I never cared much for sauerkraut, always considering it a tragic thing to do to the unassuming cabbage! But since I was experiencing gastrointestinal upsets, my German sister-in-law recommended I add traditionally fermented sauerkraut to my diet, explaining how eating it regularly is great for digestive health and can help heal my gut. Unlike the canned stuff that is pickled in vinegar and pasteurized, her homemade sauerkraut is crisp, juicy and crammed with flavor! Nowadays, I start off my day with a serving of sauerkraut, and always keep a quart or two on hand in the refrigerator!
Every other month or so, my sister-in-law and I get together to have a “sauerkraut party” (my family really knows how to have a good time!), making up large batches of kraut, with the help of my two goofball nephews! Now that I appreciate how consuming fermented foods is so beneficial for healing and maintaining gut health, I love exploring the fermenting possibilities. My latest fixation is water kefir, with two jars currently brewing on my counter!
What is lacto-fermentation anyway?
Since early times, people have known how to preserve food for long periods without the use of canning machines or freezers. They used the process of lacto-fermentation, where the sugars and starches in vegetables and fruits are converted into lactic acid by the many species of lactic-acid producing bacteria. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented foods not only keeps the vegetables and fruit in a state of perfect preservation, but also enhances their digestibility, increases vitamin content, produces numerous beneficial enzymes, and promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.
Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, describes how traditional cultures throughout the world have been producing and eating lacto-fermented foods for centuries, and how they have long understood its medicinal properties. Here are some reasons why you should eat more fermented foods:
Fermentation produces natural probiotics
While our ancestor’s diets would have been packed with live probiotic bacteria, our modern day diet is almost completely lacking. Yet, as we have gained a better understanding of the importance of gut health, so too is the necessity of eating foods that enhance our gut health.
Studies have established that the probiotic strains found in lacto-fermented foods are linked to a wide variety of health benefits:
Many strains of probiotics have been directly linked to reduced bouts of digestive ailments, including constipation and diarrhea
Lactobacillus plantarum has been linked to reduced problems for sufferers of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s), small bowel bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and had a positive effect on the immune systems of those diagnosed with HIV.
Lactobacillus acidophilus in animal studies has shown a preventative effect for polyps, adenomas, and colon cancer.
The probiotics provided in the form of fermented foods are better utilized by our bodies and are a more effective that probiotic supplements - and less expensive! Researchers have focused in on the benefits of specific fermented foods. Sauerkraut, for example, has been shown specifically to fight cancer, aid digestion, and in one study, fend off flu.
Fermentation increases nutrient density
Traditionally lacto-fermented foods became a widespread practice in temperate regions of the world as a means to preserve the nutrients of vegetables and fruits, thus making them available to eat year round. However, the nutrients naturally found in vegetables are not only preserved in the fermentation process, but are actually given a nutrientional a boost. For example, sauerkraut has an increased vitamin C content, higher than that of fresh cabbage. While at sea, famous explorer Captain Cook was known to feed sauerkraut to his crew daily to prevent scurvy.
Fermentation increases digestibility
Vegetables and fruits that are lacto-fermened are essentially pre-digested, where fermentation process actually breaks down the hard to digest cellulose found in many vegetables. Foods in a pre-digested form benefits people with inflamed or impaired gastrointestinal systems. By giving their digestive tract a break, they are more able to break down and assimilate the nutrients. In this way, their bodies get a healing head start at the same time as it’s being replenished with healthy bacteria.