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Do fermented foods live up to the hype?

December 1, 2022

Stores are bursting with fermented products containing probiotics. Here’s how they can boost health — and ways they may fall short.

overhead view photo of a bowl of sourdough starter on a counter with a recipe written on an index card next to it

Wander down a supermarket’s refrigerated aisle nowadays and you’ll notice shelves packed with fermented foods and drinks. Newer additions such as milk-based kefir, kimchi (Korean cabbage), kombucha (tea), and tempeh (soybeans) have joined perennial favorites such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and beer, highlighting a market projected to grow globally by $533 million over the next four years.

But the fresh popularity of fermented foods belies a heritage dating thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used fermentation, which incorporates bacteria and yeast to break down sugars and carbohydrates, to transform flavors, and prevent spoilage. Scientists have long since learned that fermented foods also contain live microorganisms called probiotics, which bolster a healthier mix of the trillions of "good" bacteria that live in our gut.

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About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio
View all posts by Maureen Salamon

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