Helen Park, a native of South Korea now living in Houston, Texas, attests to the Korean fondness for kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish: “We eat kimchi every meal. No matter what else we are eating.” And it’s not just for flavor; the spicy condiment is believed to have healing powers. Last year, a Seoul National University study seemed to validate those claims, when it found that giving extract of kimchi to 13 chickens infected with avian flu seemed to help the birds fight the disease. Within one week, the researchers reported, 11 of the birds had begun to recover.
Vegetarian Reubens with healthy sauerkraut
Not surprisingly, sales of kimchi and its western cousin, sauerkraut, soared following the study’s release—but experts like Netty Levine, M.S., R.D., of the Nutrition Counseling Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, think that was jumping the gun. “This was a very small study, and it left many questions unanswered.” While fermented cabbage is attracting scientific notice as a source of beneficial probiotic bacteria, its effectiveness as a flu fighter is far from proven. Further, says Levine, “kimchi and sauerkraut are enormously high in salt, which is already a problem for many people.” (A 1⁄4-cup serving of kimchi contains about 450 milligrams (mg) sodium according to one estimate; sauerkraut, 235 mg.)
More promising findings about cabbage’s health benefits come from a study closer to home: Dorothy Rybaczyk Pathak, Ph.D., a professor at the University of New Mexico and at Michigan State, looked at the diets of Polish-born immigrant women. She found that those who ate more than three servings a week of raw or lightly cooked cabbage (typically sauerkraut, a Polish staple) were 70 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those who ate less than 11⁄2 weekly servings. She muses that several cancer-fighting mechanisms might be at work. Like all cruciferous vegetables, cabbage contains phytochemicals that can help remove cancerous compounds from the body, scavenge free radicals and increase programmed cell death of cancerous cells, among other functions.
Pathak, originally from Poland, says her eating habits are now mostly Americanized—except for one. “After this study,” she says, “I’m eating more sauerkraut.”
Bottom line: Enjoy kimchi or sauerkraut as good food, not flu cures—and be mindful of the sodium. Rinsing them with water before eating can help reduce the salt.