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Yes, You Can Pickle That. And If You Have Social Anxiety, Maybe You Should


Kuro-mame natto, a Japanese dish of fermented soy beans garnished with a raw quail egg. Oliver Strewe/Getty Images
Kuro-mame natto, a Japanese dish of fermented soy beans garnished with a raw quail egg. Oliver Strewe/Getty Images

Bread, beer, wine, yogurt: They're all fermented foods that have been around for centuries. Yes, preserving foods is nothing new. Nearly every civilization dating back to 6000 B.C.E. has used some form of the process, largely to preserve food. Today, however, fermented foods from kimchi and kefir to miso and sauerkraut are more popular than ever, and pickles are a hot trend in big-name restaurants. So what gives? What used to be just preservation methods have really caught on.

Well the easy answer (besides tastiness) when it comes to fermentation is probiotics — live bacteria and yeasts that are totally good you're your gut. They've become the darlings of the food world because of their health benefits. But first let's explain how fermenting a vegetable works.

To put it simply, vegetables are soaked in salted water (or their own juice) to allow lactobacillus bacteria to grow. The bacteria then eat the vegetable's sugars, and as a result, produce lactic acid, creating a sour taste. This is called lacto-fermentation and it's among the most common home methods of fermentation.

So why are these fermented veggies so healthy? Well for one, foods like kimchi are packed full of antioxidants and lactobacillus bacteria — and both are extremely good for digestion. The live bacteria help restore the proper balance in the gut, which is pretty much trashed after years of drinking tap water and downing antibiotics.

A 2008 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also suggests that eating probiotics can help enhance immune functions, improve colonic integrity, decrease incidence and duration of intestinal infections, and improve digestion and elimination. But that's not all.

The real kicker involves findings from a 2015 University of Maryland study into the relationship between fermented foods and social anxiety. Results suggest that fermented foods containing probiotics may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms for those at higher genetic risk. While additional research is necessary to determine the direction of causality, these results suggest that eating fermented foods that contain probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety. 

Does this mean you should run out to the store and stock up on jars of sauerkraut ASAP? Well, not exactly. That's because store-bought  fermented foods are typically pasteurized, which can help preserve and make food safer, but remove a significant amount of nutrients.

Instead, try fermenting your own food. No need to go nuts like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's characters do in "Portlandia." Many vegetables — especially cabbage, beets, carrots, radishes, okra, cucumbers and cauliflower — are particularly popular and easy to both pickle and ferment at home (the processes are different, but both preserve the food), and even fruits are common. If you do purchase something fermented like sauerkraut, be sure it's labeled unpasteurized (or raw), and organic is often best if ecological impact is important to you. But fermented foods are so simple to make at home, give them a try. They could be your new thing. And that brings us to this video, which we'll just leave right here for your consideration...


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