It was a symposium at a Seoul university, the subject was international promotion of Korean food and an earnest professor was arguing that Korean food should be marketed on its basis as a healthy cuisine.
She called for comments. I suggested that this might be a poor strategy given the health risks associated with Korean cuisine. She was outraged and responded that Korean dietary health issues were due to imported foodstuffs. When I quoted related statistics, she dismissed them brusquely: "I have never heard of those!"
She is not alone. It is an article of faith in Korea that the local diet is "healthy" while foreign (particularly, Western) cuisine in the country is "unhealthy."
This thinking is half-right.
Certainly, the fast foods which are the most prominent imported cuisines in Korea are, indeed, unhealthy. It is no secret that they cause obesity and related cardiac problems.
But believing that Korean food is healthy because it does not engender obesity is simplistic thinking, for not all diseases display external symptoms. Some facts:
One: For males and females, South Koreans have the highest rates of stomach (gastric) cancer per person among 48 countries surveyed by the American Association for Cancer Research in 2002.
Two: The most frequent cancer found in Korea since statistics were first compiled in 1999 is stomach cancer, according to the Gastric Cancer Journal in 2011.
Three: In terms of the percentage of population killed by stomach cancer, Korea has the 10th-highest rate in the world, according to worldlifeexpectancy.com. (The only other OECD nation in the top 10 was China; the rest were developing nations, suggesting Korean risks are even higher, as Korea has a better medical system, ergo higher survivability.)
Granted, diet is not the only cause of stomach cancer: Bacteriological infection and tobacco are also factors. But the food we eat and the health of our stomachs is linked.
Researchers believe salty and pickled foods are most problematic. According to the World Health Organization, a person should eat no more than 5 grams of sodium per day; Koreans eat 13.4g.
Key Korean ingredients are kimchi, jang (fermented pastes), soy sauce, sesame, garlic and chili. Among these, the flagship ingredients unique to Korean cuisine are kimchi and jang; both are pickled and heavily salted.
Moreover, Koreans tend to eat vegetables in pickled, rather than fresh, form, but it is the latter which are anti-stomach cancer agents.
Before anyone starts accusing conspiratorial foreign researchers of spreading foul rumors, let me point out that a paper in the Gastric Cancer Journal in 2011 found that high intakes of kimchi and jang were risk factors, as written by a team of Korean researchers supported by the National Cancer Center of Korea.
Moreover, a paper bluntly entitled, "Kimchi and soybean pastes are risk factors in gastric cancer," published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2005, was based on research conducted by Chungbuk National University.
Still, it is not surprising that the culinary professor was unaware of the above, because it appears that unpleasant facts about Korean cuisine are suppressed or unmentionable for nationalistic reasons.
The L.A. Times reported in 2006 that the Chungbuk National University researchers had been unable to publish their findings in Korea. The story also quoted a Seoul university professor who was aware of kimchi's health risks, but who refused to discuss them, on the basis that kimchi represents national cuisine.
This is not just disingenuous, it is dishonest. The pros and cons of other cuisines are widely known so why should the risk factors of Korean cuisine not be made clear to those people most affected ― i.e. Koreans?
I don't wish to be alarmist, and I am looking at just one health factor (stomach cancer) affecting Korea cuisine. In other areas, it certainly is healthy vis-a-vis imported cuisines: for example, it is low in calories. But as cancer research makes clear, the story is not exclusively positive.
Does this spell disaster for the international promotion of Korean food? No.
As anyone walking down a U.S. or U.K. street will notice, obesity is common. In the developed world today, people no longer eat to survive, they eat to enjoy. Hence U.S. fast food; despite its widely publicized health risks, is the most popular international cuisine.
Even if Korean food is not uber-healthy, it is extremely tasty, so I would suggest Korean food marketers downplay "health" and talk up "taste."
And of course "everything in moderation." Korean food problems are largely about eating too much of it. Foreign diners are not going to be shoveling Korean food down three times a day, so for them, the risks are minor. In sum: While foreigners should eat more Korean cuisine, Koreans should eat less of it.