When you think of fermented foods, do you think of Mexican fermented foods? Chances are, probably not!
While fermented foods have gained attention in nutrition spaces, most of the attention has gone to yogurt and kombucha. While Mexican fermented foods like tepache have flown under the radar.
As a Latina dietitian, I’ve made it my mission to share just how nourishing our food culture is. And that includes showing how our people have used fermented foods throughout our history.
So if you’re curious about fermented foods and want to continue enjoying your favorite Mexican foods, this is the blog post for you. I’ll share a list of common fermented foods in Mexico (and a few from the rest of Latin America), as well as the health benefits and risks of fermented foods.
So let’s dive in!
Health benefits of fermented foods
Fermented foods are having a moment, thanks to how much attention the gut and gut health is getting these days.
It’s worth noting that the research in this area of nutrition is still fairly new. There aren’t that many human studies looking at consumption of fermented foods and long term health outcomes.
It’s just in the last decade or so that nutrition research has started to understand the importance of a diverse gut microbiome populated with beneficial bacteria (1).
But we can draw some conclusions based on the associations of healthy gut bacteria with health outcomes. We can also talk about the overall nutrient profile of fermented foods.
While many foods can help feed our gut microbiome (including most high-fiber foods), fermented foods with live active cultures can help populate our microbiomes with those beneficial bacteria.
There’s good evidence that healthy bacteria can help prevent certain types of diarrhea (2). Researchers are also starting to investigate possible links between our gut bacteria and mental health and inflammatory bowel syndrome (3, 4).
Fermenting food also changes the nutrient profile of that food. One study found that fermented foods had increased antioxidant activity, for instance (5).
Fermentation may also increase vitamin B12 in certain plant-based foods (6).
Mexican fermented foods
Needless to say, there are a lot of reasons to explore the wide variety of Mexican fermented foods out there!
The first thing that might stand out to you is that most fermented foods in Mexico are actually drinks (7)!
Note I only included fermented foods whose end products contain live active cultures. I did this because when we talk about the health benefits of fermented foods, we’re usually talking about the live, active cultures present in such foods.
Plenty of foods use fermentation, but in the end do not provide live active cultures. This includes most cheeses, hot sauce, and distilled spirits (like tequila or mezcal).
Tepache is a fermented drink most commonly made from pineapple rinds and brown sugar (or piloncillo).
While tepache has hit the market in the United States recently, it’s been a feature of Mexican cuisine for centuries.
You can draw some similarities between tepache and kombucha. They both have very low alcohol content (typically between 0.5% and 2%).
It should be noted, however, that these benefits haven’t been specifically tied to tepache yet. There just hasn’t been enough research yet.
Tibicos are naturally occurring on the surface of prickly pear fruits. This is the same starter culture used for making water kefir, which leads some people to believe water kefir has its origins in Mexican food, but I haven’t found any concrete evidence of this yet.
Pulque is an alcoholic drink made from agave. It has a white, cloudy appearance and contains about 6% alcohol (12).
Like many other agave products, pulque is popular in Central Mexico. The oldest known use of pulque dates back to the Otomi civilization in 2000 BC.
Pulque is a good source of of a wide variety of healthy bacteria (14). Some of these bacteria are associated with gut health, and reduced inflammation (15). But more research into the specific probiotic benefits of pulque is needed.
Atole agrio literally means sour corn meal. This drink is made from fermenting corn dough, without sugar (16). The fermented corn dough is then combined with water, and spices and sugar can be added at this time (after fermentation).
Pozol is another fermented corn drink. There are a few on this list, and the differences are subtle but they’re there!
Pozol is made from fermented, nixtamalized corn dough. The fermented dough is then dissolved in water to make a drink, along with optional spices and flavors like cacao. This drink is especially important in Mayan food culture.
Fermenting nixtamalized corn creates a different product because of the relative decrease in starch and increase in sugars that happens with nixtamalization. In short, bacteria are fermenting more starch than sugar, so the end product is different (18).
Fermented pozol may have higher levels of certain essential amino acids (19).
Tesguino is a type of corn beer from Northern Mexico. It’s made by grinding and boiling sprouted corn kernels, and then letting them ferment (20).
Another study found that tejuino is particularly rich in lactic acid bacteria. Lactic acid bacteria are the same types of bacteria found in fermented dairy products.
Colonche is a fermented drink made from cactus fruit (most commonly purple prickly pear). It has an alcohol content of about 2%.
Very little research has been done on the probiotic or nutritional properties of colonche at this time.
Since tibicos (see tepache section) are found on prickly pears, it’s reasonable to guess that colonche would feature some of those same properties.
Tuba is a fermented drink made from coconut palm. It was introduced to Mexico by way of the Philippines (since both were under Spanish rule).
There isn’t much nutrition information available for Tuba, except for one study confirming the presence of certain bacteria which help prevent spoilage (25).
Probiotic Dairy Drinks
Probiotic dairy drinks are rapidly gaining popularity in Mexico. While they may not be the most traditional Mexican food, you’ll see them all over your local Mexican grocery store.
In fact, fermented dairy drinks are the third most produced dairy product in Mexico (behind yogurt drinks and yogurt) (26).
This fact actually makes sense given the high rate of lactose intolerance among Mexicans. Fermented dairy products are generally easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance.
Kefir is a relatively new product in Mexico, but it’s becoming very popular very quickly. This is likely because Mexican grocery shoppers already have a good relationship with drinkable yogurt and with probiotic drinks like Yakult (see below).
Note this applies to dairy kefir. For a discussion on water kefir, please see the “Tepache” section.
Yakult was invented in Japan. This small probiotic drink was introduced to Mexico in 1981 (27).
Yakult features the probiotic L. paracasei strain Shirota, which reduced depressive symptoms in one trial (28).
Yakult’s popularity with Latinos continues! Half of Yakult sales in the United States come from Hispanic consumers (29).
Yogurt drinks and yogurt are the two most popular fermented dairy products in Mexico (30). I love recommending yogurt drinks to my clients for a convenient breakfast!
In addition to the probiotic benefits, yogurt also provides a convenient source of calcium and protein (31).
Fermented milk products like yogurt may be associated with reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes (32).
Mexican crema is fermented cream used as a condiment in Mexican dishes. While most Mexican crema is made with cultured cream, I couldn’t find any indication that the final product contains live, active cultures.
Crema can be a good way to add flavor and richness to your meals. But to get the health benefits of fermented foods, look for one that says “live active cultures” on the bottle.
Are there any risks to fermented foods?
Alcohol is a common byproduct of fermentation. Some fermented drinks, like kombucha and tepache, have very low alcohol content.
Other fermented drinks have alcohol content similar to beer (like pulque).
According to the WHO, there is no established safe level of alcohol consumption. Keep this in mind when choosing a fermented food.
While the food safety risk for properly fermented foods is relatively low, proper food safety procedures are needed to prevent bacterial contamination.
One study found E. coli in certain samples of pozol (33).
Make sure to consume fermented foods that have been prepared using appropriate food safety guidelines.
That was a lot of fermented foods! As you can see, it’s entirely possible to reap the benefits of fermented foods while still enjoying traditional Mexican food (and newer Mexican food, too).
It’s important for me, as a Latina dietitian, to share this information because I want to help other Latinos have pride in our food culture. I want us to know that our food culture has always been nourishing.
That’s why I help Latinos build simple, healthy meal plans with their favorite Latino foods. Check out my free sample meal plan to get started eating healthy with plenty of sabor.