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Cabbage becomes healthier by process of fermentation

Sauerkraut or “sour cabbage” is an unusual food known around the world in one form or another. Discovered almost by accident when cabbage was salted down for preservation, it has a long and illustrious history, travelling from China in saddlebags to Europe—where it acquired the name we know it by—then finally to North America with explorers.

The fact that James Cook always took a store of sauerkraut with him on his long sea voyages since he had learned it prevented scurvy (a result of lack of vitamin C) tells us that “sour cabbage” is not only popular on the dinner plate, it also offers significant nutrient value. Indeed, sauerkraut contains all the health benefits associated with cruciferous vegetables (included in this family are cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) and, in addition, contains probiotic advantages derived from the fermentation process.

Sauerkraut starts off as a simple head of cabbage we like in cole slaw and other salads, in Borscht people in the Southeast can't get enough of or layered with hamburger meatballs in Holubschi. We can never go wrong by eating plenty of cabbage—it is high in vitamins A and C, both natural antioxidants that help the body develop resistance against infectious agents and free radicals that harm cells, raising the risk of certain cancers.

Maintains bone health

Cabbage is also rich in several B vitamins and vitamin K which has a role in maintaining bone health and helping to limit neuronal damage in the brain. In addition, it contains an adequate amount of minerals such as potassium, manganese, iron and magnesium.

Sauerkraut is made by a process known as lacto-fermentation which involves layering finely shredded cabbage with salt which is left in a cool place to ferment. Once fully cured, the sauerkraut will keep for several months without refrigeration because of the acidic environment produced by airborne bacteria of many different types, feeding on the natural sugars in cabbage to produce lactic acid.

The fermentation process was developed centuries ago as a means of preserving vegetables for cold winters when fresh vegetables were scarce. Early populations were aware that pickled food such as cabbage was nutritious, but when other means of preservation were discovered, the practice of fermenting foods fell out of favour, although it has always been popular among certain ethnic groups such as German people where it is a favourite with various sausage meats and in Asian culture where fermented dishes have never gone out of style.

Several things happen to create health benefits when cabbage ferments. First of all, the process increases the bioavailability of vitamins and mineral that cabbage contains. In other words, the body is better able to utilize the nutrients mentioned above.

Beneficial bacteria

Fermentation also produces a wide range of beneficial live bacteria (like yogurt which is produced by a similar process) which assist in digestion, promoting the growth of healthy bowel flora and protecting against diseases of the digestive tract such as irritable bowel syndrome by aiding regular elimination of waste and doing away with harmful parasites and yeasts. In Europe, for example, sauerkraut has been used for centuries to treat stomach ulcers.

A study done in 2002 showed that a substance known as isothiocyanates produced in fermentation of cabbage in particular helped to prevent growth of cancer in the gut.

The one issue that may be of concern to people with pre-existing kidney disease or hypertension (high blood pressure) is the rather high sodium content of sauerkraut (as in most pickled foods). Moderation is the key.
For the rest of the population, sauerkraut is a nutritious food that may be regularly included in the diet. Try adding it along with shredded cabbage to soup or Holubschi (for a lovely tang), stew it with smoked pork or bacon like the Germans do or use it as a condiment in hotdogs and burgers.

Sauerkraut is not difficult to make at home, but it does take time and you need proper containers and storage space. It is possible to buy a very acceptable product but make sure what you buy still contains beneficial bacterial organisms.