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Flu Fighter a la Fear Factor

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My wife and I acquired a taste for kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) after visiting South Korea a number of times. Our hosts told us stories about numerous health benefits of eating it. One legend was that kimchi kept SARS out of the country during the epidemic a few years ago because everybody ate it. We eat kimchi all the time and never seem to get sick (but the kids won't come near it). Has anyone documented its usefulness for preventing illness?

—Stan

Of the three things that I know get purposely buried in a backyard—deceased pets, irrigation systems and kimchi—only one is at all appetizing, and that's just because I'm partial to plastic pipe. The pungent stench of unearthed fermented cabbage is enough to put me off my feed for hours, yet I know plenty of people who cannot get enough. To them, I can only say, "I might rather have SARS."

My cowardly palate notwithstanding, this traditional Korean dish is a source of great national pride. Kimchi is often eaten daily as a side dish, or as an ingredient in soups, rice and other foods. There are more than a hundred recipes known, but the most common ones include Chinese cabbage, garlic, ginger, radish, seafood and a generous amount of hot red pepper. In a lengthy preparation, the cabbage is soaked in a salty brine and then layered with the other foods into a crock, pressed to remove trapped air, covered tightly and placed in a cool environment—traditionally beneath straw in a barn or buried under the ground.

Fermentation occurs over the next seven to 10 days, and finally the reddish, funky science project is ready for purging sinuses and assaulting tongues.

Although kimchi had previously been suspected of decreasing rates of gastric cancer, the seemingly legendary curative reputation is actually only a couple of years old. During the period in 2003 when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was affecting health and tourism across Asia, the Korean peninsula was relatively unaffected. Because consumption of this dish is so widespread in the region, kimchi was instantly given credit for the disease prevention with no real evidence to support it. Almost at once, exports of the spicy ferment soared and interest in it was piqued among scientists. At present, avian/bird flu is the big story in that part of the world, overshadowing SARS, and has already led to the precautionary destruction of nearly a billion dollars worth of poultry.

About a year ago, Seoul National University released results of a study in which three small groups of chickens were infected with common poultry viruses including H5N1, the strain of influenza that causes bird flu. One group's feed was supplemented with plain water, another with a bacteria culture produced by kimchi fermentation, and the last group was given a dilution of the kimchi bacteria. In a week, all birds in the water group died, while nearly all the others recovered--indicating, perhaps, even viruses flee from pickled cabbage. Though it seems encouraging, this single study is neither published nor reviewed and even if accurate, may only apply to birds. Proceeding cautiously is apparently not a priority for LG Electronics: This huge South Korean manufacturer has begun sales of an air conditioner that filters the air through a kimchi enzyme extract reportedly capable of killing H5N1. With the lack of scientific testing and the probable odor, I expect all this air conditioner will protect against is overnight guests.

Regardless of whether it's a flu force field, kimchi is a genuine health food. It is quite high in antioxidant vitamins, iron, other minerals, fiber and the beneficial lactic acid bacteria about which all the fuss is made. The dish is an acquired taste that reportedly, once mastered, can become habitual and even addictive. You'll find plenty of kimchi at local Korean markets and gourmet stores, and recipes for homemade versions are in many cookbooks and online. Making kimchi yourself may be a preferable choice, considering an entertaining battle recently waged between China and South Korea—each claimed that the other country's exported kimchi was contaminated with intestinal parasite eggs. I suppose it would be a bummer to survive avian influenza to then find out you've got more roundworms than the neighbor's dog. And homemade has additional advantage in that respect: digging up a crock of fishy, foul-smelling vegetables might just keep that wormy mutt from burrowing in your yard ever again.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your bland recipes and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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