the vegetable. These ferments are fairly simple and can often be accomplished by simply packing vegetables like cabbage into a jar with some salt and spices and letting the bacteria do its work over the course of a few days.

Other homemade ferments require a bacteria “mother” or a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) starter to get things bubbling. These starters are living, growing organisms that can often be purchased, or, if you have friends who ferment, divided and passed on to fellow fermenters. For recipes that require a SCOBY, the starter is combined with other ingredients and left to ferment, often for several weeks, depending on what you’re making.

As for finding ready-made fermented items, if you’re looking for fermented foods beyond your typical sauerkraut and yogurt, Asian specialty stores and farmers’ markets are good places to start. Fermentation fans can also try health food stores like Earth’s General Store in Edmonton and the Light Cellar in Calgary, the latter of which also holds home fermenting workshops.

Fermented foods have been associated with improved gut health — the idea being that the micro-organisms in the food encourage healthy bacteria in a person’s digestive tract, creating a healthy “microbiome” or bacterial community. Scientists are still researching just how beneficial the state of that microbiome is to one’s health and well-being. But even while those studies are still underway, if you enjoy the taste of fermented foods and the way they make you feel, this is a good food bandwagon to jump on.

Karly Arko on maintaining a healthy gut

Karly Arkko is a CancerControl Alberta dietitian with Alberta Health Services. She answers some questions about gut health and how it pertains to cancer care and prevention.

What do we mean when we talk about gut health?

A healthy gut is one where the digestive tract is working properly, where we can break down our food into nutrients that our body can absorb, that is free of diseases, and has a healthy population of gut bacteria.

Are there particular concerns about gut health that patients need to think about when undergoing cancer care or recovery?

In a treatment setting, a lot of chemotherapy agents act on cells that turn over quite quickly, and that includes the cells that line your GI tract. In that case, as dietitians we’re just trying to get you through the treatment and make sure your symptoms are being managed, knowing that you are going to struggle with GI problems like diarrhea or constipation.

Are there recommendations for patients who have been through radiation or chemotherapy and are in the recovery or remission stage?

I would definitely advocate that everybody, perhaps with the exception of those in active treatment, eat a plant-based diet that is high in fibre. That diet would be the same for someone who hasn’t had cancer before or has previously been in remission.

Can maintaining good gut health help prevent cancer?

I would say yes. A diet that promotes a good healthy gut includes things like eating lots of fibre, having probiotics in your diet, and moving away from the Western-style diet of more processed foods and red meat. We know that a lot of people who eat enough fibre have GI tracts filled with better bacteria, and that has been shown to be protective against cancer.

Try this recipe for Slow Cooker Dill Pickle Soup.

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