The title of this article was no accident: sauerkraut has long been credited with having almost magical powers extending way beyond health. In Belgium’s Liège region, eating sauerkraut on January 1 is said to guarantee you a prosperous year provided that you also slip a coin under your plate and then put it (the coin, not the sauerkraut) into one of your pockets to carry it around for a year. The tradition, which has been around for centuries, draws people to the local brasseries in droves. And sauerkraut has another almost magical power: the ability to whisk away the previous day’s excesses.
But I’m getting a head of myself (Get it? A head... of cabbage?)... Before sauerkraut, there was cabbage. Quickly adopted by Canadian farmers for its ability to withstand really cold weather, cabbage can be stored for a long time and prepared in many ways. From a nutritional standpoint, this cruciferous vegetable is packed with:
- Antioxidants, almost magical substances that protect the body from nasty free radicals, which speed up cellular ageing and the development of cancer cells
- Fibre, which promotes bowel function
- Vitamin C, which not only has an antioxidant effect, but also contributes to tooth and gum health, promotes iron absorption and protects the body against infections; it’s also necessary for the formation of skin, muscles, cartilage, tendons and blood vessels.
The concept of fermenting vegetables has been around for ages, dating back to prehistoric times. Sauerkraut is a slightly more recent phenomenon: in the 11th or 12th century, cabbage was being fermented throughout all of Eastern Europe. It was only by the 15th century that this long tradition was transformed, becoming “sauerkraut,” a word that first appeared in print in 1470. But more important than the name is the method: what interests us is the shredded cabbage.
Back then, sauerkraut was prepared at home, and an artisan would go from door to door with a huge grater so that families could make their own sauerkraut using a process that hasn’t changed since. Shredded cabbage is layered in casks, each layer separated by salt, and then pressed to get rid of any air pockets. The cabbage releases its juice and, left to its own devices, undergoes complete lactic fermentation in around three to four weeks.
In Asia, particularly in Korea, the same fermentation technique developed in parallel. Kimchi, which is all the rage these days, is basically sauerkraut made with Chinese cabbage and spices. Instead of using casks or clay pots, the shredded cabbage is fermented in jars that are buried for the time it takes for the cabbage to ferment. The result, kimchi, is a staple of Koreans’ diet.
Once fermented, cabbage isn’t cabbage anymore: it becomes sauerkraut after undergoing an irreversible transformation. The same process turns cucumbers into pickles, soy into miso and milk into yogurt. Sauerkraut has its own qualities and nutrients, which by far outstrip cabbage’s.
In fact, one cup of sauerkraut provides 4 grams of fibre, 35% of our daily vitamin C requirement, 12% of our daily iron requirement, and much more. And it has only 27 calories! Though they weren’t aware of sauerkraut’s vitamin C content, the mariners of the Age of Exploration were already aware of its benefits to sailors’ health. They took huge casks of sauerkraut on board with them on their long journeys to prevent scurvy.
Above and beyond its nutrients, sauerkraut has another surprising feature: bacteria! During the lactofermentation process, naturally occurring bacteria feed off the sugars and starches contained in the cabbage, producing lactic acid in the process. In fact, the lactofermentation process creates an environment that’s ideal not only for preservation, but also for enzymes, B vitamins, omega-3 and several kinds of friendly bacteria. In other words, sauerkraut is an outstanding source of probiotics!
Sure, you can get probiotics in supplement form, but this solution is more costly and typically used to treat specific ailments or to recover from a bout of gastroenteritis. As a daily source of probiotics, sauerkraut and other lactofermented foods outperform supplements by a country mile.
As research continues, we’re discovering more about the positive influence probiotic foods have on our health. In fact, they appear to have benefits that work against allergies, arthritis, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, digestive disorders and even anxiety. According to a recent study published in the journal Psychology Research, fermented foods containing probiotics can lessen the symptoms of social anxiety.
The lactofermentation that takes place during the production of sauerkraut is a natural phenomenon that preserves and transforms foods. You can easily find other foods preserved this way, but make sure to read the label carefully, because many vegetables are simply marinated in vinegar and aren’t lactofermented. You can also make sauerkraut at home: the process is simple, though people’s first attempts often end up in the compost bin.
According to German tradition, sauerkraut is eaten cooked, with sausages and cold cuts, but if you really want to fully benefit from its nutrients, you should eat it raw. It makes for an excellent side dish and adds a fantastic touch to sandwiches.
True sauerkraut aficionados have long known about the virtues of sauerkraut juice. Yup, you read right! Sauerkraut juice. Swiss juice company Biotta produces a nutrient-packed sauerkraut juice. A single glass contains 120% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C. The juice is preserved by the naturally occurring lactic acid, and like sauerkraut, it has a beneficial effect on your intestinal flora.
So go try some kimchi, sauerkraut juice or sauerkraut: you’re bound to find your favourite! And if you like them all, then more sauer to you!
Psychiatry Res. 2015 Aug 15;228(2):203-8.