If you’ve ever eaten at a Korean restaurant, you probably recognize kimchi as the spicy, salty side dish served alongside your meal. If not, try to imagine a kicked-up version of sauerkraut, but with way more flavor. In any case, there is no denying kimchi tastes delicious—but what exactly is it?
What is kimchi?
In its most basic form, kimchi consists of vegetables (primarily cabbage) combined with salt, sugar, garlic, ginger, red pepper and other spices. Once everything is mixed together, it’s packed tightly into a mason jar and given time (about 2 – 5 days) to sit and ferment. The end result is a tangy, delicious dish you can eat on its own, add to soups and salads or use to top burgers, fish and other main dishes. There are actually hundreds of different varieties of kimchi, and plenty of fiercely guarded family recipes, which makes sense given how big a role it plays in Korean culture.
The origin of kimchi—or, at the very least, one of its main ingredients—is the subject of some debate. While some scholars contest the chili pepper was not introduced until later, a recent review of historical data revealedthe peppers were always involved in making kimchi and likely the foundation of the fermentation process, as red pepper “deters growth of harmful microorganisms and promotes the growth of useful ones such as lactic acid bacteria.” The 2015 paper also points out that kimchi has been a staple of Korean cuisine for about 4,000 years, having been developed out of a need to preserve food and keep it from spoiling.
What are the health benefits of kimchi?
Because kimchi is a fermented food, it offers numerous benefits for digestive health and the health of the whole body. Like other fermented foods—including yogurt, pickled veggies, kefir (a fermented milk beverage), miso, sauerkraut and tempeh—kimchi helps nourish the friendly bacteria in the gut that support good digestive function and provide support for the intestinal lining. Studies show consuming fermented foods on daily basis also increases the diversity of your beneficial gut microbes, which in turn support overall well-being.
In addition to being a source of helpful Lactobacillus bacteria, kimchi contains vitamin A, vitamin C and more than one type of B vitamin, along with essential minerals such as calcium, iron and selenium. Research on the benefits of kimchi point to its digestive health and detoxification properties, as well as its antioxidant and immune-supportive benefits. Kimchi has also been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels, promote brain health and even help with weight management. No wonder you will often hear it called the Korean superfood!
Why is kimchi so good for digestive health?
The combination of the friendly probiotic bacteria plus the prebiotic fiber often found in kimchi (including onions, leeks, scallions and garlic) make it a powerhouse of potential when it comes to healthy digestion function. Here’s a quick refresher on the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics:
Probiotics are the good bacteria found throughout the body but mainly in the gut, where at least 70% of your immune system can be found. The helpful microbes work to maintain a balanced environment throughout the digestive system, keeping harmful bacteria in check so you can continue to feel healthy. This supports digestive health and regularity as well as overall immune function.
Prebiotics are non-digestible fiber sources we get through our diet or from supplements. You can think of them as the favorite food of probiotics. As they travel through the digestive system, they remain intact and act as a food source for their probiotic partners, helping to nourish all those good bacteria along the way so they can grow and multiply. The result? More good bacteria in the gut means better digestion and a stronger natural defense system.
Can I make my own kimchi at home?
You bet! We love this Easy Homemade Kimchi recipe from Clean Eatingmagazine. It’s super simple and makes plenty to share. And did we mention it tastes amazing?
Easy Homemade Kimchi
Makes: Several jars of kimchi
- 2 large Napa cabbages
- 2 heads of garlic
- 2 carrots
- 2 pears
- 1 daikon radish
- 1 bunch scallions
- ½ ginger root
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 1 cup red pepper powder
- 1 cup salt
- Chop the cabbage into one-inch squares. Mix with the cup of salt in a large bowl and stir every 20 minutes for one to two hours. If that seems like a lot of salt, don’t worry—most of it will be rinsed off later. The dry brining process extracts excess water from the cabbage, making it more pliable and aiding in the fermentation process.
- While the cabbage is salting, puree the fish sauce, garlic cloves, ginger and the pear. Add in the pepper powder and mix well. Julienne the carrots and daikon radish, and chop the scallions into one-inch pieces.
- Place the cabbage in a colander and rinse thoroughly. Squeeze out the excess water.
- Mix the cabbage, carrot, radish and sauce with your hands. Add green onion and continue to mix.
- It’s time to ferment! Separate the mix into jars and pack down firmly. Let them sit at room temperature (68 degrees F) for three days. Be sure to “burp” the jars at least once a day to release the pressure. After three days, transfer to the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process.
Nutrients per serving (28g): Calories: 10, total fat: 0g, sat. fat: 0g, polyunsaturated fat: 0g, carbs: 2g, fiber: 1g, sugars: 1g, protein: 0g, sodium: 215mg, cholesterol: 0mg
What are some other foods that support digestive health?
Good question! Here’s a few that come to mind right off the bat, but you can always respond to the blog below if you have questions about a certain food.
Papaya: Ripe papayas are abundant in papain, a natural digestive enzyme that helps break down protein to support healthy digestion. The delicious tropical fruit is also naturally high in fiber and has been shown to help relieve occasional constipation and ease symptoms of irritable bowel to support regularity.
Whole grains: A healthy colon requires bulk to eliminate regularly, and whole grains—along with other sources of fiber—can help provide that bulk. Aim for at least 35 grams of fiber each day from whole grains, fruit, non-starchy veggies, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds (including chia and flax seeds) to support optimal digestion and regularity. Taking a daily fiber supplement is also a helpful way to add more fiber.
Bananas: The easy-to-grab fruit is chock full of vitamins and minerals including vitamin B6, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium and manganese, but it’s the prebiotic fiber in bananas that packs a powerful punch for good digestion. It provides a food source for your beneficial gut bacteria and supports colon health. Bananas are also rich in health-promoting antioxidants.
Leafy greens: Scientists recently made the connection between a sugar molecule found in leafy greens and a healthy gut microbiome. As it turns out, leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach and collards contain high amounts of sulfoquinovose (SQ), which is a favorite food source for your friendly gut flora. By snacking on SQ, good bacteria increase their numbers in the gut and are more able to keep harmful bacteria from flourishing.
Healthy fats: Beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids—found naturally in oily fish, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and some leafy greens—support the growth of good bacteria in the gut, which in turn promotes healthy digestion. Omega-3 fats also nourish the cells in the colon and soothe and lubricate the bowel to ease elimination and promote regularity. Research also links these good-for-you fats to a healthy heart, brain, skin, joints and more. Because most Americans don’t get enough Omega-3 fats from diet alone, taking a daily fish oil supplement can help make up the difference.
What’s the best way to eat for a healthy gut?
While this is just a handful of foods known to support optimal digestion and bowel health, following a healthy diet is a great way to keep your digestive system in balance so you can continue to feel your best. Overall, most experts recommend following a Mediterranean-style eating plan—one rich in beneficial fats, protein and especially fiber from fruit, leafy greens, nuts and legumes—for a healthy gut.
And don’t forget to include plenty of “living foods” (such as raw, organic fruits and veggies) and fermented foods (which contain beneficial probiotic cultures) to support your friendly gut flora!