By Dr. Mercola
Consuming traditionally fermented foods is a simple strategy to optimize the health of your gut, which is the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables, are teeming with beneficial microbes that are lacking in many Americans’ diets.
Virtually every culture has a recipe for fermented foods that has been passed down for generations and, in some cases, since ancient times. In ancient India, for instance, it was common to enjoy lassi, a pre-dinner fermented yogurt drink. Fermented pickles are another mainstay of Indian cuisine.
Bulgarians are known for their consumption of fermented milk and kefir, while Ukrainians have long consumed fermented foods like raw yogurt, sauerkraut, and buttermilk.
Various Asian cultures traditionally have eaten pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots, and consume these fermented treats even today.
One of these is kimchi which is a fermented blend of cabbage, chili peppers, garlic, scallions, and other spices that can take on salty, sour, and/or spicy flavors, depending on the recipe used.
In Korea, the Family Kimchi Recipe Is a Guarded Secret
There are more than 300 different varieties of kimchi, depending on the main vegetable ingredient used, and the region or season in which they’re made. Kimchi is Korea’s national dish and one that’s eaten with virtually every meal.
As such, the taste of your kimchi can make or break your family’s meal and, in the case of company, “a poor-quality batch can be a social embarrassment … Family recipes are a closely guarded secret,” cookery teacher Kie-Jo-Sarsfield told The Guardian.1
The nature of fermented foods is such that no two batches ever taste exactly the same, and that’s part of their allure. The temperature, length of fermentation, and unique blend of ingredients all contribute to the finished product. As The Guardian reported:2
” … [W]ith so many different ingredients it’s impossible to create a uniform taste each time, adding surprise and drama to the process. ‘It’s an excuse for conversation because you say: ‘Oh come round for lunch, our kimchi is good this time.’
But if your husband brought a guest round unexpectedly you would have to apologize if your kimchi is bad, [Sarsfield said].'”
How Does the Fermentation Process Work?
If you’ve eaten traditionally made yogurt, sauerkraut, or kefir, you’ve eaten fermented foods. During this process, microorganisms, such as bacteria, convert sugars into other compounds in order to produce energy.
The fermentation process lends a characteristic flavor and texture to the food while also extending its shelf life. In fact, foods were originally fermented as a method of preservation. When fermenting vegetables, you can use a starter culture or simply let the natural enzymes in the vegetables do all the work.
This is called “wild fermentation.” Personally, I prefer a starter culture as it provides a larger number of different species, and the culture can be optimized with species that produce high levels of vitamin K2.
You can also choose whether or not to add salt to your fermented vegetables. Natural, unprocessed salt, such as Himalayan salt, strengthens the ferment’s ability to eliminate any potential pathogenic bacteria present and also adds to the flavor, which is why many people prefer to add it.
In addition, salt acts as a natural preservative, which may be necessary if you’re making large batches of fermented vegetables. It also slows the enzymatic digestion of the vegetables, leaving them crunchier, and inhibits surface molds. As for what type of container to use, the material it’s made of is most important.
You don’t want to use plastic, which may leach chemicals into your food, or metal, as salts can corrode the metal.
Large, glass Mason jars make perfect fermentation containers, and they are a good size for most families. Make sure they are the wide-mouthed variety, as you’ll need to get your hand or a tool down into the jar for tightly packing the veggies.
My Kinetic Culture Jar Lids fit on these perfectly and have the added benefit of eliminating odors while fermenting, preventing environmental oxygen from entering the container and preventing mold growth in your veggies. The lids also release pressure build-up so the jar doesn’t break.
Health Benefits of Kimchi
Fermented foods are packed with beneficial microorganisms that most people, especially in the US, do not get elsewhere. Many are not aware that your gut houses about 85 percent of your immune system.
This is in large part due to the 100 trillion bacteria that live there, both beneficial and pathogenic, which can stimulate secretory IgA to nourish your immune response.
When your gastrointestinal tract is not properly balanced, a wide range of health problems can appear, including allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Over the past several years, research has revealed that microbes of all kinds — bacteria, fungi, and even viruses — play instrumental roles in the functioning of your body. For example, beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods have been shown to:
- Counteract inflammation and control the growth of disease-causing bacteria
- Produce vitamins, amino acids (protein precursors), absorb minerals, and eliminate toxins
- Control asthma and reduce risk of allergies
- Benefit your mood and mental health
- Impact your weight
Kimchi, in particular, is rich in vitamins A and C, and due to its fermentation process is also rich in beneficial gut-boosting lactobacilli bacteria. It has potent antioxidative and immune-stimulating activities,3,4 along with anti-obesity effects in animal studies.5
Kimchi also has antimicrobial properties that may be effective against pathogenic bacteria,6 and the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may also help your body break down pesticides. The Journal of Medicinal Food explained:7
“Kimchi is a traditional Korean food manufactured by fermenting vegetables with probiotic lactic acid bacteria (LAB).
Many bacteria are involved in the fermentation of kimchi, but LAB become dominant while the putrefactive bacteria are suppressed during salting of baechu cabbage and the fermentation.
The addition of other subingredients and formation of fermentation byproducts of LAB promote the fermentation process of LAB to eventually lead to eradication of putrefactive and pathogenic bacteria, and also increase the functionalities of kimchi.
Accordingly, kimchi can be considered a vegetable probiotic food that contributes health benefits in a similar manner as yogurt as a dairy probiotic food.”
In many ways, kimchi may be even better than yogurt, as it contains other noteworthy superfoods as well, like cruciferous vegetables, garlic, ginger, red pepper, and more, which significantly boost its health potential.
And, according to a study in The Journal of Medicinal Food, kimchi has an impressive roster of health functionality that includes:8
Anti-cancer Anti-obesity Anti-constipation Colorectal health promotion Probiotic properties Cholesterol reduction Fibrolytic effect Antioxidative properties Anti-aging properties Brain health promotion Immune promotion Skin health promotion
How to Make Kimchi
You can make your own Korean kimchi at home. It’s surprisingly easy, and you can tweak the recipe to suit your own tastes. The recipe that follows is from Lucy Shewell, PhD at ICantBelieveThatsHealthy.com.9 If you want another version, you can also find an easy kimchi recipe here.
- ¾ wombok cabbage
- 3 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder (sold in Asian markets)
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 large clove garlic, finely minced
- 3 cm fresh ginger, finely grated
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 shallots (green part only), chopped
- Chopping board
- Sharp knife
- Large mixing bowl
- Colander or large strainer
- Small mixing bowl
- Large glass jar with lid for fermenting
- Chop the wombok cabbage into quarters lengthwise and remove the core. Slice the cabbage into about 2 to 3 cm thick strips, and place the cabbage in a large bowl. Salt the cabbage and massage it with your hands, until it begins to soften.
Cover the cabbage with water and allow it to soak for at least one hour.
- Keep ¼ cup of the salty water that the cabbage is soaking in. Place the cabbage in a colander or large strainer, rinse it well in water, and drain it.
Rinse the bowl that the cabbage was soaked in and place the cabbage back in the bowl after it has drained.
- To make the paste combine the red pepper powder, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and water in the small mixing bowl and mix well. Add in the chopped shallots and mix.
- Add the kimchi paste to the cabbage and mix it into the cabbage. (Using clean hands may be the easiest way to do this.)
- Using your hands, put the cabbage into a large glass jar, pressing the cabbage down firmly with each handful. The idea is to remove as much oxygen as possible to create the correct environment for the fermentation to occur.
- Wipe the sides of the jar down and place the kimchi in a warm spot to ferment. The kimchi may need about three days to ferment, but taste it often and allow the kimchi to continue fermenting until your desired taste is achieved.
Enjoy the Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
You might start out making fermented foods for the health benefits, then get hooked by the flavor (or vice versa). Either way, you’ll reap great rewards. Fermented foods are potent chelators (detoxifiers) and contain much higher levels of beneficial bacteria than probiotic supplements, making them ideal for optimizing your gut flora.
In addition to helping break down and eliminate heavy metals and other toxins from your body, beneficial gut bacteria perform a number of surprising functions, including:
- Mineral absorption, and producing nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin K2 (vitamin K2 and vitamin D are necessary for integrating calcium into your bones and keeping it out of your arteries, thereby reducing your risk for coronary artery disease and stroke)
- Preventing obesity and diabetes, and regulating dietary fat absorption
- Lowering your risk for cancer
- Improving your mood and mental health
- Preventing acne
Just one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health. If you’ve never eaten fermented foods, too large a portion may provoke a healing crisis, which occurs when the probiotics kill off pathogens in your gut. When these pathogens die, they release potent toxins.
If you are new to fermented foods, you should introduce them gradually, beginning with as little as one teaspoon of kimchi with a meal. Observe your reactions for a couple of days before proceeding with another small portion and increase your dose gradually, as tolerated.