Kimchi has been eaten in the Korean peninsula for over 2,000 years. The modern Korean consumes about 30 kilograms of it per annum. It is credited with keeping obesity at bay in the country, and is believed to combat stress and to slow the ageing process, as well as fighting cancer and a wide variety of deadly conditions such as SARS and bird flu. To what extent is this all true?
Not only is there a scientific basis for these claims, but a number of experiments have been carried out which show that there is more to Kimchi’s health benefits than mere nationalist fervour.
Kimchi has been recognised for its health benefits outside Korea. It was chosen as one of the five healthiest foods in the world by Health magazine in 2006, alongside Spanish olive oil, Japanese soy, Greek yogurt, and Indian lentils.
The extraordinary benefits of Kimchi are due in part to the combined medicinal value of its individual ingredients. Like other items on Health magazine’s list, though, the real secret of kimchi is a high concentration of beneficial lactobacilli. These are the result of fermentation, a process common in many Korean dishes.
Fermentation was a natural way of preserving vegetables during the winter period. Making kimchi in Korea was a communal affair, with friends and neighbours gathering to fill stone jars which would then be buried (nowadays refrigerators are used).
Kimchi reaches its optimum taste and nutritional value when it has been fermented for two to three weeks. One gram of well-fermented Kimchi contains about 100,000,000 lactobacilli. These lactobacilli help to cleanse the large intestine by assisting the growth of beneficial microorganisms and suppressing harmful bacteria.
Although there are many examples of pickled vegetables, such as Chinese paocai and Japanese zukemono, or German sauerkraut, Kimchi contains a greater amount of beneficial lactobacilli and valuable bioactive substances than any other. This includes the Japanese imitation ‘kimuchi’, which has 167 times fewer lactobacilli than the Korean original.
Anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C, beta carotene, phenol compounds, and chlorophyll, make Kimchi a ‘stress-buster’. In a study carried out by Professor Lee Jongmi of Ewha Women’s University, a mouse under stress (not sure how they did this, but anyway) was fed with a mixture containing 5% Kimchi, and its blood corticosterone (a hormone that indicates the stress level) was reduced by 30.4%.
Professor Park Kunyoung of Pusan University tested the skin cell thickness of mice fed with Kimchi for sixteen weeks. Skin usually becomes drier and thinner with age, but the skin cells of the mice that were fed with Kimchi showed an increase in thickness of over 24%, compared with the mice that were given ordinary food.