Let Your Cabbage Rot
It’s been stinking up the cupboard for the past week but it should be ready in a couple of days. My sauerkraut, that is. I made a new batch last Saturday as I was all out of this pungent, fermented cabbage. Some of my family’s favorite dishes just haven’t been the same without it.
Most of us know sauerkraut as a tangy, mouth-puckering accompaniment to hot dogs and roast meats. The Koreans have their own version of pickled, fermented cabbage, called kimchi, and they eat it with everything. I like to layer a roasting dish with sauerkraut, scatter sliced onions on top of that, sprinkle over some brown sugar, and then place fish, sausages, or meat on top for roasting. Absolutely delicious. You’ve got to try it.
There’s good reason for including fermented cabbage in your diet. For instance, a study led by Dorothy R. Pathak, Ph.D., of the University of New Mexico found that sauerkraut may reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 74 percent. The researchers set out to determine why the risk of breast cancer nearly triples in Polish women who immigrate to the United States. After comparing hundreds of Polish women to Polish-born U.S. immigrants, they concluded that “increased consumption of cabbage/sauerkraut foods in adolescence and adulthood may be an important primary prevention for breast cancer.”
Of the women observed in the study, those who ate four or more servings of sauerkraut and cabbage per week during adolescence, both favorites in Polish cuisine, were 74 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those women who ate 1.5 or less servings of sauerkraut per week. The study also found that older women could still gain a level of protection from cancer by increasing their sauerkraut consumption in adulthood.
In Poland, women traditionally eat an average of 30 pounds of cabbage and sauerkraut per year, as opposed to just 10 pounds per year among American women. Polish women traditionally eat more raw cabbage and sauerkraut, in salads, or short-cooked, as a side dish. Pathak found that cabbage cooked for a long time, such as in stew or cabbage rolls, had no bearing on breast cancer risk.
Eeva-Liisa Ryhanen, Ph.D., research manager of MTT Agrifood Research Finland, located in Jokioinen, Finland, states that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage, especially for fighting cancer. Raw cabbage is normally rich in a compound called glucosinolate, also found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, collard greens and cauliflower. Researchers have found that enzymes are released during the fermentation process that completely decompose glucosinolate into several breakdown products. The majority of these products are cancer-fighting isothiocyanates, which prevent cancer growth, particularly in the breast, colon, lung and liver. Hence, fermented cabbage is a cancer inhibitor.
Sauerkraut is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals are created during the fermentation process. These naturally occurring, beneficial by-products help boost the immune system. A Korean scientist, Kang Sa-Ouk of Seoul National University, took 13 chickens infected with the avian flu virus and a couple of other diseases, fed them kimchi extract and found that 11 of the birds recovered.
For generations, fermented cabbage has been consumed to boost the immune system, soothe upset stomachs and treat constipation. Sauerkraut is one of the few foods that contain the bacterium Lactobacilli plantarum, a strain of healthful bacteria which helps the digestive system. This bacterium boosts the immune system by increasing antibodies that fight infectious disease and helps inhibit pathogenic organisms including E.coli, salmonella and unhealthy overgrowth of candida (yeast). It creates antioxidants (glutathione and superoxide dismustase) that scavenge free radicals which are a cancer precursor. Lactobacilli plantarum also transforms hard-to-digest lactose from milk to the more easily digested lactic acid. It neutralizes the anti-nutrients found in many foods including the phytic acid found in all grains and the trypsin-inhibitors in soy.
Fermentation increases nutrient values in the cabbage, especially vitamin C. In his 1772 Treatise on Scurvy, James Lind discussed the ability of German seamen to withstand long sea voyages without succumbing to scurvy, compared to seamen from other countries, and pointed to their consumption of fermented cabbage as a defining difference. Fermented foods also facilitate the breakdown and assimilation of proteins. They are credited with having a soothing effect on the nervous system too.
For maximum health benefits, some people avoid heating or cooking sauerkraut in any way. They juice it for drinking instead. It’s an acquired taste. It might seem more palatable in a raw salad, dressed with onions or other vegetables and oil. A popular way of using sauerkraut is in a Reuben sandwich, a grilled or toasted sandwich made with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise, Russian or Thousand Island dressing. Albert Goldman, in his 1981 biography of Elvis Presley, makes frequent mention of the singer enjoying sauerkraut mixed up with mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and crispy bacon. Hmm, this actually sounds quite tasty. I think I’ll try this next.