fermented food

The Ascent of Ferment

Could sauerkraut and kimchi be the new staples of a healthy diet?

When canning made a comeback, foodies were salivating at the abundance of artisanal jams and pickles so ubiquitous that they were worthy of a "Portlandia" sketch. Little did they know, the trend would also help rediscover one of the healthiest foods around — fermented vegetables.

Sauerkraut and kimchi (a traditional Korean mixture of fermented cabbage and radishes), may not sound like the stuff of health-food legend, but they’re some of the best sources of probiotics and nutrients, especially when made with the traditional methods that are gaining ground with today’s artisanal food makers.

Thanks to smart marketing, yogurt is the food that’s synonymous with probiotics (the healthy bacteria that has been shown to help boost immunity and address digestive issues), but that doesn’t mean it has a monopoly on the beneficial-bacteria market. Fermented vegetables contain the same cultures, and are perfect options for the dairy-averse, vegans, or people who just want an extra dose of probiotics without the extra sugar that often comes with yogurt. (A cup of ‘kraut has 27 calories and 2.5 grams of sugar. Compare that to the same amount of plain, low-fat yogurt, which contains 154 calories and 17 grams of sugar.)

Tricia Williams, a culinary nutritionist and founder of Food Matters in New York City, includes fermented foods in the meal plans she designs for VIPs and celebrities to help with digestion and ward off sickness. “I’ll give a client a lot of fermented foods in August to protect his immune system going into fall,” says Williams. “It’s better than a probiotic supplement because you’re also getting nutrients, enzymes and fiber from vegetables.”

Plus, fermenting can make already-healthy vegetables even more nutritious. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that, when cabbage is fermented, phytochemicals in the vegetable called glucosinolates are broken down into compounds called isothiocyanates, which help prevent cancer, making fermented cabbage a healthier choice than raw cabbage.

If you’ve only ever had sauerkraut from the condiment aisle of the grocery store, purists will tell you that, in fact, you’ve never had “real” sauerkraut. The store-bought stuff is pasteurized or sterilized, killing off much of the healthy bacteria, say experts. Raw, lacto-fermented foods made in small batches are healthier, and more delicious. In the traditional fermentation method, lactic acid bacteria, found naturally on the surface of vegetables, begins to digest the natural sugars in vegetables and create lactic acid, which gives fermented foods their signature sour taste.

“I use sauerkraut and kimchi as a garnish or as a snack on its own,” says Williams. “Recently, I made pan-seared wild salmon with kimchi on top, and made snacks of green kimchi and cultured cauliflower with coriander.”

When choosing a jar of sauerkraut or kimchi, make sure to read the ingredient list, advises Williams. “Often the main ingredients will be sugar and vinegar, and those just fuel yeast in the gut, so it actually perpetuates stomach issues.” Williams recommends Hawthorne Valley ‘kraut for East coast eaters. The Los Angeles-based Brassica & Brine also fits her criteria.

The downside to lacto-fermented foods is that they don’t store well, because their live, active bacteria will continue the fermentation process. Your best option? Eat up.

For more cool things to do with vegetables:

Sear Your Salad

Green Juice Recipes

Think Way Outside the Bun

Tags: Health , Nutrition