In recent years, fermented foods have experienced a surge in popularity.
Nowadays, this type of food is popular in countries worldwide, and foods such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut are readily available.
Among the most frequently fermented foods is cabbage, and there are a variety of fermented cabbage products.
These items enjoy global popularity, with a notable presence in Germany and Korea, where sauerkraut and kimchi, respectively, are staple foods.
This article delves into the nutritional properties of fermented cabbage and presents information on five popular types of fermented cabbage.
Table of contents
What Is Fermented Cabbage?
In simple terms, fermented cabbage refers to regular cabbage that has undergone a fermentation process.
The fermentation process involves these essential steps:
- Chopping the cabbage: Typically, the cabbage is cut into bite-sized pieces.
- Salting it: Adding salt enhances the flavor and plays a crucial role in preventing the development of ‘bad bacteria’ during fermentation.
- Packing it: The chopped and salted cabbage is then packed into a container, such as a glass jar.
At this stage, the cabbage is stored at room temperature to ferment over the coming days and weeks.
Over time, naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria in the cabbage grows and quickly increases in its concentration. As this occurs, these lactic acid bacteria ferment the sugars found in cabbage into lactic acid (1).
This process imparts a tangy, slightly sour flavor to the cabbage, and the final product contains some potentially beneficial probiotics (2).
Fermented cabbage is typically served as a side dish alongside the main meal. However, it can also work as an ingredient in a wide range of recipes. For example, kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) is a popular Korean dish made with kimchi, broth, meat, onions, red pepper, and various seasonings.
Potential Benefits of Consuming Fermented Cabbage
Consuming fermented cabbage may offer several potential health benefits, primarily due to its probiotic content.
Probiotics, the Gut Microbiome, and Digestion
Probiotics are live microorganisms, often referred to as “good bacteria,” that can confer health benefits.
Numerous systematic reviews of existing evidence have revealed that probiotics may enhance gut microbiome health and improve gastrointestinal conditions. For instance:
- A comprehensive systematic review of 70 studies demonstrated the favorable impact of probiotics on alleviating lower gastrointestinal symptoms, reducing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, and preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea (6).
- In a systematic review and meta-analysis comprising 38 studies, researchers investigated the effects of probiotics on the gut microbiota. The review established that probiotic consumption can enhance the populations of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract for patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In this context, research suggests that maintaining a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria to harmful bacteria can help alleviate IBD symptoms. Furthermore, it was found that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotics were most likely to have benefits for IBD remission. Notably, fermented cabbage is a source of lactobacillus (7, 8, 9).
Blood Sugar Control
In 2022, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 randomized controlled trials explored the impact of lactic acid-fermented foods on blood sugar regulation in adults with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.
The findings from this review revealed that the incorporation of fermented foods had a notably positive impact on lowering HbA1c (average blood sugar over the past 3 months). Additionally, it showed further beneficial effects, such as the reduction of fasting blood sugar and insulin levels (10).
A recent systematic review, published in June 2023, investigated the impact of fermented foods on cognition in older adults.
This comprehensive review included a total of 29 observational studies, of which 22 were large cohort studies. The overall findings from the study indicated that daily consumption of fermented foods was associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (11).
In 2018, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a review titled ‘A Clinician’s Guide For Trending Cardiovascular Controversies’ (12).
Within this review, the authors examined the influence of fermented foods on cardiovascular health markers. On this topic, the authors noted that kimchi, a Korean fermented cabbage dish, had positive effects on fasting blood glucose, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure in several studies.
Fermented cabbage’s probiotics have the potential to enhance the bioavailability and absorption of specific micronutrients. For example, research has shown that probiotics can facilitate greater iron, and potentially calcium, absorption (13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
Types of Fermented Cabbage
Now that we’ve examined some of the potential benefits of fermented cabbage, here’s a list of five distinct types.
For each variety of fermented cabbage, you’ll discover details about its characteristics and nutritional properties.
Curtido is a fermented cabbage dish hailing from El Salvador, and it enjoys popularity throughout Central America.
There are several curtido recipes, but its typical ingredients include cabbage, onions, carrots, salt, vinegar, oregano, and chili peppers. The dish serves as a common side dish in Salvadoran cuisine, and it is often served with various cooked dishes.
Curtido bears a slight resemblance to the Korean fermented cabbage dish kimchi, as it also has a spicy flavor. However, kimchi tends to have a more pungent and robust flavor, thanks to ingredients like garlic and red pepper flakes. Additionally, curtido is made from white cabbage whereas kimchi uses Napa (Chinese) cabbage.
Traditionally, curtido is served alongside pupusas, which are cornbreads stuffed with beans and melted cheese (18).
Nutritionally, a 159-gram cup of curtido provides the following nutritional profile (19):
- Calories: 49 kcal
- Carbohydrates: 10 g
- Fiber: 4 g
- Sugars: 6 g
- Fat: 1 g
- Saturated fat: 0 g
- Protein: 2 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 323 mg
Curtido requires only a short fermentation period of a few days, and you can find a recipe to make it here.
Fermented Napa Cabbage (Suan cai)
Napa cabbage, also known as ‘Chinese cabbage,’ is a Chinese vegetable. Besides its use in dishes like kimchi, it is also a popular type of fermented cabbage in its own right.
A traditional Chinese fermented cabbage dish made from Napa cabbage is ‘Suan cai.’ In English, the dish is known more simply as ‘Chinese pickled cabbage.’ Interestingly, the earliest written records of Suan cai production go back to the 7th century BC (20).
Suan cai is a popular side served alongside savory dishes.
To prepare Suan cai, chopped and salted Napa cabbage is mixed with a variety of spices and seasonings, including ginger and garlic. It is then carefully packed into containers and left to ferment for approximately two weeks, or more, depending on the desired strength. You can find a guide on how to make it here.
Given its use of Napa cabbage, Suan cai provides high levels of vitamin C and K (21).
Additionally, research has demonstrated that Suan cai boasts an abundance of ‘beneficial’ Lactobacillus bacteria (22).
Fermented Red Cabbage (Red Sauerkraut)
Fermented red cabbage, more commonly recognized as red sauerkraut, is a popular dish in Central and Eastern European countries, including Germany and Poland.
The preparation of red sauerkraut is quite straightforward, involving a lacto-fermentation process using red cabbage. This is the primary distinction between red sauerkraut and its white cabbage counterpart.
Much like regular sauerkraut, red fermented cabbage boasts a tangy flavor and is often served as a condiment. Among its versatile uses, red sauerkraut can be added to sandwiches, featured in salads and wraps, or incorporated into rice and pasta-based dishes for some extra flavor.
Red sauerkraut is a good source of vitamins C and K, along with various lactobacillus bacterial species.
A 142-gram cup serving of red sauerkraut offers the following nutritional properties (23):
- Calories: 62 kcal
- Carbohydrates: 12 g
- Fiber: 8 g
- Sugars: 4 g
- Fat: 0 g
- Protein: 4 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 60 mg
Additionally, like many red-pigmented foods, red cabbage contains a type of polyphenol known as anthocyanins. These compounds are prevalent in various red, blue, and purple-pigmented foods and are believed to offer health benefits (24, 25).
Kimchi, a type of spicy fermented cabbage originating from Korea, has gained global popularity over the past decade or two.
The dish is spicier and more pungent than other fermented cabbage dishes thanks to the combined flavor profile of its ingredients.
Typically, kimchi features Napa cabbage, daikon radish, salt, red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, scallions, salted shrimp, and fish sauce. However, there are many varieties of kimchi, and the precise ingredient profile may vary slightly.
In Korean cuisine, kimchi is a staple food and is customarily served as a side dish alongside almost every meal (26).
The nutritional content of kimchi per 150-gram cup serving is outlined below (27):
- Calories: 22.5 kcal
- Carbohydrates: 3.6 g
- Fiber: 2.4 g
- Sugars: 1.59 g
- Fat: 0.75 g
- Saturated fat: 0.10 g
- Protein: 1.65 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 747 mg
For a full nutritional overview of kimchi, see the following guide:
Sauerkraut is a simple variety of fermented cabbage, made from just two ingredients: white cabbage and salt.
In essence, sauerkraut is a versatile ingredient and it can be served as a side dish or a condiment. As a side dish, it pairs with various meat-based dishes, or it can be used as a condiment in sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs, or as a flavor-enhancing ingredient in dishes like casseroles, pies, quiches, and soups and stews.
A 140-gram cup serving of sauerkraut boasts the following nutritional composition (28):
- Calories: 56 kcal
- Carbohydrates: 5.82 g
- Fiber: 3.92 g
- Sugars: 2.42 g
- Fat: 3.54 g
- Saturated fat: 1.49 g
- Protein: 1.26 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 923 mg
Additionally, research indicates that sauerkraut hosts a range of lactobacillus bacteria (29).
For more comprehensive information on sauerkraut and its uses, see this complete nutritional guide:
Potential Downsides (and Things To Be Aware Of)
As discussed earlier, fermented cabbage products may offer some potential health benefits. However, it’s important to be aware of certain considerations and potential downsides.
Not All Pickled Cabbage Products Are Fermented
First and foremost, it’s crucial to note that not not all pickled cabbage products undergo fermentation.
Pickling and fermentation are two separate, distinct processes, and pickled products do not provide the same probiotic benefits as fermented foods.
Unlike fermented foods, pickling utilizes an acidic ingredient, such as vinegar, to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria.
Not All Fermented Cabbage Contains ‘Live’ Probiotics
Another essential point to remember is that not all traditionally fermented cabbage products contain ‘live’ probiotic bacteria.
This is because some fermented cabbage products undergo pasteurization to extend their shelf life and kill any potential pathogens present. Unfortunately, this process also has the effect of killing all the “good” or “live” probiotic bacteria present.
To ensure that a kimchi, sauerkraut, or other fermented cabbage product contains live probiotics, look for “raw” or “unpasteurized” on the label.
High In Sodium
Since salt is the main integral ingredient in fermenting cabbage, fermented cabbage products tend to be high in sodium.
Therefore, individuals following a low-sodium diet may wish to limit their consumption of fermented cabbage products.
While cabbage is not a common allergen, some ingredients found in fermented cabbage products can be allergenic.
For example, kimchi sometimes contains shrimp, which is a type of crustacean shellfish. Crustaceans are among the most common allergens in the human diet (32).
Individuals with known or suspected allergies should carefully check the ingredients label of fermented cabbage products to ensure that allergens are not present.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the different types of fermented cabbage.
Yes, although fresh and fermented cabbage provide similar nutritional values, there are some specific differences between the two. First, fermented cabbage has a much higher sodium content due to the fermentation process. Second, fermentation may either enhance or decrease the bioavailability of specific compounds in cabbage. For example, fermenting red cabbage has been shown to lower the bioavailability of its anthocyanin content by approximately 10% (33). However, fermentation can also significantly increase calcium and iron absorption from cabbage and foods consumed alongside it (34, 35).
The comparison between commercial and homemade fermented cabbage products compare depends on various factors. Depending on the processing and ingredients used, they could be identical or significantly different. For example, as mentioned earlier, commercial products may sometimes undergo pasteurization, which kills all the bacteria present.
The suitability of fermented cabbage products for vegans depends on the specific product. For instance, kimchi made with fish sauce or salted shrimp is clearly unsuitable for vegans. However, the majority of sauerkraut is vegan-friendly. To be certain, it is always best to carefully check product labels.
The various types of fermented cabbage products offer the same fiber, vitamins, and minerals as their fresh counterparts.
However, they also provide the added benefit of contributing “good” probiotic bacteria into the diet.
These foods are easy to incorporate into one’s diet and contribute a flavorful addition to meals.