Cabbage, the basis of sauerkraut, is part of a family of vegetables that includes broccoli and Brussels sprouts, which have long been heralded for their ability to prevent cancer. However, the fermentation process used to make sauerkraut appears to unlock even stronger anticarcinogenic elements, according to a study in the latest issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
"We are finding that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage, especially for fighting cancer," says Eeva-Liisa Ryhanen, one of the paper's authors at MTT Agrifood Research Finland in Jokioinen, Finland.
The researchers analyzed cabbage before and after fermentation to see how the elements had changed. They found the glucosinolates in cabbage dissolved into a class of enzymes that have been shown in prior studies to prevent cancer, Ryhanen says.
The family of vegetables cabbage belongs to helps prevent cancers of the breast, lung and colon, says Leonard Bjeldanes, a professor of food toxicology with the University of California at Berkeley.
"The cancer rates come down as much as 40 percent when you go from low consumption of these vegetables to high consumption," he says.
While Bjeldanes agrees that fermentation assists in the breaking down the glucosinolates in cabbage, fermented foods aren't necessarily better, he says. Pickles and yogurt, for example, don't appear to prevent cancer.
"Fermentation is used mostly to preserve the food," he says.
Another researcher, though, found major differences between the sauerkraut sold in Poland and the sauerkraut sold in the United States. The American variety had fewer cancer-fighting elements than its overseas cousin, says Yeong Ju, a researcher with the University of Illinois.
"The fermentation process can make a big difference in potency," she says.
Mostly, the difference between the two cultures is how much cabbage and sauerkraut they eat. In her 1998 study, Ju compared the incidence of breast cancer among Polish women and Polish immigrants in Michigan. The immigrants were four to five times more likely to develop cancer than the women who stayed in Poland. The reason: Polish women eat much more cabbage and sauerkraut, which inhibits estrogen, thereby slowing down the development of the cancer, Ju says.
For the Finnish researchers, the next step is to improve the fermentation process so more beneficial enzymes are released, Ryhanen says. Besides its anti-cancer agents, sauerkraut has antibacterial qualities and acids that help the body digest the cabbage.
What To Do
To learn about how eating vegetables helps prevent cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute. Learn about the U.S. government's guidelines on eating vegetables by visiting the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences.
For more information about sauerkraut, visit Pickle Packers International.