If you’ve ever lined up for a classic hot dog on a hot day on campus, you may have reached for the yellow-white sauerkraut perched on the toppings table. The fermented cabbage sure dresses up that hot dog, but did you know this tasty flavour enhancer has a number of health benefits? Eating sauerkraut introduces a variety of “good bacteria” (probiotics) into the gut that control inflammation, boost immunity, keep the lining of the gut healthy, supply vitamins (particularly K2), and help with digestion. On top of all that, sauerkraut can also serve as a laxative!
Although sauerkraut is commonly associated with Germany, the practice of chopping cabbage, loading it with salt, pressing out the water, submerging it in brine, and then letting it sit for a couple of weeks dates back to approximately 2000 years ago. Chinese workers building the Great Wall of China subsisted on fermented cabbage and rice.
Fermentation is a process that causes chemical changes in food or drink brought about by enzymes produced by yeasts or bacteria. In the case of sauerkraut, naturally occurring bacteria found in the air settle on cabbage leaves and multiply. Those in the lactobacilli family produce lactic acid, the compound responsible for the sour taste. More importantly, these bacteria help to break down food, enhance the absorption of nutrients and limit the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Basically, lactic acid-producing bacteria, also found in other fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and kimchi, contribute to a properly functioning “microbiome,” the community of microorganisms in our gut.
Lactic acid shortens the time it takes for the food we eat to be transported through (and out of) our digestive systems. For example, nursing home residents given lactic acid bacteria were shown to have an increase in defecation frequency. Sauerkraut also has a high fiber content that helps with constipation by making stools softer, and simultaneously increasing its mass and volume. This bulkiness makes for easier passage through the digestive tract and quicker elimination.
So if sauerkraut has all these benefits, should we be loading up on the stuff? No. More isn’t better. An excess can cause diarrhea and bloating. There is also the issue of sodium. But the good news is that about one spoonful (10 grams) is enough to supply a significant dose of “good” bacteria, and with this amount there is no concern about sodium.
That spoonful is roughly what one would put on a hot dog. And there is good evidence that eating this amount on a daily basis helps to ensure a healthy microbiome. Just be sure to leave out the hot dog.
As far as a laxative goes, sauerkraut will never work as efficiently and smoothly as the over-the-counter constipation remedies; but if ever there’s ever a run on Ex-Lax, a quick trip to the sauerkraut section of your supermarket could save the day!
Haleh Cohn just finished her first year at McGill University and is interested in the health sciences.