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Fermented foods aren’t the same as probiotics, but they can have a similar effect. Read on to discover the benefits of traditional sauerkraut, and how to use it to support your gut health.
Is all sauerkraut a probiotic?
How much sauerkraut for gut health?
Is sauerkraut good for your liver?
Does cooking sauerkraut kill the probiotics?
How much sauerkraut per day for gut health?
How do you eat sauerkraut for gut health?
Yes and no. The official definition of a probiotic is ‘Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host.’1
To know what constitutes an ‘adequate amount’, you have to know exactly how many beneficial bacteria are in something. This is easy to measure when it’s in a supplement—but not easy when it’s in fermented food.
We do know that sauerkraut contains beneficial bacteria, but we can’t classify the types or the numbers. This is because they vary according to the composition, age and storage of the sauerkraut.2
So, technically sauerkraut isn’t a probiotic because, unlike probiotic supplements, we can’t define the ‘adequate amount’. Sauerkraut is more accurately called a ‘food source of live and active cultures’, but ‘probiotic food’ is fine too.
Bacteria are measured in colony forming units (CFUs). Studies suggest that sauerkraut and other fermented foods contain 1 million to 1 billion CFUs per gram/millilitre. 3A tablespoon serving of sauerkraut weighs roughly ten grams, which means it could give you between 10 million to 10 billion CFUs.
You might think it’s easier to take a supplement rather than eating a serving of sauerkraut—after all, you know how many good bacteria you’re getting. But sauerkraut has two further advantages:
1) One study found that a single batch contains up to 28 different bacterial strains.4 That’s many more than you’ll find in a standard probiotic supplement.
2) Because they’re in food form, these probiotics may be more likely to reach your intestines intact.5
Simply start with whatever amount of sauerkraut is realistic for you. It’s worth eating for more than its bacterial content: it’s also a source of natural enzymes and fibre, both of which support your gut health.
A review of studies found that probiotics may be helpful in cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is more common in people who have insulin resistance or type-2 diabetes.6
But even if your liver is normal, probiotics can still be helpful. This is because an unbalanced microbiome (dysbiosis) produces toxic metabolites. These metabolites go directly to your liver via your portal vein, where they’re detoxified.7
By using probiotics to balance your microbiome, you may reduce these toxic metabolites and therefore lessen the load on your liver.
Heat can destroy beneficial bacteria. It’s best to add sauerkraut to your dish as a final step after cooking.
No studies show a definitive ‘dose’ of sauerkraut for gut health—and we all have different needs anyway.
Other studies looking at kimchi (another type of fermented vegetable) have used servings of between 60g and 300g daily.8 It’s reasonable to apply this to sauerkraut, which means working your way up to 60g daily (around six tablespoons) could be a good goal.
But remember: it’s more important to eat an amount that’s sustainable for you. Consistency is key. Rather than worrying about how much you’re eating, pay attention to how often you’re eating it. Probiotic foods are most beneficial when you eat them regularly.9
Sauerkraut is most often used as a condiment to dishes. It goes especially well with cooked meats, soups and stews.
You can either buy sauerkraut or make your own. If you’re buying it, look out for the following:
Pastuerisation Many manufacturers pasteurise sauerkraut to prolong its shelf life—but the process of pasteurisation kills off all the friendly bacteria. Check the label to make sure it’s unpastuerised.
Preservatives These are also added to prolong the shelf life but, again, they reduce bacteria. The best sauerkraut has just two ingredients: cabbage and salt.
To make your own, simply bash together one chopped cabbage with 1–2 tbsp sea salt. Pop it in a jar, screw on the lid, and leave it at room temperature. You can eat it after about a week.
Fiona Lawson BA (Hons) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and health writer. She is a member of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). As Content Director of Healthpath, Fiona is on a mission to help people take charge of their own health. Read more about Fiona on her practitioner page.
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