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Let's Recognize Fermented Foods As Canada's 5th Official Food Group

The only question is whether governments are ready to listen.

Fermented foods have become quite popular over the last few years. The addition of microbe-rich products such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchee, kombucha, miso and probiotic supplements into people's diets has been shown both in research and in the mainstream world as a means to improve one's health. However, this increase in attention at the public level has yet to be embraced by those who create food policy, both in Canada and around the world.

Despite the recent popularity, fermented foods have been around for thousands of years. Without the modern day convenience of refrigeration and chemical preservatives, the options to ensure foods could withstand the test of time were limited. The use of certain types of bacteria to purposefully "spoil" the food did the trick and kept food edible for longer spans of time. The adoption of fermentation was adopted into many different societies worldwide and continues to this day.

A jar of kimchi.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
A jar of kimchi.

Until recent times, the most noticeable was a change in a fermented food was flavour. The process increased the overall taste spectrum of the product. But more recent research has revealed fermented foods also contribute to changes in our bodies, some of which can improve our health.

The benefits of fermented foods have been explored for over a decade and a combination of laboratory studies, animal models and clinical trials have shown how these products can influence our day-to-day lives. Some of the enhancements are simple, such as better digestion and more regular trips to the bathroom. But others are far more complex, as researchers have gained insight into how certain molecules, such as those giving these foods such a different taste, affect our body's internal systems such as immunity, cardiovascular function, mental health and metabolism.

The first recommendation to add fermented foods to government food guides came in 2015. The reasons focused on both the health benefits as well as the potential to increase shelf life without the need for refrigeration and/or chemical preservation. The hope was to see these naturally processed products become fully accepted as a part of the dietary patterns.

Recent research has revealed fermented foods also contribute to changes in our bodies, some of which can improve our health.

However, the request went for the most part unheeded. While fermented foods were becoming accepted universally by the public and the research community, little was being done politically. This was not surprising but for many proponents of fermentation, the lack of attention was disappointing.

Now another call has come from a group of European researchers. Unlike the 2015 article, which focused on promoting fermented foods, the group decided to examine the different food guides from around the world and demonstrate the gaps between the policy and the science. The paper highlights how countries appear to support fermentation but need to do better to ensure populations are aware of the benefits. Moreover, the group reveals how the addition of fermented foods can improve other sectors of food security, such as safety, supply management and sustainability.

The team looked at food guides from several different countries, including Australia and New Zealand, Canada, China, India, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In each case, they explored the various recommendations in the hopes of finding any relating to the promotion of fermented foods.

Not surprisingly, all but one country had no mention of fermented foods. The only nation with any type of specific advice was India. A deeper look into the types of food promoted revealed certain types of fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir, but that was about it.

marekuliasz via Getty Images

Part of the reason for this absence happens to lie in the format of these guides. They tend to focus on the original form of the food source. This is due in part with the need to harmonize guidelines with the local economic realities of the food production industry. This requires a mention for various sectors, such as meats, dairy, grains and produce.

However, there is another approach. Rather than focus on the industrial sectors, the government can look to the type of product being consumed and create three different categories.

  • Natural foods, which comprise of a single type without any type of processing.
  • Manufactured foods, which rely on mixing different food groups as well as other chemicals such as stabilizers, preservatives, and flavour enhancers to make a product.
  • Fermented foods, which are naturally processed.

In this light, this new type of food guide would recommend percentages of each type of food category for consumption.

The only question is whether governments are ready to listen.

There is, of course, a catch. Using this approach may make it difficult to fit the concept into an easy-to-remember image, such as a pyramid, plate or, in the case of China, pagoda. However, this proposed approach would allow individuals the chance to identify with the foods they purchase and improve the choices they make.

Based on this newer concept of a food guide, in which fermented foods are included, the public would be able to appreciate the benefit — or detriment — of foods available in the country. The guide also could increase awareness of the most beneficial choices. The end result would be an easy-to-understand policy that could show Canadians how to maintain and possibly improve their well-being. This reason alone may be worth giving fermented foods and this alternate concept of a guide more than just a casual glance. The only question is whether governments are ready to listen.

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