The Benefits of Sauerkraut and Fermented Foods
Maintaining a healthy "gut" is one of the most important areas to focus on for optimal health. Not only can maintaining the right balance of friendly bacteria (85%) in the intestinal tract support good digestion, but you are also preventing many conditions and diseases that can begin or simply flourish in an unbalanced environment.
Without beneficial intestinal flora, it is difficult to properly absorb the nutrients from the foods you eat. Undigested carbohydrates get converted into energy and proteins into amino acids by the good bacteria in the digestive tract, making the percentage of them critical to good health. This friendly bacteria also supports a healthy immune system and promotes the production of Vitamin B and K, which the body needs. Many studies even highlight its contribution to weight management and psychological health.
When one has a diet that consists of too many processed grains, sugars and other foods, an environment develops in which the bad bacteria and yeast flourish. Further consuming these foods in excess contributes to a worsening of the condition by feeding the already present yeast. Some diseases or conditions that can develop include IBS, colitis, Chrone’s disease, leaky gut syndrome, urinary tract infections, etc. An unhealthy intestinal tract can also contribute to skin conditions, PMS, bladder cancer, autism, diabetes, and dental problems.
Beyond maintaining a diet that consists of plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, live foods, beans, and whole grains (such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth which don’t feed yeast), including fermented foods in your diet can be the key to achieving long lasting health and vitality.
The term "fermented" simply means that techniques have been employed to preserve the foods by converting sugars and starches into lactic acid, utilizing the naturally present microorganisms in the food. This process lowers the Ph and creates an environment for the production of more good bacteria. Consuming these foods directly increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
If you look at different cultures around the world, you will notice that fermented foods are a staple in their traditional cuisine. Miso, natto and tempeh (from soy), kefir and yogurt (cultured milk), sauerkraut (cabbage), kimchee (cabbage and other vegetables) and pickled foods are examples of popular foods that are fermented. Not only are fermented products nutritionally enriching, they also offer an array of interesting flavors and tastes to enhance the palate.
Unfortunately, many of today’s fermented foods you find packaged on the shelf don’t contain live bacteria. Since the technical definition of fermented vegetables is anything brined in salt, many commercially available products are pasteurized and then just packed in salt and vinegar. Pasteurization is a heating process that extends the shelf life, but also kills all of the live microbes. Most commercial yoghurt for example is cultured first and then pasteurized, destroying the live bacteria, which makes yoghurt so beneficial.
If you can’t find a company that offers authentic fermented products, the best thing to do is make them yourself, which is much simpler then one would think. Here is a quick recipe for homemade sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut (Adapted from the book, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz)
"¨1. Shred or finely chop a head of organic cabbage. You can use any variety that you would like.
2. Sprinkle good quality salt (Celtic or Himalayan) on the cabbage as you go, massaging it in with your hands to pull the moisture out. Note: For an unsalted version, you can even create your own brine by blending some of the mixture into liquid and/or adding a bit of lemon juice.
3. Add some other grated vegetables if you would like. Carrots work well. I also usually add a bit of seaweed, which loses its fishy smell once fermented. Fruits, herbs and spices also work well. Juniper berries are popular. I also like mine with dill.
4. Pack the kraut snugly into a crock, food grade bucket, or glass jar, starting with just a little at a time. Cover the kraut inside the container with a plate or lid and put some sort of weight on top, like a glass filled with water, etc. The kraut will begin to rise and the pressure will help force the water out. Cover with a cloth and leave the kraut to ferment at room temperature, pushing it down every few hours or so for the first 24 hours until the brine rises above the cover. If it’s not rising, you can add a bit more salt water as needed.
5. After 3 days, your kraut will be somewhat fermented and continue to ferment over time. Storing the kraut in a cold place or refrigerator will slow the process.
Properly fermented kraut is generally good for 4 weeks up to several months.
There are all sorts of recipes online so experiment and enjoy the process of being connected to the life of the foods you’re working with. A day’s work can give you enough to last several weeks.
However, if you aren’t able to make your own or just prefer not to, another option is to purchase a good quality probiotic supplement that contains live flora. This will reintroduce good bacteria back into your digestive track and is especially great for when you are taking antibiotics, which kill off ALL bacteria including the good ones.
By focusing on your digestive health, you will reap the benefits on a holistic level and prevent imbalances and disease.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
Kara wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.