Gut health is so hot right now. Eating foods that support your gut’s healthy bacteria is widely believed to be the key to better health in all aspects: better energy, immunity, mood, digestion, sleep…the list goes on. But while plenty of people are talking about the microbiome, the OG fermented food, sauerkraut, is getting shoved in a dark corner while kombucha, probiotic supplements, and more steal the show.
But that’s unfair, because sauerkraut—you know, fermented cabbage—is a probiotic food that offers up a ton of health benefits. (It’s a great addition on a sandwich, too.) Here, nutritionist and registered dietitian Erica Ingraham, RND gives the low-down on sauerkraut’s benefits, plus her top tips on making sure you’re truly getting nutritional bang for your buck when you buy it.
What are sauerkraut’s benefits?
1. Yes, it’s good for your gut. This is the major reason why healthy eaters are so into sauerkraut. One small pilot study found that regularly eating sauerkraut can help reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). When researchers analyzed the participants’ stool in the lab, they found an uptick in good bacteria. The fermented food is rich in probiotics, which have been associated with better gut health.
“Sauerkraut also contains dietary fiber which aids digestion, balances blood sugar, and may help lower cholesterol,” Ingraham says. “Adding fiber to your meal also makes it more satisfying and keeps you full for longer,” she says. One cup of sauerkraut has four grams of fiber, a nice drop in the recommended 25 grams you want to get a day.
2. It’s good for your immune system. Ingraham says this is one of ‘kraut’s benefits that’s largely overlooked. “Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C, which is essential for supporting the immune system,” she says. One cup packs 21 milligrams of vitamin C, about 28 percent of your recommended daily intake of 75 milligrams a day.
3. It’s a good source of vitamin K. This is another oft-overlooked benefit of the fermented cabbage, Ingraham says. “It bolsters bone health and heart health,” she says of its benefits. One cup of sauerkraut has 19 micrograms, which is about 20 percent of what you need for the entire day.
4. Sauerkraut is easy to digest. Another reason why you might want to opt for sauerkraut over unfermented cabbage is that it’s a bit easier on your stomach. “Some people may find that sauerkraut is easier to digest than raw cabbage,” Ingraham says. “In fermentation, the bacteria begin the digestion process for you, so by the time it hits your mouth some of the work is already done.” Plus, she says that sauerkraut naturally contains enzymes that make the actual digestion process a bit easier. Thus, “people with IBS may find that sauerkraut and probiotic foods help alleviate uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and gas.”
5. It could reduce the risk of cancer. “Both sauerkraut and cabbage are good sources of glucosinolates and ascorbigen, which are cancer-fighting compounds,” Ingraham explains. “Sauerkraut and cabbage contain sulforaphane, a compound that may block HDAC enzymes, which is an enzyme class involved in cancer development. However, more research is needed to determine sauerkraut’s effect on cancer prevention.”
6. Sauerkraut could be good for brain health. “As a fermented food, sauerkraut may support mental health,” Ingraham says. “The gut and brain are closely connected and there is emerging research that probiotic foods, including sauerkraut, may help improve memory, support cognition, and alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety.” She adds that more studies still need to be done in order to learn more about the connection.
How to buy the healthiest possible sauerkraut
Okay, so it’s pretty clear that sauerkraut can benefit the body in a lot of ways. But there’s a caveat to all of this: not everything you see on store shelves is nutrient-dense. “If a sauerkraut product contains vinegar and is pasteurized, it does not offer probiotic benefits,” Ingraham says. “The beneficial bacteria is killed off by the high heat during the pasteurization process.” She recommends avoiding the shelf-stable stuff and looking for an unpasteurized product that does not contain vinegar. “Look for a brand in the refrigerated section, from your local farmer’s market, or one that has ‘live and active cultures’ on the label.”
Additionally, Ingraham says it’s a good idea to eye the sodium levels. “Some people are concerned about the sodium content in commercially- prepared sauerkraut,” she says—a fair concern, since a cup can contain upwards of 900 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly 40 percent of your recommended daily intake. “If you prefer less sodium, it’s easy to make your own version at home.”
However, it’s impossible to make sauerkraut without salt—it acts as a preservative, she says. “Specifically, the salt prevents growth of gram negative bacteria and promotes the growth of the beneficial lactobacilli bacteria.”
How to make your own sauerkraut
Literally all you need to make your own sauerkraut is cabbage, salt, water, and something to put it all in (such as a mason jar). If you want a specific recipe, try this one from The Real Food RDs, which calls for 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of shredded cabbage and 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of salt.
According to Ferment Works co-founder Kristen Shockey, you can play around with different types of cabbage to find a flavor you like best. “Each cabbage offers different flavors and textures,” she says. “Of course the health components are also a little different between a green and red cabbage because the red-purple pigment is quite healthy.”
Shockey offers this big tip for beginning fermenters: trust yourself and the process. “It’s very safe,” she says. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t trust the ferment, they put it in the fridge and don’t eat it or worse throw it out, because they are scared of it—this might just be one of the biggest mistakes.”
Once you’ve mixed up your salt-cabbage-water situation and put it in a covered glass container, Shockey says you should keep it on the counter out of direct sunlight for up to 20 days. “Direct sunlight’s UV rays can cause some issue for the microbes, but I have never had a problem with that,” she says. “I think a bigger issue is that it can get too warm in that situation.”
Once it’s ready, you can start eating it and storing it in the fridge when you’re not busy piling it on your plate. “Beyond being delicious, healthy fermented vegetables are one of the easiest things you can make,” Shockey says. “They last well refrigerated and become convenience food in your fridge for when you need a little something special to add to the meal.”
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