It’s a proven fact: Sauerkraut is the best hot dog topping (sorry, deli mustard). But did you know that it’s also a nutritional powerhouse? And that you can just eat it by the forkful—no hot dog necessary? Read on for everything you need to know about the many health benefits of sauerkraut, including how to make your own and why we care so much about probiotic foods in the first place.
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What Is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut (which literally means “sour cabbage” in German) was originally invented as a way to preserve cabbage. It’s made by mixing together shredded fresh cabbage and salt, and pressing down on the mixture, which releases water and causes fermentation. It’s usually eaten as a topping on hot dogs or served on top of foods like salads and scrambled eggs, or simply eaten out a jar in the refrigerator.
What Is Sauerkraut’s Nutritional Information?
Per one cup, sauerkraut has…
- 27 calories
- 0 grams fat
- 7 grams carbs
- 4 grams fiber
- 1 gram protein
- 39% of the RDA of sodium
- 35% of the RDA of vitamin C
- 23% of the RDA of vitamin K
- 12% of the RDA of iron
- 11% of the RDA of manganese
What Are the Health Benefits of Sauerkraut?
1. It’s an Excellent Source of Probiotics
We’ll dive deeper into the importance of probiotics and gut health a little later, but we’ll kick things off by saying that one of the most important benefits of sauerkraut is its probiotic prowess. A small study conducted by Denmark’s University of Copenhagen found that when patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) added sauerkraut to their diet, they noticed a reduction of their symptoms.
2. It Contains a Lot of Dietary Fiber
Fiber is one of those nutrients that we know is good for us but we’re not entirely sure why. As it turns out, dietary fiber can aid in digestion, balance blood sugar and possibly help lower cholesterol. Cholesterol-wise, a study published in the World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology found that sauerkraut, specifically, can help to lower levels. Foods with fiber also keep you fuller longer, meaning you won’t be as tempted to overeat (you might even lose weight).
3. It Could Reduce the Risk of Cancer
Adding to sauerkraut’s résumé as a healthy superhero is cancer-related research conducted at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. “Experiments found that high levels of glucosinolates, ascorbigen and ascorbic acid decrease DNA damage and cell mutation rate in cancer patients, and sauerkraut is known to have a high content of these compounds.” But before you fill your entire pantry with jars of fermented cabbage, researchers noted that more studies would be required and that the level of concentration—and therefore efficacy—of those three compounds depends on the fermentation conditions of the cabbage.
4. It Could Promote Brain Health
The brain and the gastrointestinal system are closely connected, meaning that what’s happening in the brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines, and vice versa. According to Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, “A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress or depression.” More research is needed to specifically study the link between specific types of food and mental health, but early studies (like research conducted at Johns Hopkins) have shown that probiotic foods may help improve memory, support cognition and alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety.
How to Make It Yourself
Lucky for us, sauerkraut is incredibly easy to make at home. All you need is cabbage, salt, water and a jar to store it in. Here’s an easy-to-follow recipe from The Real Food Dietitians, which ferments in four to 14 days. In a nutshell, you’ll need to slice the cabbage with a knife or mandoline, massage it with salt—which will create a brine—and transfer it to a jar to ferment in the refrigerator.
If you decide to go the store-bought route (we’re all busy; we get it), there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you’re getting the most nutrients out of the experience. First, buy raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut, since the pasteurized kind doesn’t offer the same probiotic benefits. Also avoid the shelf-stable stuff and opt for a brand in the refrigerated section (they’ll often have “live and active cultures” printed on the label). Lastly, be aware of salt content. It’s impossible to make sauerkraut without it, but if you’re monitoring your sodium intake, it’s important to be aware of how much salt is in the recipe you’re making or the jar you’re buying.
What Are Some Other Probiotic Foods?
OK, we admit it: Sauerkraut can be an acquired taste. If you’re not crazy about kraut, here are eight other foods that will help you get your fill of good bacteria.
Yay, your favorite martini garnish is also good for your gastrointestinal tract. That’s because olives packed in brine are actually a fermented food that’s rich in gut-friendly lactobacillus bacteria. They’re also high in fiber and antioxidants—cheers to these juicy gems.
This tangy beverage is made by fermenting milk with bacteria and yeast, and it’s actually an even better source of probiotics than yogurt. It also boasts high levels of nutrients like protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and magnesium. Use it the same way you would its creamier cousin (we like ours poured over cereal).
3. Dark Chocolate
Now you know that probiotics are great for your gut. But did you know that in order to reap the benefits, you actually need to feed good bacteria with prebiotics(i.e., non-digestible fiber that helps the good bacteria in your body thrive)? Luckily, chocolate contains both of these ingredients, plus high levels of antioxidants and nutrients. So it’s basically medicine. (Just keep an eye on your overall sugar intake, OK?)
4. Fermented Cheeses
While not all cheeses are a good source of probiotics (sorry), some soft, fermented ones like cheddar, Swiss and Gouda are since they contain bacteria that can survive the journey through your gastrointestinal tract. To make sure you’re getting the right stuff, look out for “live and active cultures” on the label.
The fermented Asian dish made with cabbage, radishes and scallions is loaded with gut-friendly bacteria. Researchers from Korea have also found evidence that this spicy, briny dish can help you stay slim. Try it mixed with brown rice or on its own as a tasty side.
6. Green Peas
A Japanese study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that these bright-green vegetables contain Leuconostoc mesenteroides, a powerful probiotic.
Great news for pickle lovers (guilty): When these green spears are brined in salted water and fermented, they create beneficial bacteria. Just make sure to opt for the naturally fermented kind (i.e., ones where vinegar wasn’t used in the pickling process) to reap the probiotic benefits. Dill-icious.
The “sour” taste of our favorite soup vessel comes from the fermentation process, during which yeast and good bacteria work their magic to break down the sugar and gluten in flour. This makes nutrients easier to digest and absorb. And while the baking process kills off the live cultures, sourdough bread is a great prebiotic, and there is evidence to suggest that even dead probiotic bacteria has some impressive anti-inflammatory health benefits.
OK, But Why Do We Care About Probiotics Anyway?
We’re so glad you asked. Without getting too science-y, it all goes back to your microbiome. “The microbiome is the collection of trillions of microorganisms that live in and on our body,” nutritional scientist Tracy Shafizadeh, Ph.D., tells us. “The majority of microorganisms are bacteria; some good and some bad.” And while these microorganisms live all over the body, recent research has revealed that the ones found in your gut (aka the gut microbiome) are especially important to your overall health.
The gut microbiome is related to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis and acid reflux. “A lot of research going on right now is connecting gut health with autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative disorder, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity,” explains biochemist Erika Angle, Ph.D., CEO of gut microbiome test Ixcela. “The gut microbiome is such a hot area now because people are realizing it’s not just its own system. It’s actually linked to your brain health, emotional health, cardiovascular health and other systems as well.” Whoa.
While some factors that influence your gut health are out of your control, there are plenty of things you can do to change your gut microbiome. That’s because your gut is a competitive environment, which means you can give an advantage to the good bacteria over the bad bacteria by feeding them a certain way. Factors that can help the good guys? A healthy and varied diet rich in nutrients, supplements (oh hey, probiotics) and exercise, Angle says. And in even better news, a study published in Science magazine found that tea, coffee and wine can also help improve the diversity of gut microbes. (BRB, pouring a glass of cab sav.)
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