I remember the first time I tried kimchi. It was at a Korean restaurant of course. My friend suggested we get it to go with our meals; I had bugolgi – another yummy Korean dish – and the kimchi did not disappoint. As a rule, I love spicy foods and am not afraid of heat provided it doesn’t distract from the flavours of the food, so I dove in. It was love at first taste.
What is kimchi?
Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine and is traditionally a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly napa cabbage and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings including chili powder, scallions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood).
Vegetables are largely fermented using lactic acid producing bacteria. Many bacteria are initially involved in the fermentation process but the added salt prevents the overgrowth of putrefactive and pathogenic bacteria. As the fermentation process proceeds and the number of lactic acid bacteria increases, they, in turn, help eradicate unwanted pathogenic bacteria resulting in a tasty and probiotic-rich food.
Anyone who eats kimich is probably most familiar with the cabbage variety but tere are dozens and dozens of varieties of kimchi made with different vegetables as the main ingredients. In traditional preparations, kimchi used to be stored underground in jars to keep cool and unfrozen during the winter months but today, kimchi is stored in refrigerators.
Cabbages and radishes are the most commonly used kimchi vegetables. Other kimchi vegetables include: celery, cilantro, cress, cucumber, eggplant, garlic chives, garlicscapes, ginger, Korean parsley, Korean wild chive, lotus roots, mustard greens, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, radish greens, scallions, soybean sprouts, spinach, sugar beets, and tomatoes.
Does kimchi have any health benefits?
This is a hot topic right now. Many traditional fermented foods like kefir, yogurt with live active bacteria, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables and kimchi are being investigated for their potential health properties.
Consumer interest in foods as a source of probiotics has been steadily increasing over time too with an increase in searches of ‘kimchi’ and ‘probiotics’ specifically….
Kimchi in particular is a source of several different strains of bacteria. A 2016 study in the journal of Food Science & Technology identified over 900 lactic acid bacteria strains. Research needs to be done to identify which strains might offer specific health benefits but some research has suggested that kimchi as a whole food might offer health benefits even while the specific strain(s) responsible for the health benefits aren’t known at this time.
A 2015 study of nearly 10,000 people saw improvements in eczema (atopic dermatitis) in heavy consumers of kimchi, a 44% reduction in eczema prevalence which is impressive by any stretch – medications included!
Because of the gut’s bacteria’s role in influencing energy metabolism, or how efficiently our bodies use energy from the foods we eat, supporting the gut with fermented foods is a another area of interest. A 2015 study found that daily consumption of kimchi for 8 weeks improved the profile of gut bacteria towards one that supports healthy body weights. Modern refined diets that include highly processed foods may be contributing to the current overweight and obesity problem beyond the fact that they are very high in calories and highly palatable or “yummy”.
It’s too soon to say if kimchi has a therapeutic effect. Unlike probiotic supplements which can be standardized to contain specific bacterial strains in amounts shown to have positive health outcomes or benefits, kimchi as a food can’t be. We won’t be able to control the number or diversity of strains that form during the fermentation process to ensure a person gets a predetermine dose.
Research will continue to look for unique strains of bacteria in kimchi so that they can be isolated and tested for a therapeutic effect; once that happens, those specific strains could be used to make a standardized supplement or food product.
From a general health point of view, kimchi, like other fermented products such as kefir, fermented pickles or sauerkraut, will offer a variety of healthy bacteria which will lend to a healthy and robust gut ‘ecology’ or microbiome; the total amount of diverse microorganism that live in our intestinal tract. Fermented foods are also more digestible and nutrient absorption from them are enhanced, so if you’re looking to try a new food why not give kimchi a try? It’s a great side dish, goes well on salads for extra kick and offers easily digestible nutrition while supporting our gut!!