By Dr. Mercola
"Kinetic" is synonymous with strong, energetic and dynamic. It's a good way to describe how Korean culture regards food, whether it's being prepared, eaten or shared.
Food has a cathartic power that can connect you to goodness on multiple levels. It benefits nutritionally as an energy source, but it can also be therapeutic, as mealtime is often a time to connect socially with family and friends.
That's where the South Korean food culture does so many things right. They recognize that over food, conflicts are resolved, friendships are cultivated, and even between nations, alliances are established for mutual benefit.
It's a concept called "gastrodiplomacy," one way South Korea has purposed to extend its hand, so to speak, to promote international relations throughout the world. What could embody this country's culture more than its most famous fermented dish, kimchi?
In fact, the South Korean government has initiated a campaign to expand its global influence through kimchi appreciation, and even financially supports citizens opening Korean restaurants in the U.S. Kimchi, of course, is always prominent on the menu. As a result, kimchi has been steadily gaining a global following.
Kimjang: Celebrating the Kimchi Culture
The cultural aspect of kimchi has to do with community. In a ritual called Kimjang, whole villages enjoy the tradition of getting together to slice up hundreds of cabbages for storage and subsequent fermentation in either modern refrigerators or underground pots. It's the essence of binding together individuals, families and neighbors.
Kimjang takes place annually in South Korean communities. The kimchi-making culture is so strong that instead of saying "Hi, how are you?" the standard greeting is more along the lines of "How many heads of cabbage are you doing this year?"
Hyunjoo Albrecht, a chef in San Francisco who launched a commercial kimchi product, associates the kinetic culture of kimchi-making with harmony. "Kimchi is like air in Korea," she said in NPR. "It always has to be in the refrigerator in every house, a big batch."1
During Kimjang: "One person trimming the ginger, one person cutting the cabbage, one person cutting the radish," Albrecht recalled. "You need the help of others."2
As South Koreans permeate the world with kimchi awareness, they're spreading not only the love but also a greater understanding of what makes food healthy. Some people eat kimchi and exclaim how fresh tasting it is, or flavorful, or complex. Others want to know why it's prepared the way it is and what it does for them nutritionally.
Fermentation, Probiotics and Gut Health
In ancient societies, from Ukraine to East India to 1st century Rome, one way people preserved food (and themselves, perhaps) was through fermentation. In doing so, their overall health was improved — principally, their intestinal health.
What most of them didn't realize was that fermenting their vegetables, milk and kefir introduced probiotics into their systems.
We now know the best ways to improve gut health are to consume fermented foods on a regular basis, ease sugar and processed foods out of your life and limit your grain intake. As The Epoch Times explained:
"These fermented foods are items which have gone through a process of 'lactofermentation' … where natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid.
This process preserves the food and creates various strains of probiotics, along with beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids."3
About 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut. In fact, your gut bacteria outnumber your cells by 10-to-1. When your intestinal flora is disproportionate, health problems of all kinds are more prevalent, from allergies to autoimmune diseases.
Probiotics in fermented foods like turnips, cucumbers and eggplant help balance the mucus in your digestive tract, protect against disease and chelate toxins and heavy metals from your system.
What's so Great About Eating Fermented Foods?
Nearly all organic plant matter (and even the dust covering the soil) contains lacto-fermenting bacteria called Lactobacilli, or Lactobacillus acidophilus. As Lactobacilli start multiplying in the fermentation process, they produce lactic acid (hence the name).
When lactic acid is produced, it helps preserve the food. Another benefit is that fermentation makes nutrients more bioavailable. It also provides instant energy. Several studies indicate the many amazing benefits fermentation brings to your gut health.
For instance, one week after sauerkraut begins fermenting, the vitamin C content rises to around six times higher than in the same amount of plain cabbage.4 But not all sauerkraut is beneficial, as Health Impact News reports:
"In order for sauerkraut to have a preventative effect for cancer, it needs to be raw. Raw naturally fermented sauerkraut contains lactic acid and the living probiotic microorganisms that are the agents of fermentation.
Canned sauerkraut, pasteurized sauerkraut or fully cooked sauerkraut does not have this healing power, because the microorganisms have been killed by extended exposure to high heat. Cooking and pasteurization also damages other cancer preventative properties.
Properly fermented sauerkraut can be kept for years without refrigeration as long as it is stored at a cool temperature. Containers of sauerkraut and other types of fermented vegetables were often stored in root cellars, caves and sometimes even buried in the ground for long-term cool storage."5
Additional Health Benefits of Fermentation
Another fermentation advantage is vitamin K2 (not to be confused with the vitamin K1 in leafy green vegetables), a natural byproduct. K2 brings you many of the same benefits as vitamin D. Vitamin K works with vitamin D to prevent losing the benefits of oral supplements, and even helps prevent arterial plaque buildup and heart disease.
Cheeses, homemade yogurt, kefir and natto (fermented soy) are good sources of vitamin K2. In the absence of these foods in your diet, an alternative would be a K2 supplement, but those can be fairly pricey.
It's important to understand that not every strain of bacteria makes K2, so not all fermented foods will contain it. Most commercial yogurts are virtually devoid of vitamin K2, and while certain types of cheeses, such as Gouda, Brie and Edam are high in K2, others are not. It really depends on the specific bacteria present during the fermentation.
When fermenting your own foods at home, using a special starter culture designed with bacterial strains that produce vitamin K2 will ensure a vitamin-K2-rich result.
Fermented foods may even have an impact on behavior by modulating your gut bacteria. One study6 noted that mice deficient in certain gut bacteria exhibited "high risk behavior," while mice given good gut bacteria demonstrated less anxious, "normal" behavior because their neurotransmitters were modified.
Gut bacteria and the lack thereof may also have a direct influence on babies' risk of learning disabilities and autism,7 on diabetes risk8 and obesity.9
Consuming a drink containing probiotics was shown in a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled clinical trial to have positive effects on disease resistance. Daily intake of the probiotic drink was described as showing "some promise in reducing overall incidence of illness."10
The Case for DIY Fermentation: The Ultimate Superfood
Eating cultured veggies has increased in popularity among hipsters, millennials and boomers. Miso, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi, all bottled up and ready to go, have been flying off supermarket shelves as peoples' understanding of the importance of gut health has become more widespread.
Supplements, drinks and other products touting probiotics are more available than ever, marketed to introduce cultured bacteria into your system to help "rebalance" whatever gut bacteria may be compromised or even missing. However, researchers at the University of Copenhagen recently perused multiple studies in a comprehensive review11 of probiotic supplementation and reported that probiotic "culture" doesn't appear to improve the guts of healthy adults.
The Epoch Times asserted that a growing number of consumers are getting wise to all the prepared products pitching a probiotic upgrade and are instead looking more seriously at making their own fermented veggies at home to address better gut health.
"The interest in 'home brewing' comes as part of a change in consumption with people moving away from pre-packed 'marketi[z]ed science,' to instead seek out their own personal, experiential and enlightened paths to wellness."12
The possibility of making cultured vegetables at home is compelling because it's more cost effective. Just a few ounces of homemade kimchi, for instance, may provide as many beneficial bacteria as an entire bottle of probiotic supplements. Further:
- When you make your own food, you know for sure what you're eating
- Ingredients can be sourced locally
- You can use and tweak your own recipes
- Once you get the process down, it's relatively simple
With that, enterprising firms are coming out with fermentation kits to help kick-start peoples' home fermenting ventures. Crocks or jars, pickling salt, cabbage shredders, mesh strainers and the like are boxed and sent to your door, making your own probiotic-rich foods available in a matter of days.
Not only can you ferment your own vegetables, you can also culture wild-caught fish (an example is Swedish graviax) and raw, organic and grass-fed dairy to create homemade yogurt, kefir and sour cream. While some people are hesitant to give fermenting a try because they're concerned they might grow some type of harmful mold or bacteria, rest assured that the acidic nature of the fermentation process serves to destroy disease-causing bacteria.
Kimchi Culture: Positively Kinetic
Traditional Korean kimchi has been described as "essential to the country of the country," according to NPR's The Salt.
"There are hundreds of different varieties of kimchi in Korea, and about 1.5 million tons of it is consumed each year. Even the Korean stock market reflects this obsession: The 'Kimchi Index' tracks when Napa cabbage and the 12 other ingredients — chili, carrots, radishes and anchovies among them — are at their best prices."13
Cabbage is the main ingredient but mustard greens, garlic, onion, ginger root, Asian radish and Korean chili powder are often common elements, and sometimes anchovies, or a couple of eggs. Recipes are usually formulated to fill a gallon-sized jar, after which it's eaten with relish both fresh and fermented. Here's a fermented pickled veggies recipe to try:
Lacto-Fermented Mixed Pickles
- 3 tablespoons sea salt, pickling salt, or kosher salt
- 1 quart distilled or filtered water (room temperature)
- 1 cup each cauliflower florets, carrot chunks and red bell pepper chunks
- 1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1-2 grape leaves (optional, to help keep pickles crisp)
1. Combine water and salt until the salt is dissolved.
2. All remaining ingredients go in a (very) clean, 1/2–gallon jar
3. Pour the salt water over the vegetables, leaving 1 inch of space at the top, making sure the vegetables are covered. Cover the jar tightly and let it stand at room temperature.
4. Once a day or so, open the jar to taste the pickles and release gases produced during fermentation. If any mold or scum has formed on the top, simply skim it off.
5. When pickles taste the way you like them, refrigerate the jar. They will continue to ferment very slowly. The cold will pretty much stop the fermentation process.