What is kimchi and how healthy is it really? Plus, why you should be eating it.

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homeade kimchi

Here's a little tidbit for history buffs: Kimchi dates back to the 12th century, and is said to be the most important traditional fermented food in Korea.

Today, there are many, many variations of kimchi. The most common version is made with napa cabbage, daikon radish, garlic, green onion and red pepper (try our recipe for homemade kimchi). And while Chinese cabbage is almost always the main ingredient in kimchi, it can be mixed with at least 30 different types of vegetables.

What exactly is kimchi?

Kimchi is typically a side dish. The vegetables are salted, blended with spices (usually red and black pepper, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, onion and mustard) and seasonings, and then left to ferment. Eat more of these 7 fermented foods for a healthy gut (kimchi included!).

Because it's fermented, it's packed with probiotics (remember, those good-for-you bugs that your gastrointestinal tract loves and needs)—and that's how kimchi gets its healthy reputation. Unlike how yogurt is made, where the good bugs are added to the milk, with kimchi, the dish typically ferments spontaneously with the microorganisms naturally in cabbage and the other ingredients in kimchi. In some commercial preparations, though, starter cultures may be added.

Nutrition facts: What's in kimchi?

In a 1-cup serving (150 grams), there are:

  • Calories: 23
  • Protein: 2 g
  • Fat: <1 g
  • Carbohydrate: 4 g
  • Sugars: 2 g
  • Fiber: 2 g
  • Sodium: 747 mg

Kimchi also is a great source of iron (you get 21% of your Daily Value in a cup), and it also gives you a little bit of calcium and magnesium. Also, even though kimchi is high in sodium, the vegetables give you a decent dose of potassium (5% of your daily target), which can help offset the potential negative effects of the sodium. Get more potassium in your diet with these 8 foods with more potassium than a banana.

The health benefits of kimchi

Kimchi has been touted in the scientific literature as having anticancer and antioxidant properties—all thanks to its phytochemicals (aka the good-for-you plant compounds). We also know that kimchi's probiotics are good for our gut health, and that extends out to other systems in and functions of our body.

The research on kimchi also seems to be growing, so we've culled a few notable and exciting (though some are preliminary) benefits to eating this fermented vegetable side dish.

Improves your cholesterol

In a study of Korean adults, those who were fed just under 1½ cups of kimchi each day for 7 days significantly improved their cholesterol levels. Interestingly, the group who ate much less kimchi (only 2 pieces at each meal) also saw their cholesterol drop. That said, regardless of which group participants were in, those with cholesterol levels officially considered "high" reaped bigger benefits (i.e., greater drop in cholesterol) than their counterparts with healthier cholesterol numbers.

May boost fat burn

In a month-long study of mice, those fed a high-fat diet, plus probiotics from kimchi, gained less weight and body fat than they technically should have. The high-fat-diet-eating mice also had better blood sugar control than anticipated. Important to note here, though, is that the research was done in animals, not humans, and also the mice weren't fed kimchi, but probiotics extracted from kimchi.

Keep your brain sharp

In another animal study, mice were given an amyloid beta compound, which is known to impair your brain's learning and memory and is also associated with Alzheimer's disease. Some of the mice also received kimchi extracts, and that group recovered from the cognitive deficits imposed by the amyloid beta. To up the brain-boosting foods in your diet, try these top foods from the MIND diet.

Are there any drawbacks to eating kimchi?

The most common—and expected—drawback is that kimchi is spicy. The taste alone could be a deterrent, but also if spicy foods ignite your acid reflux, that's another con to eating kimchi.

There is also some research in Koreans that suggests the nitrite, nitrate and salt content of kimchi could raise your risk of gastric cancer—particularly in those who eat higher-than-typical amounts of kimchi. That said, other reports and research indicate that the average Korean typically eats around 1 to 1½ cups of kimchi each day—far more than what most Americans likely consume.

Bottom Line

Kimchi is a healthy fermented food that can absolutely fit into your diet. It's easy to make your own but it's also widely available at many grocery stores. Try this gut-healthy food in rice bowls, on top of burgers or on avocado toast. If you have high blood pressure or are monitoring your salt intake, keep your kimchi servings to reasonable portions to help keep your sodium in check.