Do unsalted, cultured vegetables cause botulism?
Tara Carpenter, NC.
Originally published on October 28, 2012
This is the question I get asked most in the unsalted cultured food workshops I teach. People tend to be stumped on how cultured vegetables will stay fresh and safe if they don’t contain salt. Unsalted cultured vegetables are new to our modern day culture, yet they are a long lost food we are bringing back to the dining room table!
The salty ‘sauerkraut’ (German for ‘sour cabbage’) many people eat to get in a daily dose of probiotics didn’t originally contain salt. When natives of Poland, Germany, and Russia began to travel to America by ship they added salt to preserve the kraut for long travels. Somehow this way has stuck over the years, likely out of convenience and out of habit.
Donna Gates, founder of Body Ecology Diet (B.E.D.), is reviving and re-introducing the art of making unsalted cultured food like milk kefir, cultured vegetables, young coconut kefir, and cultured butter. She taught me how to make them and now years later I still do, along with teaching others how to make them. They’re absolute jewels and I don’t know how we did without them for so long ✨
Many people are rightfully concerned that consuming probiotic food made without salt will cause botulism; a rare but serious illness caused by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. Botulism is well known in our culture because of the popular method of canning food. Canning food is the opposite of culturing food. Canning is the process by which foods are sterilized so that no microorganisms live inside the jars; high heat is used to kill the bacteria.
Unfortunately, Clostridium botulinum is a type of bacteria that has a high tolerance to heat and these little guys thrive in such an anaerobic environment, which is what these botulism- causing bacteria require to grow and reproduce. This means that long after you’ve canned, these bacteria can survive and cause botulism.
Good flora inside of unsalted cultured food is able to stop the growth of botulism-producing bacteria.
On the contrary, unsalted cultured vegetables are made with potent strains of probiotic starter that multiply as they culture and take over any pathogenic activity in the jar. We also use a sterile, controlled method to prevent wild-borne and/or unknown organisms to enter.
When vegetables are cultured, we introduce a large native population of good bacteria which are cultivated to encourage their growth and high production of acids. In this circumstance botulism is not a worry because the bacteria that produce botulism are not able to live in such an acidic environment full of hearty probiotic strains.
Cultured food creates an acidic environment that will not allow botulism-producing bacteria to grow.
When you submerge cabbage, or other vegetables under liquid that has probiotics added into – acidifying bacteria have the opportunity to grow. These beneficial, acidifying bacteria are a brilliant strategy for food preservation and food safety because they create an environment that is inhospitable to botulism or other food poisoning organisms.
The things that can go wrong when you make unsalted, cultured food are typically ones that you can observe with the naked eye; such as surface mold, slimy textures and mushy texture. These things would stop you from wanting to eat the food in the first place!
Recipe for Young Green Coconut Kefir
Beginner Recipe for Unsalted Cultured Vegetables
Alfaro, Danilo (2012) Clostridium Botulinum (Botulism). Online and retrieved from https://culinaryarts.about.com/od/commonfoodbornepathogens/p/botulism.htm
Katz, Sandor Ellix (2008, July) Can I Get Botulism from Fermented Vegetables? Online and retrieved from https://www.wildfermentation.com/
PubMed Health (2011, July) Botulism. Online and retrieved from
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