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Should You Eat Fermented Foods?
A common misconception is that, in Ayurveda, fermented foods like alcohol, cheese, and pickled veggies are tamasic, or dulling to the mind, and should be avoided.
However, in India, as well as in Ayurvedic cooking, you will commonly find a cheese called paneer. While paneer is not fermented for days like traditional cheeses, it is a fermented food. To make paneer, you Add lemon to milk, initiating the process of lacto-fermentation.
Ayurveda also recommends drinking lassi—a drink made of yogurt and water or buttermilk—at each meal to help aid digestion. Veggies and fruits are fermented into chutneys, rice and beans into dosas and idlis, and fermented wines, called Arishthas and Asavas, have been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Whether you age hard cheese or vegetables for months, or quickly whip up homemade yogurt, the underlying process, called lacto-fermentation, is the same. And, as it turns out, it is as much a part of the Ayurvedic culture as it is in Northern Europe. The type of fermentation and need for preserving foods was adapted for each culture, country and geography.
The Latest Fermented Food Science
In a July 2021 study conducted at StanfordUniversity, researchers compared the effects of a diet rich in fiber to a diet offermented foods. In the study, published in the journal Cell, 36 health adults were assigned to either diet for 10 weeks while monitoring the effects on the microbiome, microbial diversity, immunity, and inflammation. While the researchers expected more benefits from a higher fiber diet, they found that the fermented foods were more beneficial on all counts.
The research subjects in the fermented food group ate more yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi and other fermented vegetables, vegetable brine drinks, and kombucha tea, which led to an increase in overall microbial diversity; decreased inflammation; and a positive effect on the immune system, joint issues, and chronic stress. This effect was found in all participants who were in the fermented food group.
They concluded that while high-fiber diets have been associated with lower rates of mortality, the consumption of fermented foods can help with weight balancing and may decrease the risk of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Fermented Foods are Seasonal
The climate for most of India is warm year-round, so there is no need to preserve fruits and veggies for a long, cold winter season.
During spring, summer, and fall, harvests in non-equatorial regions, foods are ripe on the vine and readily available to eat fresh. There is no real need to preserve foods.
But come winter in the North and South, fermented, and canned, foods are a saving grace.
Most are made through lactic acid fermentation, an acidic process that both preserves foods and creates foods high in lactic acid that heats up the body—both welcome in colder climates, where winters are long and food is more scarce.
How Much is Too Much Fermented Food?
Consuming too much fermented food during summer months can overheat the body and aggravate pitta, or the fiery part of your constitution.
Ayurvedic wisdom says that lengthy fermentation processes (think months) can diminish the life-force of foods.
And when fermented foods are eaten in excess or out of season they can be too acidic and tamasic, or dulling for the mind, according to Ayurveda.
Fermented foods were never meant to be consumed as an entire meal. They were always served as a meal supplement.
Just a tablespoon of yogurt mixed with some rice after a meal is traditional in India and delivers millions of beneficial bacteria into the digestive system.
Eating fermented foods in small quantities is also advised by Western authorities. Sally Fallon, who is perhaps the leading authority on Northern European fermented foods, recommends them only in small quantities, as condiment-portions.
It’s also best to consume them as part of a meal rather than in between meals, or as a snack or cooling mid-meal drink. Fermented foods or drinks will increase agni, or digestive strength, which is appropriate during a meal but can be pitta-aggravating between meals, when the kitchen should be closed and the digestive fire at rest.
Why is Hard Cheese a Staple in Europe and Frowned Upon Ayurvedically?
Hard cheeses are an example of what Ayurveda considers a tamasic and heating food.
In India, cheese, or paneer, is made quickly by curdling mild with lemon and then letting the cheese firm up in just hours. The longer the curd sits, the more lactic acid fermentation takes place and the more heating the cheese becomes. The whole paneer making process takes just a couple of hours, while hard cheeses can take months or even years to make.
Hard cheese, especially when rubbed with salt, is a heavier and harder-to-digest food compared to slightly fermented paneer from India.
The human digestive system adapts to its environment and studies in the East and West tell us that the digestive system is strong in the winter and less strong, or acidic, in the summer—as a way of heating the body up in the winter and helping to dissipate heat in the summer.
In the European Alps, an area where early survival would have been more difficult without cows, goats, and sheep, hard cheeses provided needed warmth and vata-balancing during cold winter months.
Hard cheese also has a predominance of the three vata-balancing tastes of sweet, sour, and salty, which help you stay balanced during colder months.
In addition, fermented vegetables are mostly sour, which is another warming taste.
Fermented Foods According to Your Body Type
Because of the heating nature of fermented foods, knowing your body type is key. A hot pitta body type drinking 20 ounces of kombucha daily during a hot season can quickly overheat the body and aggravate pitta. This can cause irritability, skin sensitivity, indigestion, allergies, burning eyes, and inflammation—all pitta concerns.
In general, all body types should consume more fermented foods each winter and less come summer. Vata and kapha types may benefit from more fermented foods year-round while pitta types have to be cautious not to overindulge in the summer and take them in moderation in the winter.
Find out Ayurvedic your body type with our dosha quiz.