'Sauerkraut is even better': Researcher wants fermented foods added to food guide

Western University professor Gregor Reid says the health benefits of fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and even sauerkraut should be highlighted in the update Canada Food Guide.

Meat, grains, veggies, dairy and… kombucha?

Health Canada is updating the country's food guide in 2019. Gregor Reid wants a new category added for foods like kefir and kombucha. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Get ready to enjoy your daily recommended intake of sauerkraut.

The four main food groups are well-known: meat, vegetables, dairy and grains.

But Gregor Reid, a researcher at Western University, wants Health Canada to add a fifth category to the country's Food Guide when it's updated: fermented foods.

The professor of microbiology, immunology and surgery says that the probiotic microbes found in fermented foods have a number of benefits. It's a category that includes items like yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha — a fermented tea.

"There have been studies showing a delay in onset of type II diabetes," and studies showing "longer life," Reid said. Other studies point to reduced cholesterol, increased brain activity and lower chances of bladder cancer.

Gregor Reid is a professor of microbiology, immunology and surgery at Western University in London, Ont. (Supplied)

"[The probiotic bacteria] starts in the gut, but it spreads to other parts of the body in a good way."

Reid wants Canadians to make fermented foods a part of a well-balanced meal.

"Why not have one of them every day as part of your diet?" he suggests.

Going beyond the guide

Reid acknowledges that some fermented foods like yogurt or kefir — a fermented milk drink — already count as dairy. But he believes that many will fill their daily dairy intake with milk or cheese. If you do that, Reid thinks you'll be less likely to enjoy probiotic-filled alternatives.

The same goes for vegetables in the Food Guide wheel.

"Cabbage is good for us, but sauerkraut is even better," Reid said.

Part of the reason for promoting a new food group is to present people with options. With widely different tastes and alternatives available, he hopes Canadians will find something they enjoy.

"I'm not saying everyone should eat yogurt. Maybe people don't like yogurt, maybe they don't like sauerkraut," he said. "But maybe they like kombucha or kimchi or fermented soya."

"The point of the [Food Guide] expansion is that people are much more aware of the benefits of beneficial microbes."

Changing diets

Only in the past decade have "probiotics" entered the lexicon on Canadians. While yogurt was long considered a healthy food, its additional benefits didn't become a focus until a major brand launch.

"In 2003, I would've said 99 per cent of Canadians had never heard [probiotics]," Reid said. The following year, Danone introduced Activia, a brand of yogurt that touts its probiotic cultures.

Within the year, Reid says that 75 per cent of Québec homes bought the yogurt to try.

Those probiotic-rich foods are not new, though.

"If you look at the history of [fermented food], it's been around humankind for as long as we can remember," he said. "It's even cited in the Bible."

Canada's current food guide is divided into four sections: vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. (Health Canada)

But as our tastes have turned toward processed foods, the microbiologist says we have lost some of the probiotics we commonly consumed.

"We used to eat more fermented foods," Reid said. "Maybe we should go back to that."

More and more options

According to Reid, the popularity of fermented foods is clear in grocery stores.

"Anecdotally, if you look at the cold shelf in Loblaws compared to ten years ago, it's very different."

While those shelves may not be filled with sauerkraut and kimchi, they are increasingly stocked with kombucha and soy products. Reid highlights small businesses opening across the country to serve new drinks and foods.

"The area of foods that have additional benefits than just the nutrition is expanding rapidly," Reid said.

One fermented brew you won't see in the new food guide, however: beer and wine.

"It's risk versus benefit. If you took three beers, you would have lots of fermented organisms in you which would be a good thing," Reid explained. "But your alcohol level would be too high and you couldn't drive."

The updated Canada Food Guide will make its way to Canadians in 2019.