Kimchi, also called gimchi or kimchee, is a traditional fermented probiotic food that is a staple Korean side dish. Dating back hundreds of years, there are dozens of different recipes for making kimchi, but nearly all have several vegetables and seasonings in common that give it its signature taste. Some of the main ingredients of kimchi include napa cabbage, radish, scallion, cucumber and red chili paste. Other major components that are considered healthy, functional foods include garlic, ginger and red pepper powder.
Today, Kimchi is considered Korea’s “national dish” — in fact, on average people in Korea consume about 40 pounds of kimchi per person, per year! Never tried kimchi before? If you like cultured vegetables and fermented foods like sauerkraut, you’ll probably love kimchi, too. It tastes spicy and sour due to the fermentation process that produces live and active “probiotic cultures,” which are responsible for some of its benefits, including improving digestion and raising immune function.
What Makes Kimchi Beneficial?
Kimchi undergoes a traditional fermentation process inside tightly sealed glass jars that takes place anywhere from several days to several months. During this time the flavors, textures and health benefits of kimchi dramatically change and improve, which is why kimchi is now growing in popularity worldwide as a “superfood.”
According to a 2014 report published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods, the fermentative byproducts formed during fermentation and the functional ingredients used to make kimchi significantly boost its benefits because these are responsible for forming the probiotics. Confused about what probiotics are exactly?
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” The organic acids called lactobacilli and lactic acid are the primary types of probiotics that are produced during the fermentation of kimchi. These are known to suppress harmful bacteria and stimulate beneficial bacteria, prevent constipation, clean the intestines and even prevent colon cancer.
Based upon research, some of kimchi’s benefits include:
- probiotic properties
- anticancer properties
- anti-obesity effects
- antioxidative and anti-aging properties
- seasonal allergy support
- anti-constipation properties
- colorectal health promotion
- cholesterol reduction
- fibrolytic effects
- brain health promotion
- immune promotion
- treating leaky gut syndrome
- skin health promotion
Beginning in the early 20th century, health researchers began to speculate that probiotic foods contained proteolytic microbes that worked in the colon to reduce toxic substances responsible for the aging process. They theorized that consuming fermented foods like benefit-rich kefir and yogurt coats the colon with LAB bacteria, decreasing intestinal pH, suppressing dangerous bacteria and leading to a slower rate of aging. Since this time, numerous studies have suggested this to be true of many different cultured foods.
Several years ago when the SARS epidemic began spreading throughout the world, the press started to proclaim that kimchi might have helped play a role in protecting Koreans due to its positive impact on immunity. It’s even been recently claimed to prevent bird flu. This superfood has also been associated with lower rates of obesity in Korea and helping to keep Koreans energized, which is one reason it’s known to be such a hard-working nation!
Kimchi Nutrition Facts
- 96 calories
- 2 grams fiber
- 3 grams protein
- 1 gram fat
- 20 grams carbohydrates
- 2,273 IU vitamin A (45 percent DV)
- 21 micrograms vitamin K (26 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligram manganese (25 percent DC)
- 12.3 milligrams vitamin C (21 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram vitamin B6 (13 percent DV)
- 2.1 milligrams iron (12 percent DC)
5 Benefits of Kimchi
1. Provides Probiotics that Help Improve Digestion
We hear about the benefits of probiotic foods like yogurt and sauerkraut all the time, but don’t overlook kimchi, which has tons of these gut-friendly bacteria, too. Responsible for giving kimchi its carbonation, sour taste and pungent smell, probiotics develop during fermentation as bacterial enzymes that are able to rapidly reproduce from thriving off of the sugar molecules found in the vegetables. The longer kimchi ferments, usually the greater the health benefits and higher concentration of probiotics that develop. But remember that “real” kimchi also has to be refrigerated and unpasteurized for the probiotics to remain intact.
While fermenting the vegetables, probiotic lactic acid bacteria (LAB) develops. Many bacteria are involved in the fermentation of kimchi, but LAB becomes most dominant while other less-beneficial bacteria become suppressed thanks partially to the salting of the cabbage. The addition of other sub-ingredients like garlic and ginger, plus the rise in LAB during the fermentation, is what helps to ensure that kimchi is safe to eat since this process kills pathogenic bacteria.
Repopulating “good” bacterial microflora of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can play an important role in preventing the pathophysiology of some GI disorders, according to the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. To put it frankly, kimchi can “keep you regular” and help you poop! But that’s not all — probiotics have been used as a natural digestive treatment modality for over a century because beneficial probiotic bacteria strains help reduce harmful bacteria in the gut that can cause indigestion, inflammation and even hormonal changes.
Fermented foods are useful for anyone suffering from common digestive issues like constipation or more serious conditions like candida virus, leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune disorders. The efficacy of probiotics, either as a single strain or a combination of probiotics found in some cultuered foods, has been shown to be beneficial in antibiotic-associated diarrhea, clostridium difficile colitis, infectious diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, pouchitis and irritable bowel syndrome, among other disorders.
On top of being a great source of probiotics, kimchi is also high in fiber. Increased fiber intake benefits a number of gastrointestinal disorders, including the following: gastroesophageal reflux disease, duodenal ulcer, diverticulitis, constipation and hemorrhoids.
2. Helps Increase Immunity
Because over 75 percent of our immune system is actually stored within our gut, probiotic-rich kimchi can help you fight bacterial infections, viruses, common illnesses and serious chronic conditions, too. Probiotics have been linked to lower rates of:
- leaky gut syndrome symptoms
- food or seasonal allergies
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- cognitive-related diseases like dementia and Alzheimers
- ulcer symptoms
- autoimmune disorders like arthritis
- bacterial vaginosis
- bladder infections and urinary tract infections
- dental or respiratory infections
- even obesity and cancer
Aside from containing probiotics, kimchi is full of ingredients that are known to stimulate healthy immune function. Similar to the benefits of cayenne pepper, red pepper powder has anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant effects; it’s even capable of helping food avoid spoiling since it contains natural antibacterial properties.
Garlic is another immune system booster that inhibits the activities of many harmful viruses, fights fatigue, lowers inflammation and has been considered a food for promoting longevity for thousands of years. And ginger is a time-honored beneficial ingredient that helps soothe the digestive organs, nourish the gut, fight bacteria and help you heal quicker from being sick.
And finally cabbage is an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-packaged cruciferous vegetable that provides vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and other important nutrients. Certain biochemicals, including isocyanate and sulfide, that are found in Chinese cabbage and radishes are effective in preventing cancer and detoxifying heavy metals in the liver, kidney and small intestine. Yet another benefit of kimchi is the prebiotic fibers found in the cabbage, radishes and other ingredients that are capable of helping to enhance immune function, especially in the digestive organs.
3. High in Fiber
Kimchi is made primarily of vegetables, which provide a good dose of dietary fiber that’s both filling and good for digestive and heart health. Cabbage is especially a good source of fiber and is high in volume, yet low in calories and carbs. The average fiber intake for U.S. children and adults is less than half of the recommended amount, yet we know that individuals with high intakes of dietary fiber appear to be at significantly lower risks for developing coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and certain gastrointestinal diseases.
Diets that include more high-fiber foods, especially vegetables, are linked to lower blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels, improvements in glycemia and insulin sensitivity, and significantly enhanced weight loss. Increasing fiber in your diet can help you eat less overall since it swells up, absorbs water and makes you feel full. Even small amounts of kimchi can help you reach your fiber quota for the day and give you a nice dose of probiotics in the process, so try using kimchi on some of your favorite recipes as a healthy condiment.
4. Low in Calories and Can Help Reduce Cravings
Many people find that consuming fermented foods helps kill their sugar addiction, improves digestion and helps with appetite regulation. If weight loss is your primary goal, luckily kimchi is very low in calories but high in nutrients and satiating fiber. It might even be able to help improve metabolic function, since its spicy red pepper flakes are known to cause warming, thermogenic effects inside the body.
Probiotic supplements and foods are now being linked with reductions in weight and body fat. Recent studies suggest that manipulation of the microbial ecosystem in the gut might even be a new novel approach in the treatment of obesity. In the future, we might see that treatment options for helping reduce overeating and obesity might consist of altering the compositions of the microbial communities of obese individuals by giving them probiotic bacterial microorganisms, including Lactobacillus gasseri SBT 2055, Lactobacillus rhamnosus ATCC 53103, and the combination of L. rhamnosus ATCC 53102 and Bifidobacterium lactis.
How are probiotics related to weight gain or loss? Short-chain fatty acid production and low-grade inflammation have been found to be important underlying mechanisms of action that influence appetite, metabolism and body weight, and these are highly connected to gut health. This means that finding the most effective combination and dosage rate of probiotic micro-organisms will likely be able to help those who struggle with controlling cravings, regulating appetite hormones and fighting impulses to overeat.
5. Provides Antioxidants that Can Help Fight Cancer
Kimchi is chock-full of anti-inflammatory foods and spices that are known to be cancer-fighting foods since they promote overall better health, longevity and slow down oxidative stress. For example, different color varieties of cabbage can contribute a range of important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds to your diet. Garlic, ginger, radishes, red pepper and scallions are also high in antioxidant properties that help lower inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods are important for preventing chronic diseases associated to oxidative stress, such as cancer, cognitive disorders and coronary artery diseases.
Certain studies suggest that the compound capsaicin, which is contained in the red hot pepper powder of kimchi, helps reduce the chance of developing lung cancer. Allicin, another beneficial chemical contained in garlic, helps reduce the chance of developing liver, stomach and thyroid cancer. In addition, the indole-3-carbinol contained in Chinese cabbage helps reduce the chance of developing stomach or colon cancer.
History of Kimchi
Kimchi, first called ji, was born during the pre-modern period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. It was first made using just cabbage and beef stock — a simple and resourceful recipe using widely available and inexpensive ingredients.
Although red chilis are what give kimchi its signature color and spice, this ingredient wasn’t actually available in Korea until the Europeans introduced it to Asian countries after originally finding it in the Americas. Koreans first has access to red chili after the Japanese invasions of 1592–1598, and it then became a staple ingredient not only in kimchi, but many other Korean recipes, too.
As the national dish, kimchi has played an important role in Korean cuisine for hundreds of years. During South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, the Korean government requested that Americans help feed the hungry and desperate South Korean troops with kimchi, because it was said to be “vitally important to the morale of Korean troops.” Because kimchi is able to help kill intestinal bacteria and improve immunity, it was vital for troops living in harsh environments that didn’t contain many nutrients.
Kimchi can be categorized by its main ingredients, regions where it originally stems from and seasons. Korea’s northern and southern sections have a considerable temperature difference, and this has affected the availability of various vegetable and spice ingredients. Kimchi from the northern parts of Korea tend to have less salt and red chilli and usually do not include brined seafood for seasoning like recipes from southern Korea do.
Other variations in kimchi recipes are due to changes in the seasons, which over the years led people to use fermentation as a way of preserving vegetables that were in season and overly abundant. Before modern refrigeration existed, kimchi was a great way to reduce spoilage and prolong freshness of harvested ingredients, like fresh vegetables and herbs in summer or nutrient-dense sweet potatoes in the cooler months.
Today, even though specialty “kimchi refrigerators” are sometimes used in Korea that have precise controls to keep different varieties of kimchi at optimal temperatures, many Koreans continue to prepare kimchi according to honored traditional and seasonal preparation methods.
Throughout Korea, and other parts of the world where Koreans have formed smaller concentrated pockets, numerous kimchi recipes have shaped form. Today, it’s possible to find hundreds of different kimchi preparation methods available worldwide, all determined by the length of fermentation, main vegetable ingredients and the mix of seasonings used to flavor the kimchi.
The most common seasonings in kimchi include brine (similar to a stock or salt water), scallions, red chili, ginger, chopped radish, shrimp or fish paste, and garlic — all of which pack in flavor and make kimchi stand out in any dish. Although having kimchi with traditional Korean foods like rice and proteins might be the first thing that comes to mind, you can also get creative with kimchi and use it in savory pancakes, baked into “fritters,” on top of burgers, with eggs, on tacos and many other ways, too.
You can try making your own kimchi at home using this simple preparation method below, or look for jarred kimchi in health food stores and specialty Asian grocery stores.
Homemade Kimchi Recipe
(makes about 1 quart)
- 1 medium head napa cabbage or purple cabbage
- 1/4 cup Himalayan or Celtic sea salt
- 1/2 cup water
- 5–6 finely chopped garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon coconut palm sugar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons seafood flavor like fish sauce or shrimp paste (or use more water)
- 1 to 5 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
- 8 ounces Korean radish or daikon radish, peeled and cut finely
- 4 scallions, trimmed and cut finely
- Slice the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Then slice into fine strips.
- Add your salt to the cabbage in a large bowl and use your hands to massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to become soft and give off water. This might take several minutes.
- Let the cabbage stand for 1 to 2 hours, then rinse it under water for several minutes. Combine the garlic, ginger, sugar and seafood flavor in a small bowl and mix to form a smooth paste, then add it to the bowl with cabbage.
- Add the chopped radish, scallions and seasoning paste, then massage all the ingredients together using your hands until they are coated. Pack the kimchi mixture into a large glass jar and press down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables.
- Make sure to leave at least 1–2 inches of space and air at the top of the jar (important for fermentation). Tightly close the lid and keep the jar standing at room temperature for 1 to 5 days.
- Check the kimchi once a day, pressing down on the vegetables if need be to keep them submerged under the liquid brine. Taste the kimchi after several days to see how if it has become sour enough to your liking, and if not let it continue for several more days before storing in the refrigerator sealed for up to 3 months.