Fermented foods may be your best friends in the pandemic

idli drawing Fermented foods (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

The next time you look at a fluffy idli, go beyond its springiness, its appetising aroma and its delectable taste. Say a “thank you” to the millions of yeast and bacteria who have worked ever so hard to make the snack so delicious. But why stop at idli? All our fermented favourites — dhokla, dosa, bread, yoghurt, coffee, dark chocolate, tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha — deserve our praise and recognition, especially in the pandemic.

Let us talk about fermented foods today.

Fermentation is a chemical change in food in the absence of air caused by microorganisms like yeast and bacteria present in grains and legumes. They break down carbohydrates and sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

In food items like idli, dosa and dhokla, these microorganisms produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide that make the batter anaerobic, leaving tiny holes made of CO2 pockets.

The process of fermentation lends a certain taste, aroma and texture to the food. The friendly little microbes are responsible for the delicious fragrance of bread, the spongy texture of dhoklas and the deep flavour of dark chocolate that we have grown to know and love.

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Fermented foods have many health benefits. And there are many a good reason why you should be eating more of them in the pandemic.

A study from July 2020 (not peer-reviewed) has found a positive connection between the consumption of fermented vegetables and COVID-19 mortality.

According to the study, countries with low COVID-19 death rates are those with relatively high consumption of traditional fermented foods.

For each g/day increase in the average national consumption of fermented vegetables, the mortality risk for COVID-19 decreased by 35.4% (95% CI: 11.4%, 35.5%). Adjustment did not change the point estimate and results were still significant.

Another one in the journal Allergy published in August 2020 explored how fermented vegetables, especially cabbage (kimchi and sauerkraut) could help in boosting immune health against COVID-19.

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Cabbage contains precursors of sulforaphane, the active natural activator of Nrf2, the most powerful antioxidant in humans. Nrf2 can stop some of the most fatal outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Lactobacilli, one of the good bacteria present in fermented vegetables and foods, can also enhance antioxidant activator.

COVID-19 also affects the gastrointestinal tract, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in extreme cases, oesophagus bleeding with erosions and ulcers.

The coronavirus replicates inside the intestines, leading to a steep increase in the viral load inside the digestive mucosa. The integrity of the digestive system is thus breached, leading to an increase in the production of cytokines, which can be fatal.


How viruses compromise gut microbiome (Image: Nutrients)

When the gut is compromised, the intestinal flora or the good microbes in your belly are also endangered. Gut microbes have a number of duties like producing nutrients, detoxification, protecting against harmful microbes and regulating the immune system.

Interestingly, when the number of good microbes in the gut goes down, the risk of infection in the lungs due to the flu virus increases, according to a study.

And that’s why, we should snack more on yoghurt, idlis, dosas and dhoklas in the pandemic. A diet rich in fermented foods helps balance the gut microbiome by supplying it with the good microbes.

Also, our intestines and our lungs are so in tune with each other that researchers feel there exists a gut-lung axis.

Like the gut, the lungs also contain a community of microbes, which maintains respiratory health (important in the  COVID-19 context).

When you have a respiratory disorder, the immune modulation is mediated by the gut microbiota. Interestingly “probiotic” strains of microbes that help in the treatment of intestinal disorders are also effective against lung diseases.

Pandemic or not, a probiotic-rich diet helps in improving intestinal health, strengthening the immune system, enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients, decreasing allergies and even reducing the risk of certain cancers.

At a time when we need a stronger immune system, fermented foods can be a significant weapon in our arsenal, especially in our fight against COVID-19.