Sauerkraut is perhaps the best-known style of fermented vegetable in our country and also happens to be one of the simplest to make at home. The ingredient list is short, the steps are simple, and the margin for error is extremely low. In fact, famed fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz points out that the large population of lactic acid bacteria present in the ferment handily outcompete any incidental pathogenic bacteria, and the acidity that rapidly develops in fermented vegetables destroys any remaining pathogens. Lactic acid bacteria are present on cabbages and all other raw vegetables and they’re largely responsible for the magical transformation that takes place when you pack cabbage and salt together into a jar. 

Our ability to use microbes — fungi (yeasts) and bacteria — as a method of food preservation dates back to the dawn of recorded history. Prior to refrigeration, it was the only way, short of sun-drying, to preserve food. It is a process that is inextricably linked to our culture as human beings. It is, in large part, responsible for our survival as human beings as it allowed our earliest ancestors to preserve and store food to get through long winters and periods of famine.

Fermentation also makes our food more nutritious, more flavorful, and easier to digest. Fermented foods deliver a healthy dose of living probiotic bacteria and enzymes to our overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of our gut microbiome. Even though the practice of fermentation has been around for centuries, we are just beginning to understand, from a scientific point of view, why fermented foods are so important for our health. The forty-odd trillion microbes that live on and in our bodies allow us to digest food and produce key minerals that nourish us and protect us from disease. They guide the development of our bodies, are key to the healthy functioning of our immune systems, and influence our behavior. They even modulate the expression of our genes, bind with and remove toxins from our bodies, prevent or lessen the effects of food allergies, and communicate with the nervous system using some of the same neurochemicals that relay messages to the brain (the Gut-Brain Axis). They secrete a profound number of chemicals, many of which are the same chemicals used by our neurons to regulate our mood and signal appetite clues like hunger and fullness.

Our weekly sale from April 21st – 27th celebrates foods that promote gut health, so what better time to try whipping up a batch of your very own probiotic-packed sauerkraut? 

Wellness Wonders: Elderberry!

Our Wellness Wonders Spotlight for March shines brightly on a tiny but potent little berry with an extensive history of use and folklore in traditional western practices – the elderberry! For centuries, elderberries have been used to make culinary and medicinal preparations, including preserves, wines, cordials, teas, herbal infusions, and syrups. Ancient texts from Hippocrates (460 – 370BC), Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD), and Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD) include information about elder, indicating its longstanding value in herbal medicine, and elder has often been referred to as the “medicine chest of the common people.”

Elderberries are fruits of a hardy perennial shrub that can withstand less than ideal growing conditions. It grows in full or partial sun, tolerates the cold, and can withstand wet, clay soils. Here in Vermont, you may even see the native Sambucus canadensis growing in roadside drainage ditches, along rivers, or in wet fields. Its cousin, Sambucus nigra (black elderberry), is native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. The berries of both S. canadensis and S. nigra can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes, however, the seeds within the raw fruit contain a component called sambunigrin which can cause intestinal distress if ingested in large quantities, so it’s ideal to cook, tincture, ferment, or otherwise prepare the berries prior to consumption. It’s also important to note that the stems and leaves of the elder plant are toxic and should be removed prior to making an elderberry or elderflower preparation.


A bottle of homemade elderberry syrup on a wooden table, with fresh elderberries in the background

The berries, flowers, and bark of the elder (Sambucus) plant have long been prized by herbalists across the globe, and modern studies have also substantiated the berries’ ability to help maintain normal, healthy functioning of our immune system. This makes elderberry an excellent plant ally to promote resilience during times when our body’s systems are particularly stressed. While elderberry is most famous for being a cold and flu herb, its gifts extend well beyond sniffle season, promoting strong bones and healthy hair, protecting the heart and eyes, and supporting digestion, according to herbalist Emily Han of Learning Herbs.

Whole elderberries are typically prepared as teas, tinctures, syrups, wine, and cordials. They can also be used much like other berries in various recipes, including scones, pies, cakes, muffins, jellies, and vinegars. Beyond their medicinal properties, the berries pack a nutritious punch, as they are rich in flavonoids, boast a high anti-oxidant count, and are quality sources of vitamin C, vitamin A, bioflavonoids, beta-carotene, iron, and potassium, according to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. You can find excellent tips and recipes for preparing elderberries here, here, and here. And a staff favorite fermented elderberry honey recipe can be found here

In addition to providing nutritious medicinal berries, the elder shrub produces beautiful white flowers that bees and butterflies love. According to Herbal Academy, the flowers have has been used since ancient Egyptian times for both medicinal purposes and as a beauty aid, as they were believed to help reduce wrinkles and age spots. A stronger infusion was often used to help heal skin rashes, eczema, measles, chapped skin, and sunburns; and flowers steeped in oil were often used to alleviate diaper rashes. The flowers have many wonderful culinary uses, as well. On a hot summer day, an elderflower cordial makes a most fragrant and refreshing treat. Click here for more elderflower recipes. 

Here at the Co-op, we offer an extensive lineup of elderberry products. There are local options from Eos Botanicals, McFarline Apiaries, New Chapter, and Maple Medicine, along with some of our favorites from trusted brands beyond Vermont’s borders. If you’re wondering which elderberry product is right for you, don’t hesitate to ask a member of our Wellness team! They’d be happy to help you select a product to suit your needs.