Uniqueness of Korean Cuisine(II): Kimchi
This is the second part of a series focusing on the benefits of Korean cuisine and nutrition. We will continue an exploration of the Korean diet and an examination of culture, health, and longevity.
The average lifespan of Koreans continues to rise, according to the 2008 Korean Health Data Report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Koreans are now living 79.1 years, above the OECD average lifespan of 78.9 years. The data links longevity, among other things, to health care expenditure per capita. But South Korea goes against the trend. According to the report, Korea, with an above-average lifespan, ranks 28th out of the 30 OECD countries in terms of health care expenditures, based on GDP. Is Korea's diet the key contributor to longevity in the Land of the Morning Calm?
Korea has one of the smallest pool of doctors of the 30 OECD countries. Koreans live longer lives and spend far less on health care than other leading countries such as Japan. And although Japanese live slightly longer, they are spending significantly more public and private money on healthcare. While individual health care spending in Korea is rising, it remains below the OECD average and well below that of Japan. South Koreans also work more hours than all the members of the OECD. With elevated stress levels from longer work hours, why do Koreans require less health care while living longer lives?
Korea may one day boast to having the oldest and longest living people in the world. The climate and geography of the Korean Peninsula have led to a land strong in agriculture. Local cuisine primarily consists of vitamin-rich vegetables and fruit, thus minimizing the harmful effects of a meat-based diet. The Korean diet is also high in antioxidants that promote longer living and is a reflection of a healthy culture.
Speaking with Koreans reveals their lifestyle of well-being. Nutrition and healthy ingredients are their primary sustenance. Until recent years, there was little demand for foreign foods in restaurants and supermarkets. The youth of today have developed tastes for pizza and fried foods, but the local demand still favors traditional foods. Both urban and rural areas of Korea continue to have a limited number of foreign restaurants curtailing the effects of excessive meat consumption. This kind of diet has allowed Koreans to avoid obesity and heart disease.
U.S. researchers have found that people who eat two portions of beef per day are more likely to develop long-term heart conditions and diabetes. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American eats 66 pounds (30kg) of beef per year. Koreans consume 16 pounds (7.25kg) of beef per person per year, less than ¼ of the American consumption rate.
A staple of the Korean diet is kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented mixture of ingredients such as red pepper powder, cabbage, green onion, radish, and garlic. Its efficacy is well known, and Koreans consume 22-33 pounds (10-15kg) of kimchi per person per year. According to the Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MIFAFF), kimchi is highly nutritious, strengthens the immune system, prevents cancer, lowers blood cholesterol levels, and delays the aging process promoting longevity. The MIFAFF also states that Kimchi contains ingredients providing antibiotic effects, preventing hyperacidity, and restricting the growth of undesirable bacteria in the intestines.
A medicinal ingredient in prepared kimchi is garlic. Garlic assists in preventing cancer, reducing the risk of heart disease, and minimizing the effects of aging. Garlic is known to lower cholesterol levels in the body. It can help maintain lower blood pressure levels by thinning our blood. Thinned blood deters plaque build up in arteries and veins. It is known that regularly eating garlic can add up to four years to a person's lifespan.
Cabbage, another ingredient in kimchi, also has numerous health benefits. Cabbage is low in calories and sugar. It is high in fiber and vitamins A, B, C, and E. The high fiber content, as well as iron and sulfur, aid in digestion preventing problems in the intestines. Cabbage can inhibit infections and is known to prevent ulcers.
My personal favorite, out of the hundred or so different kimchi types that I have tried (and there more that I have not yet tried) is ''ggaktugi.'' It uses the daikon radish as the base of the kimchi, rather than cabbage. Ggaktugi shares many of the health benefits provided by the more widely eaten cabbage kimchi.
Koreans are living longer than ever thanks to nutritious traditional food such as kimchi. Kimchi slows the effects of aging and reduces the risks of disease. If Koreans continue to resist the temptations of a Western diet in favor of traditional diets, the trend in the country's growing longevity will continue. And as the benefits of a Korean diet become internationally known, traditional dishes will explode into the restaurants of the world.
Chad Meyer is a robotics engineer working in Korea with a passion for Korean food. He can be reached at: email@example.com