Without a doubt, gut health is the most exciting topic in the world of nutrition — or at least that’s my opinion. According to research published in PLoS Biology, the human body contains as many microbes as actual human cells. Collectively, these microbes make up the human microbiome and have a huge impact on many aspects of health, from digestion to immunity.
As research uncovers more about the ways probiotics — the healthy live bacteria found in certain foods and supplements — can influence the microbiome, probiotic-rich foods have become increasingly popular. For centuries, even millenia, people depended on their diets to provide and nourish their microbiome. One way that they did this was by eating foods that had been lacto-fermented.
What Are the Benefits of Lacto-Fermentation?
Fermentation was first used as a food preservation method around 6,000 B.C., according to Food and Nutrition. Many of the most popular foods from cultures around the world are fermented, including yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso. Not only does fermentation add a signature flavor to each of these foods, which is important in its own culinary right, but it also adds a healthy dose of probiotics.
During fermentation, bacteria naturally break food down and form lactic acid as a byproduct, which helps keep disease-causing bacteria in check, according to the University of Missouri Extension (PDF). Lactic acid also appears to confer health benefits, according to research.
While further study is needed to determine the exact effects specific bacterial strains may have, some studies have found links between a healthy microbiome and improved immunity, as well as decreased risk of irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and certain types of cancer.
I believe that researchers have only scratched the surface of what they will discover in the next 20 years in this area of study. This belief that has led me to include as many fermented foods in my diet as possible. Lacto-fermented foods are some of my favorite things to eat.
How to Ferment Food at Home
The first time I made sauerkraut at home, I was hooked. I couldn’t believe how easy it was (as long as I followed all of the rules to keep it safe) or how delicious it turned out! My 90-year-old grandfather even said it tasted exactly like the sauerkraut his Polish mother used to make — now, that is a high compliment!
I highly recommend trying your hand at making your own sauerkraut. Not only is it super easy and delicious, but it’s also a cost effective way to eat more cruciferous vegetables (the family of vegetables that includes cabbage, broccoli, and kale). Cruciferous vegetables can decrease inflammation in the body and decrease the risk of certain cancers, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
One of the benefits of making sauerkraut at home is that you know it hasn’t been pasteurized to remove the beneficial microbes. Plus, major bragging rights! Research shows that raw sauerkraut is a rich source of probiotics such as lactobacillus. Eating more fermented foods could be a boon to your health! The majority of store-bought sauerkraut is pasteurized (which kills the good bacteria). To find sauerkraut that has not been pasteurized, look for sauerkraut in the refrigerated section that specifies that the product is “raw.” As an added bonus, research indicates that eating more fermented foods can have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory benefits as well as decrease the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Serve your sauerkraut with tuna salad, pork chops, or on top of avocado toast.
When fermenting sauerkraut at home, cleanliness is crucial. That’s because you’ll be fermenting the cabbage at room temperature, so you want to make sure that you’re not introducing any harmful microbes to the process. In order to ensure this, thoroughly wash and dry any implements you’ll be using, including the glass jar and cover. Boiling the jar in clean water for 10 minutes and allowing it to air dry will kill any harmful organisms according to Penn State Extension.
Homemade sauerkraut is a crisp and delicious side dish or sandwich topping and it’s surprisingly simple to prepare. Because sauerkraut is fermented in the presence of salt, it is a higher sodium food, so keeping an eye on portion size is key.
Serves 8 (serving size: ½ cup)
- 1 medium head cabbage
- 1 ½ tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
- Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and thoroughly rinse the entire head. Chop the cabbage into quarters and remove the core with a sharp knife. Cut the cabbage crosswise into thin strips.
- Place cabbage in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle salt over it. Use your hands to massage and squeeze the cabbage, evenly distributing the salt. Continue to massage the cabbage until it becomes wilty and produces a liquid, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the caraway seeds, if desired.
- Pack the sauerkraut into a clean quart-sized mason jar. Continue packing down to eliminate all of the air from the mason jar.
- To weight the cabbage down, use a fermenting weight or several clean marbles, making sure that all of the cabbage is submerged in the salt liquid. Over the next 24 hours, continue to pack the cabbage down, as needed, to remove any air that is produced and submerge all parts of the cabbage.
- Place the mason jar in an average room temperature (ideally 65 to 75 degrees F) dry location, out of direct sunlight. Allow the cabbage mixture to ferment for 3 to 10 days (depending on how tart you prefer the flavor), checking daily and pressing down as needed. If mold appears, discard the mixture and try again.
Nutrition per serving: 28 calories, 0.1g total fat (0g saturated fat), 1g protein, 7g carbohydrates, 2.8g fiber, 3.6g sugar (0g added sugar), 650mg sodium