I’ve noticed the strangest thing over the past few years: Whenever I eat store-bought sauerkraut, I instantly have an asthma attack. I initially thought it was something about the strong flavor, but when I looked into it, I found that the culprit is actually a preservative. About 5% of asthmatics have this reaction to sulfites, a group of sulfur-based compounds that are commonly used to preserve food and enhance flavor. Not willing to give up on sauerkraut just yet, I set out to learn how to make sauerkraut at home—without preservatives. My homemade sauerkraut recipe, which you’ll find below, is even more delicious than store-bought kraut and doesn’t bother my asthma at all. Even though all fermented foods do contain some naturally occurring sulfites, taking out the added preservatives has allowed me to enjoy one of my favorite foods once again.
If you’d like to try to make your own sauerkraut, you don’t need to buy any special equipment, though there is plenty available if you’d like to try it. Here’s my process.
- 1 head of cabbage
- 1 T Himalayan sea salt (do not use iodized table salt)
- Shred the cabbage and mix with the salt, squeezing the cabbage to help break it down.
- Put into a clean container. I used a simple covered casserole dish. (This is the one I used.) You just need something that is deep enough to hold all of the cabbage with enough space for liquid to collect on top.
- Let the cabbage sit for a full day to release its juice. Then push it down tightly to fully submerge the cabbage. I added water and a little more salt to get mine completely covered in liquid.
- Put something on top of the cabbage to keep it pressed below the level of the liquid. The objective is to keep the cabbage completely under water for the magical fermentation to occur. I put a few cups of water into a gallon-sized plastic bag and put it on top of the cabbage. You can also use a plate weighted down with something heavy.
- Cover the container with a lid or a cloth secured by a rubber band.
- Taste in about two weeks. The longer the sauerkraut ferments, the more sour or tangy it will become. Some people prefer to ferment for 6 months or longer, but one month was just about right for my taste. When it reaches the taste you like, transfer it to the refrigerator to halt the fermentation.
Benefits of fermented foods
Fermented foods like sauerkraut are made by lactic acid fermentation. A bacteria called lactobacilli converts the starches and sugars in fruits or vegetables into lactic acid. Rich in probiotics, these foods can improve digestion,[2,3] enhance nutrient availability, enhance immune function [2-4] and more. (Read 7 Reasons Why Fermented Foods are Healthy for a detailed examination.)
Another nutritional powerhouse is kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented food. In addition to being probiotic rich, kimchi can help obese people decrease body weight and improve fasting blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure  Read more about it in 11 Amazing Health Benefits of Kimchi Fermented Vegetables.
Both sauerkraut and kimchi have very intense flavors that aren’t for everyone. While I love sauerkraut, kimchi is not making an appearance in my meals anytime soon! If neither one appeals to you, here are some other fermented foods to try:
- Sourdough bread. Yes, bread can be healthy! Read Sourdough Bread Health Benefits to learn more and to find out how to make it yourself.
- Yogurt. Just watch out for brands that are loaded with sugar and artificial sweeteners.
- Kefir. This dairy drink is like thin yogurt.
- Wine and beer. Choose local, craft beer as the healthiest choice.
- Fermented pickles. Most store-bought pickles are not fermented, so look for the fermented variety in specialty stores or make your own.
- Miso is commonly used in soup.
- Tempeh is a hearty meat substitute.
Sulfite sensitivity is most common in people with asthma, and may not first appear until the 40s or 50s. I never had a reaction before 40. About 0.5% to 1% of the non-asthmatic population may also have a negative reaction, with symptoms such as swelling, hives, nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea. 
The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables in 1986, but you’ll still find sulfites in a variety of whole and processed foods, as well as beer and wine. (Find a complete list here.) Processed foods that contain the following listed ingredients contain sulfites: sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite.
Depending on your level of sensitivity, you may need to avoid all foods with sulfites, or just find lower-sulfite options, such as homemade sauerkraut.
Share your experience
Do you ferment your own foods? Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Have you ever experienced sulfite sensitivity? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.