The difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized sauerkraut is so stark that they might as well be considered two different foods.
Let’s consider pasteurized sauerkraut. First of all, it’s dead. The cabbage that made it was either soured by the addition of vinegar, or was fermented by lactic acid bacteria until it was sour, after which the lactic acid bacteria and any other microorganisms in the ferment were killed with heat. These include yeasts, molds, a range of common spoilage bacteria, as well as pathogenic organisms that cause human diseases like tuberculosis, listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.
But pasteurization also destroys water-soluble vitamins like Vitamin C. And it deactivates digestive enzymes that enhance our ability to absorb nutrition from our food. It also deactivates enzymes that enrich and expand the flavors in unpasteurized sauerkraut.
The heat itself has deleterious effects on the quality of the sauerkraut. Typical temperatures for pasteurizing food range from the mid 140 degrees to the mid 150 degrees Fahrenheit for various lengths of time.
New pasteurization techniques include using microwaves as a means of heating the food. Some folks are wary of what microwaves do to the molecular structure of food, but there’s little evidence that eating microwaved foods is detrimental to humans or animals. Microwaves are low-energy waves that, like visible light, fall within the electromagnetic spectrum. They have so little energy that they are unable to cause chemical changes in the molecules they encounter--including those in food. When food absorbs the energy in microwaves, ions in the food polarize and polar food molecules rotate, causing collisions. These collisions cause friction that quickly produces a lot of heat. But like any form of cooking, microwave heating changes the flavor and texture of foods like sauerkraut, and not for the better. It also destroys the beneficial probiotic organisms that support your immune system and overall health.
Why is Unpasteurized Sauerkraut Better?
You might ask, don’t we need protection from spoilage organisms and pathogens in our food? Isn’t pasteurization necessary?
The answer is that unpasteurized sauerkraut has a natural, built-in system for destroying spoilage organisms and pathogens that could cause harm to people. That system is called lactic acid fermentation. Probiotic lactobacilli and other beneficial microorganisms are ubiquitous in the environment. When cabbage for unpasteurized sauerkraut is shredded, it’s salted to draw moisture from the cabbage, forming a liquid in which certain lactic acid bacteria can grow and produce lactic acid. This acid builds up in the sauerkraut, lowering the pH (the lower the pH, the more acidic) to about 4.0, the point at which spoilage organisms and pathogens don’t function. Even the original group of lactic acid bacteria die off, replaced by more acid-tolerant strains that reduce the pH to about 3.5. At that point the fermentation is finished.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, “in addition to producing lactic acid, lactobacilli also have the ability to produce hydrogen peroxide, producing an antibiotic effect on other organisms that might cause food spoilage…lactic acid fermentation yields highly acceptable and diversified flavors and also improves nutritive value.”
As you may know, the cabbage family is known to have cancer-preventing power. One reason is a substance called glucosinolate. A group of researchers at MTT Agrifood Research in Finland recently studied what happens to these anti-cancer factors during lactic acid fermentation. They report, “Glucosinolates were totally decomposed over two weeks of fermentation into breakdown products. Isothiocyanate was a predominant breakdown product.” Isothiocyanate is recommended for cancer prevention by the National Cancer Institute. It works by inhibiting cell proliferation (cell proliferation is cancer’s operating system) and “induction of apoptosis.” Apoptosis is when a cell—especially a cancer cell—self-destructs. Studies also show that isothiocyanates help prevent lung and esophageal cancers.
A lot of comestibles are called “superfoods,” but then a lot of talented people are called “geniuses.” Unpasteurized sauerkraut, though, is legitimately among the true superfoods. A cup contains only 27 calories. It has four grams of soluble fiber (food for the all-important gut microbiome), 35 percent of your daily need for vitamin C, 21 percent of your daily need for vitamin K, and 12 percent of the iron you need every day.
And, you don’t need a lot for it to benefit your health. At wildbrine, we add a little side dish of our fresh, unpasteurized sauerkraut with lunch or dinner, a forkful along with your bratwurst, a little on your reuben sandwich—just a little every day will seed your system with billions of probiotic good guys working for your good health. And doing it in a tangy, delicious way.
About the Author: Sonoma County resident Jeff Cox is the author of 24 books, including The Essential Book of Fermentation (Avery, 2013)