The Untold Truth Of Sauerkraut

You've probably put sauerkraut on your hot dog or bratwurst a thousand times without giving it much thought. However, there's a lot more to sauerkraut that just a hot dog topping.

Sauerkraut is cabbage that has been finely cut and then fermented by lactic acid bacteria, which gives it a distinctive tangy, sour flavor. The fermentation process gives sauerkraut a much longer shelf life than most foods, allowing it to be stored with the brine for up to six months in a tightly closed container.

The word sauerkraut comes from the German for "sour cabbage." However, similar to the post-9/11 "freedom fries," during World War I, sauerkraut was called "Liberty Cabbage" due to fears that Americans wouldn't buy a product with a German name (via Make Sauerkraut).

Sauerkraut's origin may surprise you

However, while sauerkraut may have a German name, it was actually invented in ancient China almost 2,000 years ago. The slaves building the Great Wall preserved the cabbage and rice they were fed by putting it in rice wine, which soured it.

It was then brought to Europe by the Tartars, a people that came from east of the Ural Mountains in Russia. The Europeans replaced the rice wine in the recipe with salt. This is what gave the natural bacteria the ability to create lactic acid and bring about the distinctive taste we today associate with sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut then traveled to America with immigrants. The modern New York-style hot dog came from German immigrants in the Bowery area of Manhattan, who sold sauerkraut with sausages in buns in the 1860s — this eventually evolved into the hot dog we know today.

Sauerkraut as a disease preventative

Throughout history, sauerkraut has been used as a natural disease preventative. For example, in the 18th century, explorers would use sauerkraut, with its high supply of vitamin C, to prevent scurvy.

Then, during the Civil War, a physician, John Jay Terrell, reduced the death rate from smallpox from 90 percent to only 5 percent, which he attributed to sauerkraut.

Anyone familiar with probiotics has probably heard about the gut health benefits of sauerkraut. It contains live and active probiotics that help prevent toxins or harmful bacteria from entering your digestive system. Research has shown that these probiotics reduce many digestive symptoms, including gas, bloating, and constipation, many of which result from conditions such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis (via BBC Good Food).

Health benefits of sauerkraut

Probiotics aren't the only health benefit of sauerkraut. It is also high in digestive enzymes, which help break down proteins, fats, and starches. Sauerkraut contains high levels of vitamin C and vitamin K2, which support collagen production, support bone health, and work as an antioxidant to support the immune system. Vitamin K also helps minerals and calcium to bind to the bones, which strengthens them. It is also high in fiber, helps control blood sugar, and lowers cholesterol.

It is also used as a folk remedy for canker sores. To use it, rinse your mouth with the juice (or brine) from the sauerkraut for approximately 30 seconds to reduce pain.

Sauerkraut is also a good source of folate, which can reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent hearing loss due to aging, and surprisingly, prevent gum disease (via Well+Good).

Additionally, sauerkraut helps prevent depression and Alzheimer's disease. It has been shown to help increase the absorption of mood-regulating minerals, which helps reduce stress and maintain brain health (via Healthline). Studies have shown a link between gut health and brain health, and it's possible that probiotic foods such as sauerkraut may help improve memory and cognition, as well as reducing anxiety.

The best sauerkraut to buy to gain benefits

To gain all of these benefits from sauerkraut, avoid pasteurized versions, as the high heat in the process of pasteurization kills the beneficial probiotics. Try to avoid versions with preservatives or added sugars as well, as they may lower the probiotic count and the added chemicals can be harmful to your health. If possible, look for a brand that says "live and active cultures" on the label.

When buying sauerkraut, also be aware of the sodium content. Some brands of sauerkraut may be very high in salt. Some commercially available versions contain up to 900 milligrams per cup, which makes up almost 40 percent of the daily-recommended intake of sodium.

While sauerkraut has many health benefits, it is worth keeping in mind the negative effects of consuming too much, which can result in bloating or gas, which can potentially cause a lot of discomfort.

With all the health benefits, it is unsurprising that sauerkraut remains very popular. Today, Americans consume 387 million pounds of sauerkraut every year, which equates to 1.5 pounds per person.