Tuesday, October 15, 2013

10 Reasons to Make and Eat Sauerkraut (and Other Lacto-Fermented Foods and Beverages)

Sauerkraut Ready to Be Fermented

1.  Probiotics = Healthy Bacteria.  Thanks to advertising for many popular yogurt brands, most people are familiar with the term probiotics (good bacteria that are necessary for the health of our digestive tract and our immune systems).  For the health of our guts (and the rest of our body), we need a proper balance of good bacteria to populate our guts, or we run the risk of an overpopulation of bad microorganisms that can make us ill.  Due to many issues of our modern diets and lifestyles (such as too much stress, sugar, toxins, and antibiotics that kill both the bad and the good bacteria), the environment in our guts can become much more favorable to bad bacteria, and then we increase our vulnerability to infections.  A large portion of our immune system is actually in our guts, so having the proper balance of good bacteria is extremely important for staying healthy.  Through the process of lacto-fermentation, foods such as sauerkraut are teaming with a variety of these healthy bacteria that are extremely important for our health.

I have personally found that by consuming properly prepared raw fermented foods and beverages like sauerkraut and kombucha, my health has been more positively impacted than by taking a probiotic supplement alone.  While probiotic supplements can be extremely important if you have no other source of probiotics, you never know how many bacteria are still alive in them by the time you consume them, and you don't receive as wide a variety of good bacteria than with lacto-fermented foods that you can easily make yourself at home.

2.  Tasty Goodness!  Lacto-fermented foods and beverages just taste great!  Did you know that many of the common foods, condiments and beverages that we consume in the Western diet have a basis in traditional fermentation?  Foods and beverages such as coffee, chocolate, yogurt, cheese, beer, ketchup, wine, bread, soy sauce, ginger ale and ginger beer (a non-alcoholic fermented beverage), root beer and pickles all have preparation traditions in fermentation.  Be aware, however, that the industrial forms of many of these foods no longer have the same level of nutrition that their traditionally prepared counterparts contain, since many of these industrialized products contain vinegar or other preservatives instead of beneficial probiotic cultures.   Personal preferences may vary regarding which particular fermented foods and beverages you like, and some of them may take a little getting used to since many people aren't used to consuming these types of foods in today's Western diet.  Taste and experiment for yourself!  

3.  Easy to Make.  Making lacto-fermented foods is fairly simple and generally doesn't require a lot of fancy or expensive equipment.  Often what you already have in your kitchen will suffice to make many of these concoctions such as: kitchen knives, bowls, a good quality sea salt, spices or herbs of your choice, wooden spoons or other instrument to pound and bruise vegetables, and sometimes purified or spring water to make a brine.  To ferment veggies, you can use quart mason jars, or you can use fermentation crocks if you happen to have them (they are nice, but not necessary- for all of the batches of sauerkraut that I've made over the last several years, I've just used mason jars).  To ferment beverages such as kombucha, a starter culture is typically needed, such as a kombucha mother (also known as a SCOBY, or a Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria), kefir grains for water or dairy kefirs, or a ginger bug to make ginger beer.  

In my opinion, lacto-fermentation is much less precise, and requires far less preparation than canning.  Generally, you simply need to provide the right kind of environment for the good bacteria and other microorganisms to thrive in, such as a salty brine or by using a starter culture to kick-start the process and to keep the putrifying organisms from gaining a foothold, and you should be successful.  

4.  Inexpensive to Make.  To make many of the different kinds of fermented foods and beverages, you generally only need a few simple ingredients, such as your veggies, some quality sea salt, and your chosen herbs/spices, and water.  It's even cheaper if you grow your own veggies in your garden at home.  You can add whey as a starter culture to ferment vegetables, but I never have done this due to my milk sensitivities, and my fermented veggies have still turned out fine without it.  Making these foods and beverages at home is far cheaper than buying the prepared raw fermented foods at the grocery store or food co-op, and much cheaper than most high quality probiotic supplements on the market.

5.  Powerful Nutrition.  The process of lacto-fermentation makes many vegetables even more nutritious than before they were fermented.  Along with good bacteria, fermented veggies contain lactic acid and choline that are produced during the fermentation process.  The lactic acid present in these fermented foods help to protect the body from infections and to stimulate pancreatic secretions, and choline has been found to help lower blood pressure and to help the body metabolize fats. According to author Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions, eating lacto-fermented vegetables can possibly help those with health issues such as asthma, skin problems, and auto-immune disorders, help to normalize stomach acid, assist with the digestion of protein as well as the assimilation of iron in the diet, and much more.

6.  Fun with Biology.  To me, each batch of lacto-fermented veggies or beverages is like an experiment, exhibiting biology in action with the almost magical transformation of one type of food into another.   Each batch may taste a little differently than the last, depending on the wild bacteria and other microorganisms that are present in the environment, which can vary during different environmental conditions, such as air temperature.  I think that it's a lot of fun to taste these "experiments" after the fermentation period is over.  It's like biology class, but much tastier. 

7.  It's Alive!  Sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented foods are living, raw foods.  They contain all of the enzymes and good bacteria that are so sought after in raw foods that many of us simply don't consume enough of in our modern diets.

8.  Preserve Your Harvest.  Lacto-fermentation is a relatively easy way to preserve those seasonal goodies for storage that you have harvested from your garden, or picked up at your local farmers market or weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription.  Fermentation also offers a great solution to conundrums such as, "What on earth am I going to do with all of those cucumbers?"  Many of the lacto-fermented veggies will last for many months if stored properly (such as in a refrigerator if using the mason jar method, or in a cool, dry basement if using a fermentation crock).

9.  Sauerkraut is a Good Source of Vitamin C.  On Captain Cook's historic sea voyage, barrels of sauerkraut were carried on board the ship and helped the crew to successfully avoid developing scurvy from the long trip and lack of fresh foods. 

10.  Use Your Creative Genius.  Unlike canning, with it's requirements of exact ingredient measurement, temperature, and pH to avoid spoilage and unhealthy conditions if guidelines are not precisely followed,  lacto-fermenation offers a lot more room for creativity when it comes to using different ingredients.  As previously mentioned, as long as you follow basic guidelines to provide the optimal environment for the right kind of microorganisms to thrive in, you should be successful and have created a safe and tasty product that has retained much of the original nutritional value and can be enjoyed raw.

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