Sauerkraut is one of the oldest forms of preserving cabbage. Though people have eaten and enjoyed it since ancient Roman times, this nutritious and flavorful food has gained immense popularity in recent times. Rich in vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, sauerkraut provides many health benefits. In this article, you will learn about the history of sauerkraut, its numerous health benefits, and instructions on how to make it.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is a finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria. When we add salt to cabbage slices, it pulls water out of the cabbage to form brine that helps to protect the cabbage while it is fermenting. This process results in the formation of lactic acid. Lactic acid gives the cabbage a distinctive sour flavor and a long shelf life as it inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Also read: What are Probiotics?
History of sauerkraut
Though ‘sauerkraut’ is a German word that means ‘sour cabbage’ it did not originate in Germany. According to some sources, Chinese workers who built the Great Wall of China ate fermented cabbage and rice wine for nourishment. Genghis Kahn, the founder of the Mongol Empire, and his soldiers carried sauerkraut during their conquests. He is credited to introducing this nutritious dish to Europe.
The Europeans improved upon this Chinese dish by fermenting it with salt instead of rice wine. Over the years it became integral to Central and Eastern European cuisine. Sauerkraut is known as ‘zuurkool’ in the Netherlands. In France, it is called ‘chourcroute.’ Though the English name remains the same as the German name ‘sauerkraut,’ the makers of this dish relabelled their products’ liberty cabbage’ during World War 1 due to concerns that American people would reject it.
Nutritional values of sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is low in calories and rich in nutrition. The process of fermentation (converting natural sugars of cabbage into carbon dioxide an organic acids) promotes the growth of beneficial probiotics. Probiotics make the food more digestible and increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals. One cup (142 grams) of canned sauerkraut contains (1) –
- Calories: 27
- Carbohydrates: 6.6 grams
- Fiber: 4.1 grams
- Protein: 1.3 grams
- Vitamin C: 20.9 mg (35% DV)
- Vitamin K: 18.5 mcg (23% DV)
- Vitamin B6: 0.2 mg (9% DV)
- Folate: 34.1 mcg (9% DV)
- Sodium: 939 mg (39% DV)
- Iron: 2.1 mg (12% DV)
- Manganese: 0.2 mg (11% DV)
- Copper: 0.1 mg (7% DV)
Since salt is one of the primary ingredients of sauerkraut, it is relatively high in sodium. One cup of this dish can provide almost 40 percent of your daily needs.
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
1. Improves digestive health
Sauerkraut contains probiotics, which are known to improve digestion and overall health. Probiotics lower the presence of harmful bacteria, toxins, and inflammation in the digestive tract. They help in reducing constipation, diarrhea, bloating, food sensitivities, Crohn’s disease, and gastrointestinal disorders (2, 3).
Antibiotic intake can disturb the balance of bacteria in the gut, and this can cause diarrhea. Probiotics present in sauerkraut can help restore this imbalance (4, 5). According to research, sauerkraut contains 28 different bacterial strains (6). Of these Lactobacillus Plantarum is the predominant LAB bacteria strains (7). Sauerkraut also contains a lot of enzymes which help break down the food into smaller, easily digestible molecules (8).
2. Prevents heart disease
High amounts of fiber and probiotics in sauerkraut can reduce the risk of heart disease. Both fiber and probiotics are known to reduce cholesterol levels (9, 10). Several studies have also shown that probiotic consumption can improve blood pressure control. According to a meta-analysis, when multiple species of probiotics in the doses of more than 10 CFU per day are consumed for more than eight weeks, they improve blood pressure by a modest degree (11).
Sauerkraut also contains vitamin K2, also known as menaquinone. This vitamin helps prevent calcium deposits in the arteries, which help to reduce heart disease (12). According to a 2004 study from the Netherlands, vitamin K2 can reduce the risk of dying from coronary heart disease by 57 % (13).
3. Boosts immunity
Most of our immune system is in our gut. The probiotics in sauerkraut have strong gut-supporting properties, which are beneficial for the immune system as well (14). The benefice bacteria in sauerkraut keep the lining of the gut healthy, and this prevents unwanted substances or toxins from leaking into the body and causing an immune response (15).
Probiotics prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and prevent infections such as common cold and UTI (16). In addition to reducing infections, probiotics can also reduce the duration of illnesses (17). Sauerkraut also contains vitamin C and iron, both of which help boost immunity.
4. Reduces allergies and inflammation
Autoimmunity is a condition in which the body harms its tissues as it suspects that an invader is damaging it. This condition is the reason why some people have an allergic reaction to household products, beauty products, and even poor quality air and water. The probiotics increase and regulate the activity of circulating NK (natural killer) cells in the body, as they control the body’s inflammatory pathway and take action against allergic reactions (18).
5. Reduces the risk of cancer
Cabbage, the main ingredient in sauerkraut, belongs to the cruciferous family which contains sulfur-containing glucosinolates, S-methyl cysteine sulfoxide, flavonoids, anthocyanins, coumarins, carotenoids, antioxidant enzymes, terpenes, and other minor compounds. Saurkraut contains high levels of glucosinolates, ascorbigen, and ascorbic acid, which helps decrease DNA damage and cell mutation in cancer patients (19).
Studies have linked the chemopreventive effects of cabbage to its ability to modulate enzymes and other mechanisms triggered by glucosinolates and products of their decomposition (20). High intake of white cabbage is linked to a lower risk of cancer in the pancreas, breast, prostate, stomach, and lungs.
6. Supports brain health and reduces stress
Our brain and gastrointestinal tract are intimately connected. The communication between the gut and brain, also known as the gut-brain axis, is so well established that the functional status of the stomach is connected to the brain (21).
Since probiotic foods like sauerkraut contribute to the healthy gut flora, they have beneficial effects on mental health parameters well (22). Probiotics improve psychiatric disorder related behavior, including anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and memory abilities, including spatial and non-spatial memory (23).
Sauerkraut contains probiotics, which also improves the absorption of mood-regulating minerals such as magnesium and zinc (24). However, sauerkraut can interact with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which are prescribed for the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders (25).
7. Boosts bone health
One cup of sauerkraut contains 18.5 mcg of vitamin K. Vitamin K plays a vital role in maintaining healthy bones. Vitamin K deficiency is linked to osteoarthritis (26). A study from the University of York, also showed that low intake of vitamin K is associated with an increased risk of fracture. The researchers suggested that supplementation with vitamin K can reduce bone loss and the risk of fractures (27).
8. Weight loss
Sauerkraut is a low-calorie food that’s high in fiber, which is beneficial for weight loss. Food that is rich in fiber keeps you feeling fuller for longer and helps reduce calories intake
Studies have shown that probiotic foods like sauerkraut can reduce the risk of obesity and aid weight loss. Researchers believe that probiotics can reduce the amounts of fats your body absorbs from the diet (28). Several studies have shown that when you take probiotic-rich food or supplements, you lose weight (29, 30).
Sauerkraut side effects
Though sauerkraut provides many health benefits, it can cause uncomfortable side effects in some people. People who are not used to fermented foods can get digestive discomfort, bloating, and gas. Sauerkraut is rich in fiber, but people who are not used to the high-fiber diet may get indigestion, cramping, and diarrhea on eating sauerkraut.
The high sodium content of sauerkraut can also pose certain health risks. One cup of sauerkraut contains almost 40 percent of the daily value of sodium. Too much sodium can contribute to elevated blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Sauerkraut also contains a high amount of histamine. This compound can increase the risk of allergic reactions, especially in people with food sensitivities. The symptoms include diarrhea, flatulence, headache, itchy skin, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, itchy skin, and runny nose.
Things to look for while buying sauerkraut
- Sauerkraut will continue to ferment past its peak stage unless kept at a stable temperature. So, you must choose sauerkraut from the refrigerator section at the farmer’s markets.
- Most sauerkraut available in supermarkets is pasteurized, but this kills beneficial bacteria. When choosing sauerkraut, look for words like raw, perishable, naturally fermented and naturally occurring lactobacillus on the label.
- Sauerkraut should only contain ingredients like cabbage, salt, and a few other vegetables like include carrot, ginger, garlic, and cumin. It should not contain vinegar, sugar, and artificial preservatives like sodium benzoate, and sodium bisulfate.
- You might find starter culture written on the labels of some sauerkraut. Some companies use this culture to boost the beneficial bacteria at the beginning of the fermentation process.
How to make sauerkraut at home?
- Pale green cabbage: 2kg
- Coarse crystal sea salt: 3 tablespoons
- Caraway seeds: 1 teaspoon (optional)
- Peppercorns: 1 teaspoon (optional)
- Take a large bowl and clean it thoroughly with boiling water.
- Shred the cabbage thinly. Layer the cabbage and salt in the container. Now rub salt into cabbage till the cabbage is reduced in volume and sitting in its brine. Now mix the peppercorns and caraway seeds.
- Cover the cabbage entirely with a sheet of cling film. Weigh the cabbage down with a weight or plate and cover it as much as possible. The level of brine should cover the cabbage entirely. Cover the tub with its lid and store it at a room temperature of around 15 to 20 C for at least five days. It takes between two to six weeks for the cabbage to ferment completely.
- Check the cabbage every other day to release any gasses that may have built up as it ferments. If any scum forms, remove it. Rinse the weights in boiling water and place them again. You will see some bubbles forming in the cabbage and some foam on top of the brine, which is normal.
- The cabbage will become increasingly sour as it ferments. Once it is ready, transfer it to smaller sterilized jars and store it in the refrigerator.
Sauerkraut is made from thinly sliced or shredded cabbage that is naturally fermented by various bacteria. It is rich in probiotics, vitamin K, and several other beneficial compounds. Sauerkraut improves digestive health, boosts immunity, prevents heart disease, supports brain health, reduces stress, and helps in weight loss.