The Fab Five of Fermented Foods
Growing up in the 90s, I spent most of my childhood playing and practicing basketball. Of course, I was also a huge fan of Michigan’s “Fab Five.” The Fab Five was the name of the five incoming freshman of the 1991 Michigan Wolverines basketball team. Four of the five were McDonald’s All-Americans, and eventually, these freshmen formed the starting lineup.
The five were Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. In their first and second seasons together, they reached the NCAA Championship game both years, taking the world by storm. They lost both championships, the second of which included Chris Webber’s famous timeout with none actually remaining, resulting in a technical foul and basically the end of the game. I can still remember watching in horror as Webber called that time out. Although, Webber got the last laugh, as he followed with an illustrious professional career after being selected first in the NBA Draft.
While Webber declared for the draft shortly afterwards, ending the reign of the Fab Five, their popularity persists as ESPN recently produced a documentary on them for its “30 for 30” series. It remains the highest-rated ESPN documentary of all time.
Nothing reminds me more of the Fab Five than the recent explosion in popularity of five fermented foods. Each one is listed below. If they are not part of your diet, you may want to consider adding them.
Kimchi is definitely the Chris Webber of the group. Kimchi is a delicious array of cabbage with red pepper, and varying other ingredients like ginger and scallion. It is left to ferment underground or in the basements of several of my friends from high school whose mothers made delicious kimchi. Some kimchi also has brined shrimp that ferments. There are hundreds of varying recipes.
It is definitely the most famous in recent years and the most well-known for its pizzazz and thunderous dunks. By thunderous dunks, I of course mean the thunderous breath that one is left with after consuming it, but much like Webber’s basketball skills, the benefits are undeniable.
Kimchi is a good source of the probiotic lactic acid bacteria along with several vitamins. The plentiful health benefits of kimchi include its anti-inflammatory properties,1 anticancer effects,2 a source of food for bowel bacteria, fibrolytic effect, antioxidant effects, and anti-aging properties.3
While kimchi is a regular part of my diet routine, when I feel that I may be getting sick during the winter, I always increase the amount I consume to help fight infection. There is not much data to support this, but hey, I rarely get sick so it must be doing something.
During the SARS epidemic, kimchi sales rose by 40%, so apparently I am not the only person in the world who does this.
Growing up in a family with some German/Austrian roots, sauerkraut often adorned my dinner table. Much like Jalen Rose’s basketball career, sauerkraut is the consistent fermented food that has persisted throughout the years finding its well-deserved place at the table of the best fermented foods.
Sauerkraut can be found as part of the meal at many restaurants and raw options (pasteurization kills all the bacteria, leaving it worthless as a fermented food) continue to increase at grocery stores. When purchasing, make sure it is labeled as “raw,” “alive,” or “unpasteurized.”
Raw sauerkraut contains a hefty supply of lactic acid bacteria.4 These bacteria colonize our gastrointestinal tract, helping to fight infection and proliferation of unwanted bacteria, all while aiding digestion.5,6
Raw cheese is a tasty fermented food that often seems to slip through the cracks as a member of the fermented food groups. Controversial in the paleo world, it is well-tolerated by many and has health benefits such as cancer-fighting CLA, especially when made from the milk of pastured and grass-fed cows.7,8
Besides the health benefits, raw cheese is delicious, often providing unique flavors that are difficult to get from other foods. Much like when Jimmy King would steal a pass, rocket down the court, and do his patented split-leg dunk, some cheeses can hit you in the chin when you least expect it.
Raw cheese also has a rich content of vitamin K2, which has been shown to correlate with lower mortality and improved heart function.9 Combine some good raw cheese with number five below, and you have yourself a superb teammate.
With his incredible athletic ability, Jimmy King certainly left us with a nice highlight reel.
Yogurt and Kefir
Yogurt is made through the fermentation of milk by several bacteria. Lactic acid is produced from this reaction, which is what gives yogurt its typical flavor. Yogurt is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12.
Kefir is made from a yeast/bacterial fermentation starter that looks like cauliflower, known as kefir “grains.” Milk from cows, sheep, or goats is used to create the fermented end product. Like several of the fermented foods above, kefir and yogurt have a significant amount of lactic acid bacteria.
Kefir has many vitamins and nutrients that are typical for milk products, as well as CLA.10 However, kefir has minimal residual lactose. For these benefits, and like nearly all fermented foods, the kefir must be kept raw.
Much like Ray Jackson of the Fab Five, yogurt is the old, reliable, and always dependable source of fermented foods found at most farmers markets and grocery stores. However, when purchasing yogurt, one must be careful, as many brands have added sugar.
The delicious ruby elixir that has been around for thousands of years is often forgotten as a food produced by fermentation. We have discussed the health benefits multiple times here at Health Wire, including the benefits you never even imagine as well as how it can be part of a weight-burning, low-carbohydrate Spanish Ketogenic Diet.
Red wine is definitely the Juwan Howard of the Fab Five. He often misses the credit he deserves for his part, but once remembered, we always glance at the sky thinking, “Oh yes, what a marvelous player he was.” He actually went on to have a long and productive career in the NBA, and I was even fortunate enough to see him play at a game in Philadelphia.
While the bacteria in red wine is killed from the alcohol content, it appears that the polyphenols in red wine result in proliferation of healthy bacteria within the GI tract. In a study from Spain, 10 healthy volunteers were given red wine, de-alcoholized red wine, or gin, for 20 days. The red-wine appeared to act as a prebiotic, to feed healthy guy bacteria.11
Not long after the Fab Five, Dr. Champ went on to win the state championship in high school and on to an illustrious career in the NBA (and by NBA we mean medical school intramurals). He is seen in the background here, as his teammate Steve Nesmith is about to pummel this offender's shot.
A young Dr. Champ, featured in background
Not Making the Cut
Kombucha (tea fermented with yeast and bacteria) did not make the cut for many reasons, but mostly due to the fact that it is often made with a significant amount of sugar. Most kombucha is OK in moderation, but it is not a favored fermented food due to the sugar issues. Also, the health benefits of kombucha are minimal, and there are even scientific reports of potential health issues with kombucha ingestion.12–17
Adding Fermented Food to Your Diet
The documentary on the Fab Five ESPN recently produced its “30 for 30” series that I mentioned earlier is well worth seeing, especially while consuming some healthy fermented foods. Nowadays, the Fab Five are all retired from basketball, though several continue as announcers. However, fermented foods have persisted for thousands of years and are a healthy part of the diet.
Whether it is kimchi or kefir, you should think about adding fermented foods to your diet. It just might be a fabulous addition.
To Your Health,
Dr. Colin Champ
Dr. Colin Champ is a practicing radiation oncologist and nutritional expert. He is the author of Misguided Medicine: The truth behind ill-advised medical recommendations and how to take health back into your hands” You can hear more from him as the host of the incredibly popular Caveman Doctor podcast.
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2. Kim B, Song J-L, Ju J-H, Kang S-A, Park K-Y. Anticancer effects of kimchi fermented for different times and with added ingredients in human HT-29 colon cancer cells. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2015;24(2):629-633. doi:10.1007/s10068-015-0082-3.
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