What Are the Health Benefits of Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is great addition to salads, sandwiches and wraps, pairs well with eggs, and is perfect on sausages. But it provides so much more than great flavor. Sauerkraut boasts some impressive health benefits, but only if you know which kind to buy. Here are some health benefits of sauerkraut and a guide to picking one with the best nutritional value.
Sauerkraut and fermentation
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage that's used as a condiment or tasty side dish. It's made through a process known as fermentation, and uses relatively simple ingredients — just cabbage and salt. It's the fermentation process that's so important because it's what gives sauerkraut its distinct flavor and health benefits.
When cabbage and salt are packed into a container and left to ferment, the cabbage begins to release liquid and creates its own brine. Cabbage naturally has lactobacillus bacteria on its leafy surface. When in the brine solution, these bacteria start to convert the carbohydrates in cabbage into lactic acid, which act as a natural preservative for the sauerkraut. That's why there are no additives and preservatives needed in properly made sauerkraut.
After 3 to 20 days in the brine solution, the cabbage begins to ferment into a sour, salty side dish. The longer it ferments, the more the flavor will change. If you're making it at home, it's really up to your individual taste buds to decide when it's ready to eat. If you're buying a commercial brand, they will all taste a bit different depending on how they are made.
Nutrients in sauerkraut
As a side dish, a cup of sauerkraut contains just 30 calories, but boasts and impressive four grams of fiber, and is a source of vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, potassium and folate. Some brands are very high in salt, so read labels and compare.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, some types of sauerkraut may contain beneficial probiotics. These are live microorganisms that are being studied for their ability to confer health benefits to humans, including improved gut health and maintaining a well-functioning immune system.
Health benefits of sauerkraut
Studies have shown that eating fermented foods may be associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, and it's likely due to bacteria such as lactobacillus. Eating fermented foods may improve gut health and enhance immune and anti-inflammatory responses.
Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut have also been studied for their ability to help lower blood pressure levels. In one study, researchers added sauerkraut to the diet of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). They found that sauerkraut improved the symptoms of IBS, and led to changes in the gut microbiome.
Foods were traditionally fermented to prolong shelf life and keep them safely preserved, but researchers soon discovered that there also a host of health benefits from fermented foods. The benefits may be due to probiotics, or could come from some other benefit from the fermentation process.
During fermentation, lactic acid bacteria help synthesize vitamins and minerals, make the enzymes that help digest proteins, and help eliminate anti-nutrients from food, such as phytates in grains. These factors can all help aid digestion, and are some reasons why sauerkraut is good for gut health.
Does all sauerkraut contain probiotics?
It's important to clarify this here: All sauerkraut is made by fermentation, but not all sauerkraut contains high levels of active probiotics.
A review of studies shows that some types of sauerkraut may have a probiotic effect. One study looked specifically at 114 different lactic acid bacteria in sauerkraut, and the researchers identified three strains with probiotic potential. Of course, these strains are not found in all brands of sauerkraut.
Does cooking destroy sauerkraut's probiotics?
Using sauerkraut in recipes is delicious, but the heat used in cooking sauerkraut will kill probiotics. If you do cook your sauerkraut, serve a bit extra as a raw side dish or condiment to reap the most benefit!
How much sauerkraut should I eat?
If you're looking to eat sauerkraut for its health benefits, you may be wondering how much sauerkraut you should eat for gut health. To promote overall gut health, try incorporating regular amounts of naturally fermented raw sauerkraut into your diet on a consistent basis along with a variety of other fermented, probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha.
How to buy sauerkraut with probiotics
If you're buying sauerkraut to add flavor to meals, choose any brand you like. But if you're specifically looking for the health benefits from a fermented product that may contain probiotics, there's more you need to know.
A recent study properly defined 'fermented foods' and differentiated between those that contain probiotics and those that do not. There is hope that the food industry will adopt these globally agreed-upon definitions to properly identify fermented foods that contain probiotics. This would help consumers easily find these products on store shelves.
Until then, here are some hints for buying probiotic-rich sauerkraut.
- The only ingredients should be cabbage and salt. It should not contain sugar, preservatives, vinegar or food additives.
- Buy sauerkraut from the refrigerator section, rather than in a can or shelf-stable jar. Refrigerated options contain more probiotics.
- Look for on-pack words such as 'raw,' 'unpasteurized,' 'perishable' and 'keep refrigerated. Lactic acid is a preservative, so addition pasteurization is not needed.
- If it is pasteurized, look for a method that uses low heat. Some brands state 'low heat pasteurization' on the jar. Remember: high heat pasteurization kills probiotic bacteria.
- Choose one that specifically says it's a source of lactobacilli, or even specifically names the strain. For example, it may say L. plantarum 299v, which is a strain with probiotic properties.
How to make fermented sauerkraut
You can also make your own fermented sauerkraut at home to reap the potential health benefits of sauerkraut. Just as with sauerkraut you buy at the store, avoid recipes that call for vinegar; instead look for a recipe that contains just cabbage and salt, with optional flavorings such as caraway seeds.
Try this recipe for Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut, which is made using the natural fermentation process.