Eat Empowered

Superfood Alert: Why We Love Sauerkraut and Why You Should Too

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Should sauerkraut be your new go-to superfood? With all of its gut health and immune-boosting benefits, we definitely think this should become a fridge staple for everyone.

What Exactly is Sauerkraut?

Sauerkraut is not as mysterious as it may seem. It’s simply fermented cabbage. Fermented food has been a big part of many cultures’ cuisines for centuries, although probably less so for the average American. Similar to canning, fermentation is a process that helps to preserve foods. When foods are fermented, bacteria or yeast are introduced to break sugars down into simpler molecules such as alcohols and acids. This process can be as simple as placing vegetables in water with salt, or a starter culture is used.

Breaking down the food does two things: it releases flavor and introduces tons of good microorganisms which can contribute to maintaining a balanced, healthy gut.

When many of us think of sauerkraut, our minds immediately think of hot dog toppings, side dishes and condiments. However, sauerkraut is extremely versatile and can be used in all types of meals and recipes—not just as an add-on.

RELATED: The Best Fermented Foods and How to Add Them to Your Diet

What Are the Health Benefits of Sauerkraut

Building immunity, focusing on mental health, healing your gut, and protecting your microbiome are some of the most important ways to achieve overall health and wellness. Believe it or not, sauerkraut—which is full of gut-friendly bacteria—can help support you in all of these areas.

1. Improve your digestion

Because sauerkraut is a fermented food, it’s loaded with probiotics from good bacteria which help fight off bad bacteria and bring your microbiome back into balance. Good bacteria = good digestion. Fermented foods are like a secret weapon for diversifying your microbiome, which is exactly what we want for optimal digestion. The probiotics help break down your food, minimize bloating and gas, and help trigger regular bowel movements. Studies show that a daily dose of sauerkraut can even reduce symptoms of IBS.

2. Boost immunity and reduce inflammation

Probiotics help support a healthy immune system because our bodies need a diverse microbiome to fight off damaging inflammation. Sauerkraut is full of immune-boosting probiotics and nutrients, especially vitamin C and iron. Additionally, the majority of the immune system is located in the gut! When you think of it that way, you can see why balancing your microbiome becomes extremely important.

3. Heal your gut

We often read about healing our guts, but why do we need to heal our guts? Well, recent research suggests that the bacteria in the guts of Americans is changing. This may be happening because of the lack of microbiome diversity. This lack of diversity is due largely to three factors. The first is the rise of processed foods in the Standard American Diet. The second is the heavy use of antibiotics, which kill off the beneficial organisms in the gut along with the bad ones, according to Dr. David S. Ludwig, MD, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School. The third reason is improved hygiene, which cuts down on the microbes we all get exposed to.

These three factors work to create an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your gut, which leads to health problems. This unhealthy mix can weaken the walls of the intestines, which then start to leak their contents into your bloodstream. This condition is called leaky gut syndrome, or the more technical term: increased intestinal permeability. A leaky gut has been associated with a host of health problems, says Dr. Ludwig, ranging from asthma and eczema to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, can bolster the gut microbiome, creating a healthier mix of microbes and strengthening the walls of the intestines to keep them from leaking.

4. Increase your nutrient intake

Cabbage is a nutrient-dense vegetable that becomes even more so when fermented. Plus, the nutrients are easier to absorb thanks to all the probiotics. Historically, sauerkraut was used as a source of nutrients when fresh food was harder to come by in the winter months. It’s full of lactic acid and tyramines, and plenty of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B, C, and K, iron, folate, riboflavin, thiamine, potassium, and calcium. It’s also a great source of dietary fiber, which can help aid in weight management by making you feel fuller, longer. Sauerkraut even has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic (or cancer-fighting) compounds. I mean, what doesn’t this amazing superfood do?

5. Improve brain health and mood

At Nutritious Life, we talk a lot about the gut-brain connection. The gut is even considered a second brain because it has its own nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), a network of more than 100 million nere cells lining your gastrointestinal tract. The main job of the ENS is, of course, digestion, but it’s also in constant communication with the brain. The majority of serotonin in our body is actually produced in the gut, which is one of the reasons why good bacteria are so important. Good bacteria are also linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety, so if there’s an imbalance, this can definitely affect our mood.

Sauerkraut as the best probiotic in the world. Homemade sauerkraut pickling. Sauerkraut on a wooden table with green leaves as background

Downsides of Sauerkraut

With sauerkraut and other fermented foods, it’s important not to overdo it, and to listen to your gut—literally! Some people have strong intolerances to sauerkraut, and eating too much of it may cause some stomach pain and indigestion as a result of raffinose, a water-soluble carb found in cabbage, which our human small intestine isn’t able to digest. The great thing about sauerkraut is that you don’t need much to receive the benefits. About 1-2 tablespoons a day will do the trick.

Also, if you’re watching your salt consumption, you may want to limit your sauerkraut consumption, as the fermentation process increases the sodium content of sauerkraut vs. fresh or cooked cabbage. It also has a very distinct flavor and texture; it’s typically a bit crispy, tangy, and salty, although sometimes it can even taste a bit sweet. It can definitely be an acquired taste, so if at first you’re not a fan, it’s definitely worth another try.

How to Prepare Sauerkraut

Although you can find sauerkraut stocked at any supermarket these days, be aware that many of the brands on the shelf are not fermented, but instead made with vinegar. To get the health benefits of fermentation, be sure to look for ones that are refrigerated and say that they are “naturally fermented.”

Otherwise, it’s extremely easy to make sauerkraut at home in your own kitchen, in just a few steps. Start by washing and shredding cabbage, add to a jar and top with salt and water, and push down on it over the course of 24 hours to release juices. Leave the cabbage to ferment for 3 to 10 days. Within 3 days you will have made your own delicious sauerkraut! Get the full recipe here.

RELATED: Homemade Sauerkraut

How to Eat Sauerkraut

Including sauerkraut in your daily recipes can be as simple as adding a small handful to a salad, eating it like salsa, or putting some in your burrito. You can also eat it alongside your eggs in the morning, or elevate your avocado toast with this nutritious topping.

Toss a sauerkraut salad, stir-fry some sausage and sauerkraut, whip up some sauerkraut soup, or even add it in your smoothie! The more ways you can find to fit it into your daily recipes, the better.

Beyond Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is far from the only food that is fermented. Foods such as bread (sourdough anyone?) cheese, and wine also offer the benefits of fermentation, according to Sandor Katz, a food activist, fermentation revivalist and author of several books on the topic, including “Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques and Traditions From Around the World

Other fermented foods include: mead, cider, chocolate, coffee, tea, pickles, kimchi, salami, miso, tempeh, vinegar, soy sauce, yogurt, kefir and kombucha.

RELATED: Fermented Beverage Face-Off: Kombucha vs. Kefir

Dig in and enjoy all the gut-transforming benefits that sauerkraut—and fermented foods—have to offer.

(Images: Shutterstock)

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