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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Kimchi Power!

Touted as one of the world’s five healthiest foods, kimchi is low in fat, and believed by some to prevent SARS, cancer, AIDS and cure avian flu. But there’s also a strong correlation between heavy kimchi consumption and the high rate of stomach cancer among Koreans. So what’s the truth behind Korea’s national dish of spicy, fermented vegetables?

Koreans have been eating kimchi since the dawn of time. In the early days, it was pretty much the same as sauerkraut, and eaten mainly in the winter months. With the introduction of the chili pepper to the peninsula in the 1700’s, the modern concoction was born.

Kimchi is an acquired taste; both the pickle and the spiciness can be off-putting to the uninitiated. But many a foreigner has grown to love kimchi as much as Koreans do. It’s a good taste to develop because the ajummas are right; in moderation, kimchi is very good for you.

First of all, no matter what vegetable is being kimchified, there is always a whack of garlic in the recipe. If you’re not already aware of the miracle food this is, let me enlighten you. Garlic is a powerful antioxidant, reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels, combats allergies, regulates blood sugar levels, reduces stress and keeps vampires at bay.

Green onions (or scallions) are another key kimchi ingredient and have similar properties to garlic, including raising the high density lipoproteins in your blood.

This is good for you, as it removes cholesterol from the body’s tissue. Green onions are also a source of calcium (the good-for-your-bones-and-teeth stuff).

Gochu, or red chili peppers, have the highest level of vitamin C of any known food, as well as high amounts of vitamins A and B. The capsaicin, which makes it spicy, protects the vitamin C from breaking down before it can be used by our bodies, and it breaks down fat in our systems. Capsaicin also helps to alleviate arthritis pain.

Cabbage, the most common veggie to undergo kimchification, is being studied as a preventative to breast cancer, after researchers found abnormally low rates of breast cancer among Polish women. Fermented cabbage in particular has compounds that may prevent the growth of cancer cells. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin C, and was fed to sailors to prevent scurvy back in the day.

Like yoghurt, fermented cabbage can help prevent yeast infections and promote a healthy digestive tract by promoting growth of good bacteria.

When everything is all mixed together and allowed to ferment, kimchi ends up being rather rich in vitamins and minerals. 100g of kimchi has 492 units of vitamin A, and 12mg of vitamin C. In comparison, 130g of apple only has 50 units of vitamin A and 3mg of vitamin C.

For the calorie conscious among us, 100g of kimchi has less than 15 calories. Along with the vitamins, kimchi has high levels of protein, calcium and iron.

Still not convinced? 99% of salmonella and listeria germs died within 4 hours of being exposed to kimchi, which means it also prevents food poisoning. A less convincing study suggests kimchi extract may cure avian flu in chickens, as 11 of 13 infected birds fed the extract recovered, in a study in Seoul. The science behind this is particularly shaky, though.

Now for the bad news. While Korean women can boast one of the lowest overall cancer rates in the world (64.9/100 000 as compared to 109.7/100 000 in the USA), Koreans have one of the highest rates of stomach cancer, ten times the rate in the USA.

Scientists at Chungbuk National University have linked this to excessive kimchi consumption, and have found “very very heavy eaters” of kimchi to have a 50% higher risk of developing stomach cancer. With Koreans eating an average of 18 kg (40lbs) of kimchi per person per year, I’d like to see a definition of “very very heavy eaters”.

This is not conclusive, however, as the Japanese and Vietnamese also have excessively high rates of stomach cancer. Other researchers have linked it to the talc used in white rice, which is an irritant to the stomach.

As with most things in life, moderation is key. Some kimchi a day will likely keep the doctor away, but don’t overdo it. A healthy dose of Sam Gyup Sal will help keep you in balance.