Fermented Foods and Ayurveda

Fermented Foods and Ayurveda

In This Article

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.

See also Best Foods for Your Microbiome + Healthy Breasts, Lymph, and Digestion

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.

See also 3 Ayurvedic Superfoods for Summer and Fall + Pitta Balancing

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.

See also Seasonal Living for Better Health: Ayurveda + Western Science

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.

See also Best Foods for Your Microbiome + Healthy Breasts, Lymph, and Digestion

A bowl of saag paneer
Photo by Kanwardeep Kaur on Unsplash

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.

See also Cheese: The Good, The Bad, and The Ayurvedic Perspective

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.

See also Winter Recipes for Your Ayurvedic Body Type

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

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Dr. John

14 thoughts on “Fermented Foods and Ayurveda”

  1. Thank you so much for this! I kind of figured that was the answer, but was looking for someone with authority on the subject. I’ve started my whole body health journey and the Ayurvedic way seemed to be the most logical way to go, until I became confused about the fermentation issue because I’ve also done research on Sally Fallon and Weston A. Price. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this article. When should fermented foods be consumed in relation to the meal (before, during)?

    • Hi Celso,

      Thank you for your question. In Ayurveda, consuming fermented foods is recommended with your meal in condiment-sized portions.

      Be Well

    • Hi Celso,

      Thanks for your question. Fermented foods should be eaten with your meals as condiments. Probiotics would have naturally been consumed during meals, so we try to recreate that.

      Be Well.

  3. Hi
    Paneer as you say, is not part of the ‘whole’ Indian cooking scenario and is almost negligible to absent in ‘ayurvedic cooking’,
    India is a very diverse nation with the language/cuisine changing probably every 100km. Paneer is consumed in the northern part of the country more as compared to the other 3 directions.
    And even in the northern part is not consumed on a daily basis

    And lassi and buttermilk are different.
    Lassi is churned & liquified curd, most times, with added sugar but no water.. . While buttermilk is churned and liquified curd with around 3/4 part water and 1/4 part curd with no sugar but maybe salt and cumin added.

    Buttermilk is advised post meal to aid digestion and lassi is usually taken as a dessert or during fasting as a meal in itself.
    Hope it helps 🙂

  4. The foods that you list, idli, yoghurt, are only fermented for a day, which makes the difference from stuff like sauerkraut. In my experience, eating sauerkraut gives me uncontrollable sexual thoughts.

  5. Nicely written article. The part about guns and doshas offers a very balanced view. Many pieces on Ayurveda on the Internet are misleading in their projected restrictions. Possibly low levels of fermented foods are actually cooling to the body (e.g pepper is cooling in small quantities but heating in larger ) as many of these are summer foods, the longer fermented dishes may be hearing, and since most of India does not have a long winter these are not that popular!

  6. Would love it if Dr. John would write another article on the use of cultured foods today, especially in North America. I was naturally drawn to the natural culturing and eating of these foods previously, but after learning that most fermented foods weren’t favored in Ayurveda (which I also was following), I got confused and gave them up. But after more than a year of stopping them, I miss kefir, kombucha and cultured vegetables and their health benefits. I find traditional Ayurvedic food guidelines often confusing, limiting and contradictory to my inner body wisdom and locale/climate. Yet, I am sure there is much of value, if it were more accessible and relevant to me, as a person of northern European/Celtic heritage living in Michigan. It seems Ayurvedic guidelines need to be updated or modernized to be made more relatable to other cultures/locales around the world. Help! Thank you!!

    • I will not tell you fully but fermenting food causes some chemicals to be formed that affect your brain. Anything that affects your brain even slightly is banned in ayurveda including nervous system.

  7. I want to eat a product of “fermented beets” during the Colorado Cleanse which contains every ingredient on the “ok” list (beets, red cabbage, lemon, salt, onion, garlic, cumin, parsley, mint). It is fermented for 6 weeks. Why can I eat all these things together when they are raw but not when they have been sitting for 6 weeks? It seems like it would be beneficial to get some probiotics in my gut during a cleanse as well as all the wonderful food. What am I missing?

    • Hi Sara,

      Fermented foods are to be avoided. They are also meant to be eaten in small quantities during non-cleansing times.

      Fermented foods can be rough and too heating on digestion. As this cleanse is a gentle way of healing the skin within, you want to eat the most gentle foods possible and fermented foods just do not fit the cleanse.

      That would be a great food to lead you up to the cleanse and as a great follow up to the cleanse.

      LifeSpa Staff

  8. I am confused– and hope you can write an article to explain in a more elementary basic way-
    so, I am NOT to eat yogurt between meals at any times? Only a tablespoon during a meal?
    and no other fermented foods like sauerkraut? and no drinking a bottle of Kambucha?


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