It ‘s time for ripe cabbage picking, at least in the parts of the northern hemisphere that experience four seasons. My family makes kiszona kapusta (Polish for pickled cabbage) in large pots a few times in the winter, while my Polish ancestors stored kapusta in large wooden barrels for the winter.
The tradition to pickle finely sliced cabbage to make sauerkraut – German for „sour cabbage” – reaches over 2,000 years ago, when the Chinese building the Great Wall of China ate a bowl of pickled cabbage a day. Chinese tradition has long prescribed sauerkraut juice as a way to home for many ailments. The armies of Gengis-Khan most likely were the first to bring pots of sauerkraut over to Europe. The Roman army travelled with barrels of sauerkraut, using it to prevent intestinal infections among soldiers during long expeditions. The sulfur content of cabbage- which also imparts it’s specific smell – also has historic applications. The Romans applied cabbage or it’s juice externally. Later in the Middle Ages cabbage plasters were used for treating ailments ranging from sciatic pain to varicose veins.
Historically, periods of reduced consumption of fermented food usually correlated with greater morbidity among the population. Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) killed many sailors in the 17 th and 18th century, especially during the longer voyages. At the end of the 18th century, Captain James Cook sailed around the world without losing a single man to scurvy thanks to the food supply on board the vessel, including sixty barrels of sauerkraut.
Recently experts in the field of health began to pay attention to the cabbage after a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2002. Finnish researchers found that in laboratory studies, a substance produced by fermented cabbage, isothiocyanates, helped prevent the development of cancer in animals.
Research at the University of New Mexico showed that women who emigrated to America from Poland had a tripled risk of breast cancer . Compared with women who ate 1.5 servings or less of fresh cabbage or sauerkraut per week during adolescence, ladies who consumed four or more servings were 72 % less likely to develop breast cancer as adult women . The researchers found that cabbage has anti- carcinogenic glucosinolates and the enzyme myrosinase. The researchers said that even for women who ingested small amounts of cabbage as teenagers, implementing cabbage in the diet in later years also has protective effects .
Another study conducted by the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention also showed that women diagnosed with breast cancer who consumed more cruciferous vegetables – like brocolli, cauliflower, turnips, and cabbage – had better outcomes. The researchers noted the best results in the group that consumed the most vegetables. The study had breast cancer surivors of various stages consume cruciferous vegetables in the 36 months after diagnosis. The study reported a 62% reduced risk of death, 62 % reduced risk of death due to breast cancer, and a 35% reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence in the group which consumed the most cruciferous as compared to the group that ate the least.
Healthy intestines contain many beneficial bacteria that feed on the waste left over from our digestion, creating lactic acid. Without these beneficial bacteria, the human digestive system is susceptible to harmful parasites and yeasts.
Naturally fermented sauerkraut provides a high amount of beneficial live bacteria that help in the digestive process. Consuming a portion of probiotic sauerkraut can improve the bacterial flora of the gut, as well as the general functioning and immunity of the entire body. However, most commercially sold pickled cabbage has lost most of its beneficial bacteria during processing. To get the most benefit from sauerkraut, it’s better to buy it fresh, or to find out how to make it yourself.
Lacto-fermented sauerkraut also has increased vitamin C, B and K levels, is high in calcium and magnesium. It contains lutein and zeaxathin, two factors necessary for eye health .
Please note that cabbage is part of a group of fruits and vegetables that contain anti-nutritional properties, or goitrogens. This means that these products when eaten raw release inhibitors which slow thyroid function by inhibiting the body’s ability to use iodine andinhibiting the process by which iodine becomes thyroid hormones T3 and T4. Foods in this group include cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, spinach, and kale.
Cooking eliminates this goitrogenic effect, pickling compensates for this effect to a lesser extent. Another note of caution is to high blood pressure patients – since a cup of sauerkraut can provide over 1000 mg of sodium, which is over 60% of the daily salt intake for HBP patients. Too much sauerkraut can cause excessive growth of intestinal bacteria, which may lead to abdominal discomfort. People with pancreatic diseases and gastric ulcers should also be careful with sauerkraut consumption.
Nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves: cabbage, whether sour, lightly cooked or pickled, can be eaten in small quantities as a side dish for great health benefits. We can take note of Korean kimchi (made with napa cabbage) – Koreans can attest to the health benefits of kimchi not only because of their health and longevity, but also because 11 of the 13 chickens suffering from bird flu were cured after being given kimchi.