If you haven’t discovered kimchi yet, read on. You’ll be surprised by the benefits of this Korean dish.

With a growing worldwide interest in fermented and probiotic foods, it’s no surprise that a fermented vegetable side dish called kimchi is currently all the rage.

Recognised as a functional food, kimchi was listed in the magazine Health as one of the world’s healthiest foods.

What is kimchi?
Kimchi (or kimchee) is a traditional fermented Korean delicacy that’s made from vegetables, including cabbage, and a range of spices and seasonings. As a national dish, it’s been a staple food in Korea for centuries.

Since kimchi is produced by fermenting vegetables with probiotic lactic-acid bacteria (LAB), it can be considered a vegetable probiotic food, explains scientist Kun-Young Park, Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Pusan National University in Korea.

Having done extensive research on kimchi, Park comments in the Journal of Medicinal Food (2014) that kimchi has similar health benefits as yoghurt – a dairy probiotic food.

The history of kimchi
The origins of kimchi go back to 7th century Korea, when farmers salted vegetables in order to make them last longer because extremely cold weather conditions made it difficult to cultivate them in winter. The term “kimchi” was originally derived from the Korean word “shimchae”, meaning “salting of vegetables”.

Kimchi initially comprised only salted vegetables. Later, various flavours and spices were added to enhance the food. In the 18th century, red hot peppers became an important ingredient.

Despite the addition of other ingredients, the same ancient cooking method is still used to prepare traditional kimchi.

Kimchi’s health benefits
Kimchi isn’t only a low-kilojoule, high-fibre dish; it also provides an impressive array of nutrients, including:

Vitamins A, B1, B2 and C
• Essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein)
Minerals such as calcium, iron and selenium
• Probiotics in the form of lactobacillus bacteria
• Powerful antioxidants such as chlorophyll, carotenoids, flavonoids and isothiocyanates

While cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage are the main ingredients, other healthy functional foods such as garlic, ginger and red pepper powder are added to kimchi.

Prof Park says it’s well known that kimchi possesses anti-mutagenic, anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, anti-obesity, anti-ageing, anti-diabetic and antioxidant properties.

“Based on our research and other studies, the health functionality of kimchi also plays a role in promoting colorectal health, reducing cholesterol, enhancing the body’s immune system and promoting skin health.”

The following list outlines just a few of kimchi’s many health benefits:

Digestive health: Kimchi’s fermentation process creates Lactobacillus, healthy bacteria the body needs to maintain a healthy state of intestinal flora. Research has shown that a balanced digestive tract is not only essential for optimum health, but is responsible for 80% of the body’s immune system.

The importance of keeping the bacteria that reside in the intestines functioning properly is echoed by Dr Andrew Gewirtz of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University. In a study with fellow researchers, he demonstrated that healthy gut flora plays an important role in helping prevent metabolic disorder as well as conditions such as Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

With fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and yoghurt being the most ancient way of replenishing good bacteria in the body, it’s not surprising that researchers are taking a closer look at traditional foods that are naturally dense in healthy bacteria.

Cholesterol and blood glucose: Regular consumption of kimchi has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. It helps to lower the total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol along with the concentrations of blood glucose in the body. That’s according to a 2013 investigative study by food scientist In Hwa Choi and researchers at Korea’s Pusan National University. Their study, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, concluded that kimchi consumption could have health-promoting effects in young adults including improving fasting blood glucose (FBG).

Anti-obesity: Kimchi is a source of healthy lactobacillus bacteria, which assists in weight loss by controlling the appetite and reducing blood-glucose levels. A study conducted on obese people who consumed either fresh or fermented kimchi showed significant decreases in body weight, body mass index, and body fat in both groups. Lead author EK Kim of the Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Ajou University School of Medicine in the Republic of Korea comments that their 2011 study published in Nutrition Research validates the favourable effects of fermented kimchi with respect to body mass index (BMI).

Anti-ageing properties: A 2011 study has revealed the role of kimchi in helping to regulate the inflammation that speeds up the ageing process. The study, published in Food Science and Biotechnology, has also shown encouraging results with regard to factors like reduced oxidative stress in the cells. Researchers stated that kimchi has a promising role as an anti-ageing agent.

Practical tips
Experts recommend initially adding small quantities of kimchi to your diet, as excess consumption can lead to digestive problems in some people. That’s because fermented kimchi contains a lot of fibre that may cause bloating.

Caution is advised for people with high blood pressure as kimchi has a high salt concentration.

Kimchi is versatile and can be added to soups, rice dishes or stews. Different types of vegetables and seasonings can be used to add interest to the dish. These include Chinese cabbage, leeks, eggplants, leeks, radishes, cucumber, ginseng, garlic, cayenne peppers and Indian mustard leaves.

Kimchi recipe
Keen to make your own fresh Korean kimchi at home? Try this recipe from Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type on Mercola.com:

4 cups of water
4 tablespoons sea salt
1 head shredded cabbage
1 cup grated daikon radish or 1 cup asparagus cut into 2.5cm pieces
2 chopped scallions
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

- In a large bowl, mix a brine of the water and salt. Mix well to thoroughly dissolve salt. Add the cabbage and         daikon radish. Cover with a plate or other weight to keep the vegetables submerged.
- Soak for 12 hours.
- Drain the brine from the vegetables, and set it aside. Taste the vegetables for saltiness. If they’re too salty,       you can rinse the vegetables. If they’re not salty enough, sprinkle with a little more salt.
- Combine the asparagus, green beans, scallions, garlic, ginger and cayenne pepper and add to the cabbage         mixture.
- Put the whole mix into a jar or crock. Pour the soaking liquid over the vegetables, making sure that they’re         completely submerged in liquid.
- Cover loosely with a clean cloth and set aside for three to seven days. The ideal room temperature for               fermentation is around 21 degrees Celsius; it will take longer if it’s colder.
- Check the kimchi daily. Make sure the vegetables are completely covered in brine and that it reaches the top of   the jar to eliminate trapped air. The kimchi will taste ripe after three to seven days and can then be placed in a     glass jar in the refrigerator where it will keep for months.