Fermented foods are defined as foods or beverages produced through controlled microbial growth, and the conversion of food components through enzymatic action. In recent years, fermented foods have undergone a surge in popularity, mainly due to their proposed health benefits. The aim of this review is to define and characterise common fermented foods (kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, natto, miso, kimchi, sourdough bread), their mechanisms of action (including impact on the microbiota), and the evidence for effects on gastrointestinal health and disease in humans. Putative mechanisms for the impact of fermented foods on health include the potential probiotic effect of their constituent microorganisms, the fermentation-derived production of bioactive peptides, biogenic amines, and conversion of phenolic compounds to biologically active compounds, as well as the reduction of anti-nutrients.
Fermented foods that have been tested in at least one randomised controlled trial (RCT) for their gastrointestinal effects were kefir, sauerkraut, natto, and sourdough bread. Despite extensive in vitro studies, there are no RCTs investigating the impact of kombucha, miso, kimchi or tempeh in gastrointestinal health. The most widely investigated fermented food is kefir, with evidence from at least one RCT suggesting beneficial effects in both lactose malabsorption and Helicobacter pylori eradication. In summary, there is very limited clinical evidence for the effectiveness of most fermented foods in gastrointestinal health and disease. Given the convincing in vitro findings, clinical high-quality trials investigating the health benefits of fermented foods are warranted.
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