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Sauerkraut

    May-22-2008

Sauerkraut is a traditional German food made from cabbage that is considered to be a nutritious wholesome food; it has a long shelf life and a unique sour taste. It is also common as a food item in many northern European countries and in the continent as a whole. The nutritional properties of sauerkraut as a food mirror many other traditional foods that are all highly regarded as nutritional culinary treasures in their own right. Sauerkraut is almost synonymous with being German and is strongly identified with German culture. The name Sauerkraut is derived from two German words, “Sauer” which is translated as sour English and “kraut”, the German word for cabbage - the vegetable that is used in making it. Thus, in English it can be translated as sour cabbage. Recent research suggests that this preserved food is much better nutritionally than many other vegetable foods; it is high in essential vitamins, many important minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals. It has strong anti-oxidant properties according to recent Finnish studies and is said to contain many beneficial bacteria that strengthen the process of digestion in the stomach. Some research suggest that it may even be an aphrodisiac, all in all, this humble food is considered to be a general nourishing agent and acts as a potent nutritional medicine that can be used in treating many disorders. It is a staple in most German households and is produced by the lactic acid fermentation of cabbages. In fact, while sauerkraut is a German food, preserved cabbages have a long tradition outside as well and are staples in many other cultures across the world including Asia. Sour preserved cabbages, and other preserved vegetables, are a staple food and feature in many other Asian and Eastern European cuisines as well. All of these preserved foods are well known for their medicinal properties and are considered good wholesome foods.

As with many other food items that have been passed by travelers moving from one place to another in the course of human history, the nomadic Tartars are said to have brought the sauerkraut to Europe. These migratory peoples are said to have come across fermented cabbage in ancient China and adopted it and brought it with them to Europe where it found a home. The Chinese have a very ancient tradition of preserving and fermenting different foods and it is likely that this food item originated in that country. In present day Asia, however, the Korean style fermented cabbage known as Kimchi is the most well known food, this fermented Korean food contains cabbages and is spiced with other commonly available vegetables such as radishes and turnips, as well as scallions, other local vegetables and may also include sea food. In Korea, sour cabbages are usually spiced up by the addition of ginger and garlic, as well as hot red chili pepper; it also includes fish sauce in most cases. Koreans are identified with Kimchi, which can be considered to be a national passion and staple food among both the populations of South and North Korea. Traditionally, Kimchi was a way of preserving seasonal vegetables to tide a family over the winter months. Koreans love their Kimchi, and results from a research by the Korean Food Research Institute suggest that an average adult in Korea will consume more than four oz of Kimchi every day, annually. While Kimchi has firm Korean roots, it has been exported as a culinary item to many other countries, for example, the biggest importer of Korean kimchi are the Japanese - who have also taken to the food in recent times. Kimchi has also found aficionados in many other places around the globe and is very much a part of the new international cuisine.

Sauerkraut has also been used in Germany for medicinal purposes, traditionally in many parts of southern Germany, some families would feed the children raw sauerkraut two times every week - this was believed to support and strengthen the intestines of these children. A French version of the sauerkraut also exists, and this fermented cabbage dish is called “Choucroute” in France - it is also a traditional dish in many places in France. At the same time, fermented cabbage dishes similar to sauerkraut are common across Europe - each place has its own style influenced by the culture and culinary practices of the people living there. Whole cabbages are fermented and soured in the Balkan countries of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina - big barrels are used for the fermentation process. The soured and fermented cabbages are sweetened with apples in the Russian style of making this dish. Therefore, it is quite likely that one can come across a variant of fermented cabbage used as food across the globe. It may well be one of the most widespread traditional dishes around.

Natural lactic acid fermentation and the beneficial effects

Food was preserved in the old days before the arrival of refrigeration, using the lactic acid fermentation process - pickling foods by souring them was one of the ways in which seasonal foods could be stored for a rainy day in ancient times. Most fruits and vegetables normally have some lactic acid producing bacteria or LAB's that occur naturally on the surface, these bacteria are found in greatest numbers on fruits or vegetables that grow at ground level. Natural fermentation of ripe fruits and vegetables can occur under certain conditions, in which certain chemical processes are initiated by the bacteria acting on the starches and sugars in the plant chemically converting these compounds to the product lactic acid - this occurs in nature and may help enhance the digestibility of the fruit or the vegetable; even leading to an increase in the nutritional value of the fruit or the vegetable. The action of lactic acid in the process of digestion of food is beneficial in many aspects, as it actively inhibits the growth of putrefying bacteria inside the lumen of the intestinal tract - often directly enhancing the growth of healthy gut flora already present in the body. At the same time, foods that have been fermented by LAB also aid in balancing out the levels of acids in the stomach and actively stimulate the pancreatic secretions - this action tends to strengthen the general digestion process.

The process of fermenting sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is a fermented food and therefore has a sour taste. The fermentation of the cabbage into the product called sauerkraut is not carried out by a single type of microorganism but involves numerous strains that give the food its unique taste - this surprises many lay people who think that a single microbial agent is involved in the production of this food item. Indeed, many different microorganisms take a part in forming the sauerkraut, similar to other foods that also undergo the fermentation process; a succession of several different microbial strains contribute to the final product. The process of fermentation is started by a species of bacteria called the Coli-form bacteria; this is the first stage in the process. This particular strain of bacteria is widely distributed and grows in most environments, which includes soils on which plants are cultivated. Coli-form bacteria are not pathogenic and do not cause diseases; they are beneficial strains and a major aid in the fermentation of vegetables and fruits. The major role that Coli-form bacteria play in the fermentation process is connected to their capacity to produce acids from starches and sugars in the fruits and vegetables; lactic acid and many other organic acids are produced during this fermentation process. The production of acids increases the acidity of the internal environment making it suitable for Leuconostoc bacteria to multiply and take the fermentation process further along the chain. The culture or the environment turns increasing acidic as the Leuconostoc bacteria become the most abundant strain and the fermentation process can be said to have moved to the next stage. The pH of the culture becomes very low as more acids enter it, and the fermentation process is taken over by the Lactobacillus bacteria which start producing mainly lactic acid, further decreasing the pH. The process of sauerkraut formation will thus be the preserve of these successive process carried out by the three different strains of bacteria, each of which contributes to the process. The pH or the acidity of the culture is the primary pivot around which each stage of the process revolves. The final product is the sauerkraut.

Fermentation and its basis

The biological process of fermentation can be defined as the degradation of base organic compounds like sugar and starches into simpler constituents through the action of bacteria under anaerobic conditions. Therefore fermentation is a natural process and occurs extensively in nature. Humans have harnessed a natural process to manufacture different products. One of the most important consequences of the process of fermentation is that it makes fermented foods readily digestible and allows for the rapid assimilation of the nutrients contained in such foods. The process of fermentation thus aids digestion and can be said to have effected much of the biochemical work involved in digestion beforehand - it is thus a great metabolic aid, and is the reason that cows and other ruminants can eat leaves or grasses rich in cellulose, and carbohydrate that is not digestible by the majority of animals. The process of fermentation retains all the vital enzymes, essential vitamins, and other beneficial nutrients in the food as no heat is involved in the process - these useful nutrients are normally destroyed during the processing of food through other means.

Nutrients are in fact usually generated through the active cultures that result in the pre-digestion of the food, this occurs as the natural result of the fermentation process. This results in an increase in the content of vitamins in the food, the B vitamins in particular as well as essential minerals such as iron - the chemical bonds that prevent these nutrients from assimilation are released during the fermentation process. The positive effect is that the nutritional value of any fermented food item rises.

Finally, food is preserved and is protected from spoilage through the process of fermentation - the chemistry of the food undergoes a change that prevents other pathogenic bacteria or fungi to establish themselves. This is the primary beneficial effect of the process as seasonal vegetables, meats and fruits can be stored for times when they are scarce - in fact, the process of fermentation was the first natural process harnessed by humans as a means of preserving food. All human cultures, ancient and modern, have benefited from the process of fermenting foods, wholesome and raw food items are preserved in a manner that retains the vital nutrients in them - this maintains the health benefits associated with fresh food items even when such fresh food items become scarce.

Sauerkraut and health

Among pickled food items, the sauerkraut is clearly one of the most popular LAB - fermented vegetable dishes. One of its benefits for health is the potent anti-carcinogenic properties in the cabbage due to the presence of many anti-oxidant compounds. This is coupled with the benefits accrued from the process of lactic acid fermentation that is used to make it. The cancer fighting ability of sauerkraut was confirmed by the results from a recent nutritional study conducted at the MTT Agrifood Research in Finland. The researchers noted the abundance of anti-oxidants, which are free radical scavengers useful in offsetting cellular damage that can lead to cancer. Sauerkraut contains large amounts of specific antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin; these compounds are proven preservers of ocular health in humans. Sauerkraut is also rich in many diverse and vital nutrients include essential minerals such as calcium and potassium, as well as magnesium, and an abundance of the vitamins C and K. The great thing is that, there is no requirement to consume large amounts of sauerkraut to gain health. Eating just a few tablespoons of the pickled cabbage on a daily basis will suffice for most people. The best way to eat sauerkraut has always been in the form of a side dish along with the main meal, it can also be added to vegetable salads - the main thing is to include some of this food item in the daily diet as a potential health booster. Ideally, one must consume the fresh and unpasteurized sauerkraut, which is usually made available in the refrigerated section of most good health food stores; this product is to be preferred over the canned and pasteurized variety sold in many shops. This is because the heat involved in the process of pasteurization tends to degrade many essential enzymes and results in the depletion of all water soluble vitamins including vitamin C, which are found in abundant amounts in the fresh form of cabbage.

The risk

As sauerkraut is a pickled food, it tends to contain large amounts of chemicals compounds called nitrides and amines, similar to other preserves, especially when it is not made in the proper manner. These have health risks including inducing stomach cancers and migraines in humans. Consumers must buy only the best products to preclude such problems.

Sauerkraut manufacture at home

It is quite easy to prepare sauerkraut at home. The traditional German sauerkraut is made from shredded raw cabbage, good quality fresh cabbages are ideal in preparing the sauerkraut. To make the traditional sauerkraut, good quality raw cabbages can be shredded and then mashed. Once this is done, the mashed pulp of the shredded cabbage and the juice should be salted with the addition of water, a glass canning jar can then be used to pack this mixture for the process of fermentation to occur. The mixture in the glass jar must then be left to stand at room temperature for several days, this time period is necessary to let bacteria initiate the process of fermentation. In several days, the sauerkraut will be ready to eat.

Preparation and storage

Sauerkraut was traditionally prepared and stored in a stoneware crock, a small piece of wet linen cloth, a wood board, and a heavy stone were used as a seal for the crock. While this served for traditional purposes in the olden days, it can be seen that this particular sealing arrangement is not necessarily airtight and could easily lead to spoilage of the sauerkraut contained in the crock - spoilage was always a problem in the old days. In Germany before the modern era, spoilage was avoided by skimming the surface of the brine layer on a daily basis to remove the growth of fungal molds and to get rid of other aerobic contaminants that would grow on the surface exposed to the ambient air in the room.
This problem of spoilage was later averted by an alternative method that relied on the use of a type of ceramic jar that had a trough around the lid to avoid exposure of the brine layer to air. This trough of the lid would be filled with some water, resulting in an airtight seal as the water blocked all air from entering once the other seals were in place.
These days, sauerkraut for domestic use is prepared by using glass canning jars that have clamped thread-less lids which are effective at keeping out air. The added advantage is that the transparent glass allows one to look into the jar and notice the changes in the sauerkraut.
Most people rely on sauerkraut prepared by food manufacturers. Sauerkraut production on the commercial scale normally employs many large airtight plastic barrels that have one way air valves that allow the gases produced by fermentation to escape but do not let ambient air into the barrel.
The most important detail is that whatever the type of vessel employed in the preparation of the sauerkraut, it must be capable of letting fermentation gases escape while preventing contamination from the ambient air.

Sauerkraut and digestion

The process of digestion is aided by the many “friendly” lactobacilli that rapidly multiply during the process of fermentation, this leads to an increase in the levels of vitamins and nutrients in the sauerkraut and indeed in any fermented food product. The fermentation process also leads to the production of a wide variety of beneficial enzymes that aid digestion and can boost the population of healthy intestinal flora found in the human digestive tract. Human health and well being is influenced by a good digestive system, this biological process is a vital influence in almost any kind of health problem a person can face - therefore, an agent that can benefit the digestive process is a good thing. Lactic acid and probiotic bacteria are found in high amounts in non-pasteurized and raw, fermented cabbages - these two components found in sauerkraut are an aid to digestion and might possibly help weaken infections. The growth of harmful pathogenic bacteria such as some strains of E.coli and pathogenic yeasts such as Candida albicans in the digestive tract is precluded by the acidic environment due to lactic acid - the acid also keeps populations of other harmless strains of intestinal bacteria such as E.coli under check, some strains of this bacteria can be potentially harmful if the population growth is not checked. Lactic acid is clinically proven to be capable of keeping the bacterial population growth at negligible levels. At the same time, the growth of beneficial probiotic bacterial flora is not inhibited by the lactic acid. The balance of bacterial populations can therefore be regulated by eating sauerkraut, this is the simplest to protect against an imbalance of bacterial populations in the gastrointestinal tract. The beneficial bacterium strain Lactobacilli plantarum is found in only a few food items, this strain is also abundant in sauerkraut. The helpful bacterium L. planatarum is a dominant strain of probiotic bacteria that is known to actively aid the digestive system by keeping pathogens in check. Free radical scavenging compounds called anti-oxidants are created by the action of L. planatarum and other strains of the “good” microorganisms - these compounds include glutathione and superoxide dismutase that scavenge free radicals and avoid cellular damage that can lead to cancer. These helpful beneficial bacteria aid the digesting of milk sugar, or lactose -one of the hardest sugars to digest in the human body. They also actively neutralize anti-nutrients including phytic acid that is found in all grains used as food and keep the trypsin inhibitors found in soy from disrupting trypsin activity. In general, all fermented foods can be said to aid the assimilation and facilitate the digestive degradation of proteins. Sauerkraut and the juice obtained from pressed sauerkraut have been traditionally known to aid the process of digestion; they were historically used as digestive aids in Europe. Sauerkraut and sauerkraut juice are said to have a soothing effect on the nervous system and are believed to calm the mind. These traditional claims are believed to have a basis, and research suggests that the high proportion of the lactic acid obtained from sauerkraut and sauerkraut juice tends to naturally support the digestive action in the stomach, it also actively aids in the maintenance of intestinal flora, and is said to increase general well being and health. Therefore, sauerkraut may well be one of the healthiest food options around.

The importance of vitamins and minerals

History lessons in school tend to include the scourge of scurvy, a disease now almost unknown caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Scurvy was a major problem for sailors in the old days, many of them would die of scurvy - which is acute vitamin C deficiency - as a result of the prolonged ocean voyages undertaken in the great European Age of Exploration. The British were the first to come to terms with the disease and identified its cause, they found that pickled lemons were the cure for scurvy, this discovery would eventually enable sailors to sail long voyages across uncharted oceans - it would also bring the term “limey” into the language of the world as British sailors would be identified with the pickled lime. Before the discovery of the powers of pickled lime, many thousands of sailors died, however, after the cause of scurvy was identified and a solution found. The British Captain James Cook would be one of the first to make use of pickles and was able to undertake three extensive voyages across the Pacific lasting from 1768 to 1780 without the loss of a single member of the crew to scurvy. The anti-scorbutic agents in the pickles loaded on his ships would enable Cook to keep scurvy at bay. Cook would command his sailors to gather all kinds of fruits, berries and vegetables to turn into pickles whenever his ships struck land. Indeed, lemons were not the only pickles carried on board ships as lime pickles were hard to store for long voyages. In one voyage of discovery, Cook took on a cargo consisting of 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut onboard his ship. This load was sufficient to give each of his seventy sailors at least two pounds of sauerkraut every week for a whole year of endless sailing. Sauerkraut is an excellent source of vitamin C, approximately 30 mg of the vitamin C are contained in every hundred grams of sauerkraut.

Easy access to fresh vegetables and fruits has not always been an option in human history. Society has evolved to a point where fresh fruits and vegetables are available all year round only in the last hundred years - in the pre-modern eras, the only way to avail out of season foods were by preserving them. Thus, fresh cabbage turned into sauerkraut in the summer was one of those preserved foods that were high in vitamin C that could be kept through the winter as a source of nutrients in the old days. Sauerkraut keeps very well, and can last without spoiling for an entire year without requiring heat or further processing. Vitamin C and other water soluble vitamins are very easily degraded by heat.

The importance of vitamin C

The vitamin C is one of the most important vitamins in the body. It is necessary for the formation of collagen in the human body, besides being a highly reducing compound that is capable of a reversible oxidation; it is also a potent antioxidant or free radical scavenger. The vitamin plays an important role in the redox reactions occurring in the body at the cellular level. Some of the other functions of the vitamin C are the promotion of iron absorption in the intestines and the chemical protection of folic acid reductase - an enzyme essential for folic acid utilization. The vitamin C is also notable for its capacity to regenerate other antioxidant compounds including the flavonoids, the vitamin E, and the compound glutathione. Vitamin C also plays an important role in the bio-synthesis of the class of compounds called steroids and participates in the chemical production of the compound carnitine. While all cells require vitamin C, the highest concentrations of this vitamin are lie in the brain, the white blood cells, and the lens of the eye. 1500 mg of vitamin C represent the total pool of the vitamin in the average human body. Any concentration above this level is eliminated through the urine and feces. Vitamin C has a chemical turnover time represented as three percent of the total pool of the vitamin in the body daily. The half-life of this vitamin in the body is thus about eighteen days. This half life period is the reason for the latency period for the appearance of physical symptoms associated with a deficiency once a diet lacking in vitamin C is undertaken.
The efficiency of physiological use of the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in the body is regulated by the vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient as humans cannot produce it, as it is associated with collagen formation, it is necessary for the proper growth and maintenance of all bones, the teeth and gums, the ligaments, and blood vessels in the body. It is a strong antioxidant compound and scavenges cancer causing free radicals in the cells. By far the most important role is its necessity in the formation of the major structural protein collagen - the disruption of this linkage is connected to scurvy and other symptoms. Therefore, vitamin C is essential for all cells and the integrity of the body itself.

Nutritional facts

As a nutritious food choice, the sauerkraut is a perfect candidate for all round nutrition. Sauerkraut is absolutely free of fats, and gives sixty calories to a cup, which in turn provides about six grams of dietary fiber along with lots of vitamin C and other essential minerals as well. The sole ingredient in sauerkraut, the humble cabbage is rich in vitamins that can bolster the immune system and have other beneficial effects. The high vitamin content of sauerkraut can be gauged from the fact that one cup serving of the dish can give one hundred and two percent of the recommended daily intake of the vitamin K and about sixteen percent of recommended daily intake levels of the vitamin C. Beside the vitamins, sauerkraut is also rich in essential minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It is also rich in fiber content, as well as containing substantial amounts of the vitamin B6, folate, and traces of potassium and copper - both essential minerals. Due to the taste and dietary preferences, many people do not like consuming sauerkraut or don't want to do it often. However, considered its nutritional content, it is a surprisingly healthy and versatile food and is a recommended for all homes. Sauerkraut is a versatile dish and can be eaten as part of a soup or a salad or as a low calorie side dish - which is the way most people like it served.

As a nutritious side dish, sauerkraut is suggested whenever meat is to be eaten as the main dish. Eating sauerkraut is also highly recommended when a rich evening meal is to be eaten. The evening meal especially if it is rich is the hardest meal of the day to digest of all meals combined. The reason is that towards the end of the day, fatigue sets in on the body the entire enzyme stores in the body are depleted having already been expended on previous meals earlier in the day. The evening meal is hardest on most people suffering from some sort of digestive disorder. Therefore, sauerkraut is advised as an aid to digestion.

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