Winter 2018 Nutrition Matters
January 18, 2018 By Rosie Schwartz, RD
Dish of fermented vegetables

Are you familiar with the terms probiotics and microbiome? They have been receiving a lot of attention in the past while, and for good reason. While antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria in your body, they can also wipe out healthy bacteria present in your gut. Probiotics introduce beneficial bacteria, through food or supplements, into your gut. Many people are surprised to learn that there are trillions of bacteria or microbes living in our intestines, which together are known as your microbiome. The various types or strains of bacteria and their balance can play a major role in maintaining good health and fighting disease.

Traditional probiotic foods are produced through the process of fermentation. This can be done in various ways, such as adding certain strains of bacteria to a food, such as yogurt and kefir, two fermented dairy products. Others may be made by adding salt to foods to aid fermentation. Sauerkraut, miso, kimchee (a Korean fermented vegetable dish), and tempeh (fermented soybeans) are just a few other examples of fermented foods.

With research increasingly pointing to the importance of having a healthy microbiome, the interest in fermented foods has soared. Home fermentation, an age-old practice used to preserve certain foods, is experiencing a revival. Sandor Katz, an expert in home fermentation and author of Wild Fermentation, states that before modern technologies and the wider availability of produce year-round, fermentation was the only way for many people to get certain foods in winter. “Just a few generations ago in places like Russia and northern Germany, sauerkraut from cabbage and other produce was a survival food as it was the only way to be able to eat vegetables through the winter,” says Katz. Traditionally, he adds, the longer a food was supposed to last, the greater the amount of salt that was needed. Nowadays with refrigeration, large amounts of salt are unnecessary.

Here are five reasons why eating fermented foods could have potential benefits:

1 Diabetes risk and treatment “Research shows that if you can alter the microbiome by increasing the amount and the diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut, it appears to play a role in both the prevention and treatment of diabetes,” says Joanne Lewis, healthy eating and nutrition programming director at Diabetes Canada, and a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

2 Weight control Evidence is accumulating that the microbiome of obese individuals is very different than that of leaner people. Certain bacteria may promote the more efficient use of calories from food and greater fat storage in the body, which can lead to being overweight. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is key for both the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.

3 Better immune system functioning The balance of assorted bacteria in your gut has been shown to affect how your immune system functions. Think of your gut—where 80 per cent of your immune system is located—as your body’s first line of defence against various infections. Different strains of bacteria stimulate various cells in the immune system to defend against a variety of infections.

4 Better bowel health Healthy bacteria not only promote bowel regularity and lower the odds of becoming constipated, but may also decrease the development of colon cancer, according to research. Scientists have recently found that people with type 2 diabetes appear to be at a higher risk of developing colon cancer.

5 Decrease food waste As the issue of food waste and its impact on the environment receives more attention, people are exploring more ways to eat all the food they buy. Fermenting foods is a great way to use up various odds and ends in your fridge, such as radishes, carrots, and other root vegetables.

Selecting smart fermented foods 

Lewis recommends probiotic yogurt as a source of healthy bacteria. She adds, “People with diabetes should choose plain yogurt because of the high sugar content of flavoured varieties.”

When buying other commercially prepared fermented foods, there are a few points to keep in mind.

• If a food has been pickled just by adding vinegar, it is not fermented so there will not be any microbial benefits. This may be the case with many commercially made pickles.

• To reap the benefits of fermentation in food such as sauerkraut or miso, the bacteria contained in it must be alive. Pasteurized products have been heated in order to allow for them to be shelf stable, meaning that they can be left on supermarket store shelves without deteriorating. But since heating kills the live bacteria, these pasteurized fermented products no longer offer the beneficial bacteria benefits. Instead, look for these products in the store’s refrigerator case.

Whether you buy or make your own, fermented foods can be a worthwhile investment for your health.

Here are three recipes to help you include fermented foods in your meals on a regular basis.

Low-Salt Sauerkraut

This recipe is adapted from Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing). Choose from any varieties of cabbage, or create your own mixture (at least 500 grams of cabbage plus 500 grams combining radishes, turnips, carrots, onions, shallots, etc.). Season as you like (e.g., caraway seeds, dill, chili peppers).

1 kg (2 lb.) vegetables (as above)

Seasonings, to taste (as above)

1-2 tsp (5-10 mL) salt (or less)

Remove outer leaves of cabbage and reserve. Scrub root vegetables but do not peel. Chop or grate all vegetables into a bowl. (The more finely the veggies are shredded, the easier it will be to get juices out, but fineness or coarseness can vary.)

As you chop, add seasonings, and salt vegetables lightly. Holding salted vegetables over bowl, squeeze with your hands for a few minutes (or pound with blunt tool), until juices are released (as from a wet sponge). Taste and add more salt or seasonings, if desired.

In 1 quart (1 L) wide-mouth jar, pack vegetables, pressing down using fingers or blunt tool, to remove air pockets and ensure they are fully covered by juices. Fill jar, leaving a little space at top for expansion. Top with a folded cabbage leaf or chunk of root vegetable to keep vegetables submerged, and cover. Ferment for at least three days, or up to three months or more, depending on how strong you like it.

Tip: Each day for the first few days, loosen the top of the jar(s) to relieve the pressure of carbon dioxide created by fermentation.

Makes about 2 quarts/litres

Nutritional breakdown per 1-cup serving (when made with cabbage and 1 tsp/5 mL salt): 6.6 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g protein, 0 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 2.8 g fibre, 250 mg sodium, 28 calories

© Sandor Katz, 2016

Stir-fried eggplant with miso

Miso is a fermented soybean product that has become very popular with the increased interest in Japanese food. The light-colour or yellow version is the mildest and most popular. Serve this dish, adapted from Bonnie Stern’s HeartSmart Cooking for Family and Friends (Random House), with a Japanese or Asian meal or with something barbecued. Leftovers can be combined with rice and stir-fried. This dish can be made ahead and then reheated. If it is too thick when reheated, just add some water.

1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil

1 tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped fresh gingerroot

4 shallots, thinly sliced (or 1 small onion, diced)

500 g (1 lb.) thin eggplant, cut in 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks

2 tbsp (25 mL) light miso

1½ tbsp (23 mL) granulated sugar (optional)

1 tbsp (15 mL) rice wine

1 tsp (5 mL) hot chili paste

4 green onions, sliced

Salt and pepper

Heat oil in a large non-stick pan or wok on medium-high heat. Add ginger and shallots. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggplant and stir-fry until it is lightly browned and beginning to wilt, about 8 to 10 minutes. If pan is too dry, add 2 tbsp (25 mL) water.

In a small bowl, combine miso, sugar (if using), rice wine, hot chili paste, and ⅓ cup (75 mL) water. Add to eggplant and stir-fry until eggplant is tender, about 3 minutes. If sauce is too thick, add about ¼ cup (50 mL) more water. Sauce should coat eggplant but not be too sticky.

Add green onions, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 1 minute longer.

Makes 6-8 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 11.9 g carbohydrate, 1.7 g protein, 2.9 g total fat, 0.3 g saturated fat, 2.8 g fibre, 220 mg sodium, 77 calories

Yogurt Herb Dressing

This recipe, from Anne Lindsay's Light Kitchen (Wiley), published in co-operation with the Canadian Diabetes Association (now Diabetes Canada), shows how easy it is to use yogurt as a base for salad dressings. You can also enjoy it as a dip for vegetables. Fibre-filled plants such as vegetables, whole grains, and fruits are known as prebiotics because beneficial bacteria thrive on them.

1 cup (250 mL) low-fat yogurt

½ cup (125 mL) light mayonnaise

⅓ cup (75 mL) chopped fresh parsley

⅓ cup (75 mL) chopped fresh dill (or ½ tsp/2 mL dried dill weed)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon juice

1 tsp (5 mL) Dijon mustard

½ tsp (2 mL) salt


In bowl or large measuring cup, combine yogurt, mayonnaise, parsley, dill, garlic, lemon juice, mustard, salt, and pepper to taste. Using whisk or fork, mix well.

Makes 1⅔ cups

Nutritional breakdown per 1-tbsp (15 mL) serving: 1 g carbohydrate, 1 g protein, 2 g total fat, 0.2 g saturated fat, 0 g fibre, 82 mg sodium, 20 calories

Did You Know?

Some types of commercially prepared fermented products, such as miso, can be high in sodium/salt and, as a result, it may be wise to limit how much you eat. Other products, such as pickles and sauerkraut, can be rinsed under running water to reduce the sodium content. Get other useful tips from “Reducing Salt Intake” now. 

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