It must be the German ancestry me in, but I adore a good sauerkraut. The fact that it is a fermented food and good for my gut health and managing Crohn’s disease is just a wonderful excuse for me to eat it regularly rather than just as a condiment for the occasional bratwurst at a cookout! Now I eat it with breakfast most days and always have a quart jar of one variety or another hanging out in my refrigerator. The best part is that it is beyond cheap. A head of organic cabbage at Whole Foods costs just $2 and makes almost two quarts and with the only other ingredients being non-iodized salt and time, that works out to just pennies per serving. Contrary to what you may hear, you don’t even need any special equipment. Click here to see how I make sauerkraut.
Since embarking on this quest to improve my gut health naturally and manage Crohn’s disease symptoms, I’ve learned that tasty sauerkraut is actually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fermentation. I have also dabbled in other fermented vegetables and making yogurt, both traditional and since going dairy-free and nut-free, from coconut milk.
Right now I have a batch of hot red peppers fermenting on the counter to be made into authentic hot sauce in another week or so (that will be for my spicy food loving husband!). I’ve also developed a taste for kombucha and occasionally treat myself to a bottle of that vinegary bubbly goodness from the natural foods store, but have yet to try making that at home.
In the mean time, let’s talk about why fermented foods are such an important part of a natural healing diet. Here are 3 reasons that everyone should include them in their diet, particularly people with Crohn’s disease or other digestive disorders.
1. Fermented foods are natural probiotics.
Raw fermented foods contain live bacterial cultures, just like the fancy and expensive probiotics sold in pill form. “Probiotics” are broadly defined as microbes that confer some benefit to the organism that ingest them. Researchers have been studying the benefits of specific probiotic strains for decades now and have established that they can treat and prevent digestive ailments like inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhea, and colon cancer. Studies have also found benefits that extend beyond the digestive tract to include reducing the duration of common colds, lowering high blood pressure, and pretty much every other complaint or ailment you can imagine!
Exactly how probiotics benefit us is not clearly understood, although many believe that specific “good bacteria” strains like lactobacillus acidophilus or bifidobacteria take up residence in the intestines and replenish and diversify intestinal bacteria – effectively crowding out the so-called “bad bacteria” that we are bound to encounter in our daily life. Fermentation expert Sandor Ellix Katz writes in his book The Art of Fermentation that the good/bad division is not quite so simple due to genetic fluidity of bacteria both in and outside the digestive tract. Katz advises that rather than seek out specific strains of probiotics, to eat a wide variety of strains that naturally occur in fermented foods. In other words, just eat some un-pasteurized sauerkraut and leave the expensive pills on the shelf!
2. Fermentation makes foods easier to digest.
Fermented foods are essentially pre-digested foods. That tasty sauerkraut is the end result of digestive action of the bacteria that is naturally occurring on the food or added via a starter culture. The process of pre-digestion makes it easier for an inflamed or impaired digestive system to break down and assimilate the nutrients in the food. One well known example is long-fermented dairy yogurt which breaks down the lactose and allows people who are lactose intolerant to eat it without negative consequences.
In addition to helping you digest the fermented food itself, the enzyme activity of fermented foods can transfer to other foods you eat in conjunction with the fermented foods. Raw foods come with their own enzymes that are destroyed by the cooking process. Although your body creates enzymes necessary for digestion, poor digestive health as well as the normal aging process can lead to decreased levels of enzymes being produced by the body. Fermented foods help fill in that gap.
3. Fermented foods are nutrient dense.
According to Katz, the tradition of preserving vegetables by fermentation became widespread in temperate regions of the world as a means to make fresh vegetables that contain vital micronutrients available in the winter. A famous example is found in Captain James Cook who conquered scurvy by bringing barrels of vitamin C rich barrels of sauerkraut to sea and feeding it to his crew daily.
Vitamin C occurs naturally in cabbage and the fermentation process merely preserves it but the fermentation process of some foods actually creates micronutrients that are not present in the raw ingredients, including B vitamins, vitamin K2, and likely other compounds that science is not yet able to recognize.
The importance of live bacterial cultures
Remember that the benefits of fermented foods, particularly the probiotic element, is dependent on live bacterial cultures. These cultures are destroyed by heat, so for the full health benefit, fermented foods need to be eaten in their cold raw state. Home canning destroys these cultures, as does the pasteurization process that makes commercially produced products shelf stable.
Links to Fermented Foods Recipes