I am connecting with my German heritage through my new-found enthusiasm for sauerkraut. It truly is a wonder food.
Sauerkraut is a lacto-fermented cabbage pickle. Most people assume that pickles are made with vinegar, but sauerkraut at its most basic just consists of cabbage and salt. In a wonderful alchemy, Lactobacillus bacteria naturally present on the cabbage proliferate in a warm place and convert the sugars and starches into lactic acid. This process of fermentation is a very old and universal method of preserving foods, and by carrying on this tradition we tap into ancient knowledge about health. Although sauerkraut is associated with Northern and Eastern Europe, lacto-fermentation is used by many cultures still eating their traditional foods. Kimchi from Korea, for example.
The lacto-fermented food tradition
There are very good reasons why our ancestors developed a tradition around lacto-fermented foods.
Firstly, lacto-fermentation allows the harvest to be preserved for the winter months. A surplus of cabbage or root vegetables in the autumn can be processed and turned into a valuable food source that does not require refrigeration.
Lacto-fermentation makes vegetables more digestible. Not only do the bacteria predigest the carbohydrates so that they are easier for humans to assimilate, but the enzymes that they produce in the process continue their activity in our digestive tracts.
Added nutritional value
Lacto-fermentation makes vegetables more nutritious as the bacteria synthesise substances that are beneficial to us humans, such as vitamin C, lactic acid and anti-viral/fungal agents like hydrogen peroxide. Lacto-fermented foods should be eaten raw so that these helpful bacteria remain viable inside our digestive systems to carry on their good work.
And best of all, these common-sense practical reasons are backed up by the purely epicurean – they taste delicious! Many of us are unaccustomed to sour flavours, and you may have to get used to it. You will find it brings balance and completeness to a meal.
"Disease begins in the gut"
We can only marvel at the wisdom of Hippocrates, who stated that ‘all disease begins in the gut’. When you consider that virtually every molecule in every cell is made up from the breakdown products of what we eat, you will appreciate how important the digestive system is to our state of health. If you are not digesting and absorbing your food optimally then the chances are your body is going without, and health problems are likely to show up in time.
This is where lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut can really make a noticeable difference. Because they contain beneficial bacteria, they help to maintain balance in the digestive tract so that harmful bacteria and other organisms like Candida albicans do not increase to harmful proportions. People generally do not appreciate just how important these little critters are to our health. Our gut contains 1.5 to 2kg bacteria, and they help to kill harmful organisms, help us to digest our food, and make many nutrients that keep us healthy.
Another way in which lacto-fermented vegetables are beneficial is that the lactic acid helps to balance stomach acid production, and so aids protein digestion. I always make a point of eating a tablespoon of sauerkraut with a protein meal, especially red meat. The flavours combine beautifully.
Anyone with digestive symptoms like colic, flatulence, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, as well as diagnoses like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, coeliac disease, Candida overgrowth, or cancer needs to give their digestive system some TLC, part of which should be daily intake of probiotic bacteria such as those found in lacto-fermented foods. Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her excellent book ‘Gut and Psychology Syndrome’ lists many health problems that have been shown to respond to treatment with probiotics, including autism, allergies, chronic viral infection, urogenital infection, liver disease, arthritis, diabetes and autoimmune disorders. It is likely a conservative list. Dr McBride has done a lot of successful work with autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic, ADHD and depressed children, centring her treatment around rebuilding gut health – an important aspect of which is eating probiotic foods.
Quick and easy to make
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It is extremely quick and easy to make sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables. The best recipes I have found are in ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon. As well as vegetables and salt, Fallon adds whey from strained yoghurt or kefir as an innoculant. I have found this method to produce absolutely reliable and tasty results. Like anything, confidence increases with practice, and once you have mastered the basics you are limited only by your imagination as to what combinations of vegetables and herbs or spices you use.
Give it a try and enjoy!
For more info and a recipe, see the Wild Fermentation website.
Sally Fallon, author of Nousishing Traditions is on the board of directors of the Weston A Price Foundation for wise traditons in food, farming and the healing arts.