By Peter Galvin, MD
Fermented foods can be an important source of certain vitamins and nutrients. But they are also a source of probiotics as they contain strains of the food-fermenting lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc. These bacterial strains are thought to improve the microbiota of the gut by getting rid of harmful strains like Clostridium and others. Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation. Examples of fermented foods include yogurt, kimchi, beer, and sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is a simple food that can easily be made at home and the kids can help. After all, imagine how dull and boring a corned beef Reuben or hot dog would be without sauerkraut?
Simple sauerkraut contains just shredded cabbage and salt. Some people add other items like garlic, caraway seeds, carrots, or beets. The mixture is sealed from the outside air for two to four weeks, then opened and served. Both the high nutritional value of cabbage and the presence of the beneficial bacteria make sauerkraut a food that can provide a wealth of health benefits. Most people prefer to buy their sauerkraut at the store, and that is fine. If you prefer store-bought sauerkraut, be aware of a few facts. Fermented sauerkraut is found in the refrigerated food section. The bag will say fermented and the label may say “contains active cultures,” just as yogurt containers do. Canned or jarred sauerkraut is pasteurized, which kills the active bacteria. While pasteurized sauerkraut contains the same vitamins and minerals as refrigerated, unpasteurized sauerkraut, it has no probiotic value.
Probiotics have been shown to be helpful with some gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. They can also help stave off GI side effects from antibiotics. Proponents of probiotics claim benefits in many other areas such as prevention of diabetes and heart disease, improvements in mental health including memory loss, immune system improvement, and prevention of obesity. Unfortunately, so far studies have failed to back up many of these claims, however sauerkraut does contain vitamins C, K, B6, and folate, plus iron, manganese, fiber, copper, and potassium. It is also low in calories and has zero fat. Plus, despite our current inflation, sauerkraut remains cheap.
When buying sauerkraut, choose only raw, fermented, unpasteurized sauerkraut found in the refrigerated section. Become a label reader – some sauerkraut is made with vinegar and not fermented. Before serving it, don’t cook it. Cooking it kills the beneficial bacteria. Rather, serve it at room temperature if you don’t like it cold. As for food suggestions, the Reuben is the sandwich classically associated with sauerkraut, but it can be added to other sandwiches, for example grilled cheese with tomato. Sauerkraut can be added to dips, salads, soups, Mexican foods, and as a topping on baked and sweet potatoes. And don’t forget a cold beer to wash it all down! Auf ihr wohl! Prost!
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