Regular consumption of fermented foods is associated with several health benefits, and adding sauerkraut, kimchi or cultured dairy into the diet is often an important step in improving gut health. Sauerkraut is cabbage that’s been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria, and during this process, the sugar content of the cabbage is reduced, and we end up with sour cabbage filled with probiotics.
Sauerkraut is believed to have been introduced in Europe about 1000 years ago by Genghis Khan, and there it took roots mostly in Germanic and Eastern European cuisines. Fermentation was primarily used as a way of preserving food, and sauerkraut became an important source of nutrients during the winter and on long sea voyages.
Although fermentation is still being used in the 21st century; canning, refrigeration and freezing have now become the primary ways of preserving food. By removing most traditional fermented foods from our diets we’re no longer getting as much lactobacilli and other beneficial probiotics into our guts.
Research shows that consumption of probiotic bacteria is associated with better gut health and increased immunity, but it’s still unclear to which extent microorganisms from fermented foods and probiotic supplements are able to permanently colonize the gastrointestinal tract.
- The fermentation process increases the bioavailability of many nutrients. Sauerkraut is especially rich in vitamin C, B and K, and it’s also a good source of dietary fiber and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
- Contains a wide spectrum of probiotic organisms and is especially rich in lactic acid bacteria
- Contains certain compounds (e.g., isothiocyanates) that inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
- Rich in antioxidants
- Has been used for centuries to treat and prevent several types of diseases
- Regular consumption boosts immunity
Getting sauerkraut at the store
While it’s fairly easy to make sauerkraut at home, it’s also possible to buy ready-to-eat sauerkraut at the store. First of all, it’s important to avoid the typical “sauerkraut” you’ll find in grocery stores, since most of these products are pasteurized.
When looking for high-quality sauerkraut, go to farmers markets, health food stores or some other trusted vendor, and look for refrigerated sauerkraut with something like “raw”, “unpasteurized” and/or “lacto-fermented” on the label.
Making your own sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is fairly easy to make at home, and there are several step-by-step instructions available online.
- Longer fermentation times (3-6 weeks) usually means more probiotic bacteria
- The cabbage should always be covered in brine
- While high-quality cabbage naturally contains the needed lactic acid bacteria, a starter culture is sometimes necessary to kick start the fermentation process
- Fermentation crocks and glass jars are good for fermenting cabbage
- Using a food processor will speed up the process
- About 3 tablespoons of salt is good for 5 pounds of cabbage