Before we invented refrigeration, we came up with some creative methods to preserve food. Some of these old techniques, like fermentation, could even bestow health benefits. Nowadays fermentation usually means that our apple juice has gone bad and needs to be dumped down the sink, but some fermented foods and drinks can make great, healthy additions to nearly every diet!Kefir (pronounced kuh-feer, but in American-ese it’s key-fur) and kombucha (pronounced com-boo-cha) are two popular fermented beverages on the health scene right now, and together they could pack a powerful punch of health benefits. Kefir is similar to yogurt: it’s dairy based, tangy, and can be enjoyed as a beverage or used as a substitute for sour cream. Kombucha is slightly effervescent, tea based, and has a crisp fermented bite to it. Teri Erhardt, a local well-being consultant specializing in worksite wellness, offered some insight into the nature of these two hard to spell and even harder to pronounce beverages.

What are some of the benefits of adding kefir and kombucha to your diet?

The majority of your immune system is in your gut. For most of us, eating a standard American diet for much of our lives has left us with a less than perfect gut — one that’s out of whack with too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. We need both kinds in order to be healthy, but when our guts are out of balance we’re more vulnerable to sickness and disease. Good bacteria from foods like kefir and kombucha can help to restore balance and support a healthy immune system, heal our guts, and eliminate digestive problems.

If someone wants to start incorporating more fermented beverages into their diet, how would you recommend they begin?

Slowly. Start with a small amount – a tablespoon or so of fermented beverage at meals is right for the first week or so. Then pay close attention to what your body is telling you to determine whether your new diet feels right for it. (These body cues are known as “biofeedback.”) The great thing is that each ferment comes with its own variety of beneficial bacteria. We need a wide variety, not just the two or three strains that you find in yogurt.

Should you buy fermented drinks at the store or make your own?

You can buy kefir grains at pretty much any health food store in the metro area to get started. The packaging will come with easy-to-follow instructions, and there are a plethora of food blogs out there to help if you get stuck.

Kombucha is more of a secret club — you either have to know someone to give you a “mother” culture, or you have to go online for one. Thankfully, this movement has gained enough momentum that it’s not too hard to find what you’re looking for on the internet!

If you aren’t feeling adventurous enough to try brewing your own drinks at home, delicious kefir and kombucha drinks can be found in grocery and health food stores and co-ops throughout the Twin Cities. Be cautious of sugar levels in some drinks, though. A quick glance at the nutrition label will tell you if your “healthy” drink is not actually at all!

There is no health food “magic bullet”, so keep it balanced and reasonable and do go slowly when first starting. Make sure you consult a health professional before making any dietary changes if you have a unique health situation such as autoimmune issues or are pregnant or breastfeeding. We live in an amazing time that combines the wisdom of the past with modern technology. Health foods like kefir and kombucha combine these past and current understandings to give us a bright, healthful future!

By Whitney Grindberg