Sauerkraut seems like an unlikely superfood.
While it's often accompanied by sausages and steins of beer, sauerkraut has nutritional benefits that should not be underestimated. This traditional Eastern European staple is crawling with beneficial compounds that can have a momentous effect on nearly every aspect of human health. Here's why sauerkraut is deservedly catching on as the next big superfood.
What is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is pickled cabbage. To make it, the cabbage is shredded, salted and put in a container such as a mason jar. Over time, a process called lacto-fermentation occurs. Bacteria on the surface of the cabbage begins to convert sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid, which acts as a natural preservative that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria.
Why is Sauerkraut Good for You?
The basic nutrition facts about sauerkraut are solid. A 100-gram serving (about equal to 2/3 cup) contains just 19 calories but packs 3 grams of dietary fiber, 24% of your daily vitamin C and a solid amount Iron, Vitamin B-6 and potassium. Those nutrition facts are pretty good, but they certainly don't scream "superfood." That's because the most beneficial components of sauerkraut don't show up in a typical nutrition facts label.
What's the Secret to Sauerkrauts' Nutritional Benefits?
"Probiotics" is another word for the "good bacteria" that live inside your gut. Sauerkraut is absolutely teeming with probiotics. It's hard to say exactly how many good bacteria are in sauerkraut (since the results of the fermenting process depend on a multitude of factors), but there are literally trillions of bacteria in an average serving.
RELATED: What are Probiotics?
Well, Can't I Eat Probiotics in Other Ways?
Sure, but it's not as easy as you think. Sauerkraut is one of the few foods that contains such a high number of probiotics. Yogurt with live and active cultures is another good source. But after those two, we're left with pickles, kefir, kimchi and raw vinegar. Not everyone enjoys those flavors, and they can be difficult to integrate into your diet on a regular basis.
OK, But What Do Probiotics Actually Do For Me?
A lot. When you ingest probiotics, they enter what's known as the "gut microbiome." The gut microbiome consists of yeasts, fungi and roughly 3 to 4 pounds of bacteria! More than 5,000 species of bacteria live in the gut, and the bacteria balance inside the gut plays a huge role in overall health. "Probiotics are live microorganisms that beneficially affect your gut," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic. "The bacteria that reside in the gut are very diverse and are involved in actions such as supplying essential nutrients, synthesizing vital vitamins, digesting cellulose, promoting nerve function and destroying toxins."
The exact actions and purpose of many bacteria are still a mystery, but projects like the National Institute of Health's Human Microbiome Project are spending massive amounts of time and money to better understand bacteria within the body and to "look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health."
Generally speaking, the more diverse a person's microbiome, the better. Lean, healthy people have more diverse bacteria in their gut than obese, unhealthy people, and the average American gut is less diverse than those of people in other countries with healthier populations. In most cases, a diverse gut equals a healthy gut, one that's adept at keeping the body running optimally.
"The bacteria in the gut is directly linked to an individual's immune system, brain and weight," Kirkpatrick says. This is surprising to many people who associate gut health only with ailments that can be cured with Pepto-Bismol. Thus far, studies have connected the gut microbiome to autism, diabetes, obesity, cancer, IBS, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, allergies, inflammation, acne and more. Gut bacteria can even affect emotions and temperament. One study took gut bacteria from an adventurous, exploratory species of mice and implanted it in a shy, timid species. The result? The shy mice suddenly became more bold and adventurous. And when gut bacteria was taken from the shy mice and implanted in the adventurous mice, they suddenly became more shy and hesitant in their behavior.
How Can The Bacteria in My Gut Have Such a Big Impact on My Health?
That's the big question researchers are still trying to answer, but many believe that something called "leaky gut syndrome" could be a main reason. A "leaky gut" occurs when the gut wall gets irritated or inflamed and loses its selective permeability.
A healthy gut allows only specific beneficial things—like vitamins and amino acids—to escape through the gut wall and into the bloodstream.
A leaky gut loses this ability, often letting harmful things escape from the gut and enter the bloodstream. "When something compromises the gut lining, the defense of the wall is compromised," Andrews says. "Harmful bacteria can escape into your systemic circulation. So these are going from your gut into your blood and lymphatic system and organs."
Things like undigested food particles, toxins and microbes can leave the gut, enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, throwing the immune system out of whack and potentially leading to one or more of the issues mentioned above, including cancer.
I'm Sold. How Do I Go About Including More Sauerkraut in My Diet?
Sauerkraut is incredibly diverse and can be used to add zing to a huge variety of foods—e.g., burgers, chicken, eggs, salads, soups, sandwiches, steamed vegetables. The only limit is your imagination. "Craft sauerkraut" is also a burgeoning business, as companies such as Cleveland Kraut churn out unique products that include additions such as turmeric, jalapeños, sriracha sauce and garlic. It's also easy and inexpensive to create your own kraut, since guides are easily available online.
However, when you shop for sauerkraut, be sure that whatever you purchase is labeled as "raw." This means the sauerkraut hasn't been pasteurized or heated, allowing it to maintain its natural probiotics.
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