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Will Kimchi Cure Bird Flu?

 

My Korean wife believes kimchi – fermented cabbage with garlic and fiery hot spices – will cure anything. She makes it regularly in large, pungent quantities, to feed our family. It certainly hasn’t stopped my hay fever, and I credit my annual flu shot for sparing me from the flu in recent years.

 

But kimchi (also written as kimchee) is widely viewed as the Korean national dish, and many Koreans believe it has wondrous properties. During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia, kimchi consumption rose. According to the Korean Broadcasting Service:

 

Kimchi's medical potential attracted particular attention in 2003 when SARS was sweeping many parts of Asia. While the new contagious disease was on the rapid move in China and many other Southeast Asian countries, Korea remained a clean zone, relatively free from the deadly virus. A small number of Koreans were infected with the SARS virus, but the damage was quite minimal. At that time, many wondered why this was; some concluded that kimchi was the answer. Afterwards, Korea's exports of kimchi soared. The theory, though not proven, was based on kimchi's already-known anti-bacterial effect. As time has passed, its salutary effects have been proven out one by one.

 

In March this year, the BBC reported that scientists at the prestigious Seoul National University had fed kimchi extract to 13 chickens with bird flu. A week later 11 of them had started to recover.

 

However, the report cautioned: “The researchers said the results were far from scientifically proven and if kimchi did have the effects they observed, it was unclear why.”

 

Nevertheless, just a couple of weeks ago the Korea Times said that a local company, Celltech International, had been asked to ship 800 kilograms of feed additive to Indonesia to help combat bird flu. The additive contains the bacteria leuconostoc citreum, which was derived from kimchi by the Seoul National University research team.

 

And 10 days ago the Wall Street Journal noted that the shares of a leading South Korean kimchi manufacturer, Pulmuone, have been rising, with investors expecting its sales to soar as bird flu fears escalate.

 

But so far, the evidence is only that kimchi might help birds – not people – to ward off bird flu. Just don’t tell that to North Korean officials:

 

In North Korea, it may be a crime to speak ill of the Dear Leader, but visitors are also advised not to badmouth the beloved national dish. “Kimchi can prevent SARS and bird flu,” a North Korean official told reporters at a dinner in a state-owned restaurant in Pyongyang, urging them to spread the word around the world….Asked by one journalist how he knew the SARS and bird flu claims were true, the guide - who gave his name only as “Mr Kim” - answered in an angry voice: “Where were you? I don’t understand why you never knew this information. Everybody in North Korea knows about it.”

 

Martin Roth

October 24th, 2005