Saturday, September 4, 2004

Kimchi Folklore--SARS cure

I read this article and I just couldn't leave it alone.

Last year when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus was taking its toll in Asia, Korea remained free from the killer pneumonia though there were a few suspected cases. Back then, Britain's Financial Times reported that large amounts of garlic in Korea's spicy fermented dish, Kimchi, kept the virus at bay. Though that theory has yet to be confirmed, it appears Kimchi is a healthy dish indeed.

For many Koreans, the belief that Korea avoided SARS due to kimchi is accepted as a fact. I know in at least one middle school it was included in some new teaching materials as such. Articles and news shows have repeated the above message since last year spring, when SARS was doing its worst in China and spreading to other countries.

In the article, they are now trying to argue that kimchi prevents food poisoning. Perhaps, though I have to say that of the 4 times I've suffered from food poisoning, three were in Korea (despite the fact that I eat kimchi somewhat regularly here).


Photo Quiz: Is this the SARS virus? Or is it kimchi?

Here's more "scientific reporting" from an article entitled: "Fights Cancer and Tastes Great." It talks about how a Finnish research team found a link between sauerkraut and cancer prevention. Since sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, the writer then extends the research to kimchi.


We know from experience that kimchi and garlic are good for the body, but there has been no systematic analysis to validate that folklore.

Um, actually, there is ONE kind of systematic analysis that could prove it. It's called the "scientific method" (better write that down) and its been going on for quite some time in the West.

With South Korea the only safe haven in the region from severe respiratory acute syndrome, the foreign press has reported a possible link between that seeming immunity and kimchi and garlic. According to reports, garlic consumption is on the rise in China and television has discussed Korean kimchi. I don't think a lack of scientific proof will invalidate rule-of-thumb evidence.

More on all this "foreign press reporting on kimchi" later (sneak preview: there isn't any).

And what exactly is this "rule of thumb evidence?"

1. Kimchi is healthy in some ways
2. SARS didn't spread to Korea (nor many other countries, but we'll get to that later)
3. Ergo we can rest assured that SARS was prevented by Kimchi.

That's not "rule-of-thumb" evidence or any other kind of evidence; that's wild speculation and no professional worth his salt (something kimchi has a very high amount of, by the way) would ever stake his reputation on such a conclusion.

And just what is behind all these "foreign reports" about Kimchi's effectiveness against SARS? They all refer to one article in the Financial Times (funny how one report later becomes referred to as "reports")

The original article requires a subscription to their site, so I didn't access it. However, I did find several articles that referred to it enough for me to get the gist of it. From what I can gather, the "foreign press" made no such claims about kimchi and SARS

Here's one such reference to that article in a Korean site (Donga--in Korean), interestingly headlined as Financial Times: There are no Korean SARS patients because of Kimchi and Garlic (파이낸셜타임스 '한국 사스환자 없는것은 김치속 마늘때문')

It first quotes the Financial Times quoting "Professor" Hong Jong Hoon, a technical consultant (not a professor) with the Korea Agriculture Development Institute as saying that he believes there might be a connection between Korea's "food culture" and lack of SARS victims. Hong, by the way, is not a medical doctor but he claims to be a scientist and he conducted research on this issue "over the internet." Yeah, that's good enough for me.

And when they do get a quote from a non-Korean, it does NOT make any claim that could possibly lead to the title of this article.

하지만 세계보건기구(WHO) 주한연락사무소 대표인 조지 슬라마는 “마늘에는 몸에 좋은 물질이 많이 함유돼 있지만 사스와의 연계를 입증하는 것은 불가능하다”면서 “사스 예방을 위해 김치에 의존해서는 안된다”고 말했다.

Here they have a WHO representative state clearly that there is no evidence of any connection between garlic, kimchi and SARS and that it should not be promoted as protection from SARS.

So let's go back to that title: Financial Times: There are no Korean SARS patients because of Kimchi and Garlic

The actual article quoted here only reports a KOREAN "internet researcher" as claiming kimchi and garlic prevent SARS, and a WHO representative that clearly states there is NO connection yet found between kimchi and SARS.

This is like listening to the Pope's speech against the Iraq war when he argues against the US belief that an invasion is justified because of possible WMDs, and then writing an article about it with the title, "Pope: Iraq invasion justified because of possible WMDs."

The Pope never said that, and nor dos it appear that any person with any credibility say that kimchi prevents SARS in the Financial Times article.

And yet from that one article the basis for a whole new kimchi mythology is born.

Another fine example of Korean journalism.

The School of Kimchi
There's a good article from the LA Times which discusses kimchi folklore. It is in the archives now, but a copy can be found here on the habermas site.

The article introduces Kim Man Jo:

Kim Man Jo, a food industry consultant and author of several books, including "Kimchi, 1,000 Years," "Kimchi, Hi!" and the soon-to-be released "Kimchi Odyssey," has yet another theory. This legend in the kimchi world, she holds two kimchi-related doctoral degrees and the unofficial title of "godmother of kimchi studies"

I'm sorry, but I just refuse to take seriously anyone who titles a book, "Kimchi, Hi!" And "Kimchi Odyssey?" You just can't parody something that is already this extremely ridiculous.

Oh, and not just one "kimchi-related" doctoral degree, but two!! Wow, I didn't even know there was one kind of kimchi doctoral degree out there.

"It can cope with SARS," said the food scientist, who is sometimes asked overseas if she's so devoted to kimchi because her name is Kim. [ha ha] "They haven't done experiments yet, but harmful diseases can be dominated by the lactobacilli."

Ah...the mind of a true scientist. No experiments have been done, but she already knows that it can "cope with SARS." I guess when you have two PhDs in something you are beyond silly things like objective evidence.

The Final Pooping
This will come as a surprise to many of our Korean friends, but Korea is not the only country to have escaped the brunt of the SARS epidemic. I couldn't find the most recent data, but I did find a site that compiled the data into the summer of 2003 (the time when SARS cases began to significantly decline worldwide).

Countries with 0 cases of SARS

Entire middle East, Africa (except for South Africa, which had one), North Korea (Kim Jeong-il is a demi-god, you know), Cambodia, Burma, Tibet, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Russia, all of Central America and most of South America.

True, some of these countries have very little contact with possible Chinese carriers of SARS, but what about Russia? Tibet? Cambodia? Not a lot of kimchi eating going on there...

Countries with roughly the same numbers of SARS cases as Korea

A rather long list (about 25 countries--only China, Taiwan and Singapore were really hit hard). Some notable countries include Japan (one less case than Korea), Mongolia, and India. Again, countries near China, yet remained largely unscathed by the disease.

Naturally, these "kimchiless" countries should have some good reason why their people stayed healthy, no? And yet the Korean media and the Godmother of Kimchi never seem to have time to answer this mystery...

Is Kimchi really that healthy in general? Korean researchers are the only people really investigating it and considering that kimchi is revered like a religion here, I just don't think they approach these studies with a healthy dose of skepticism and objectivity (can you imagine some foolish Korean researcher trying to publish an article on the downside of kimchi? The heretic would be burned at the stake).

Anyway, I'm sure it is generally healthy food. But when Koreans go overboard like this, it just sets them up for embarrassment.

Korea most likely remained relatively free of SARS for the same reasons Japan, Russia, Tibet, India, Mongolia, etc. stayed free of SARS: prevention measures by the respective governments after word of SARS came out and a little bit of luck. No more, no less.


Anonymous said...

Whatever. Sounds like you just have a lot of hate inside of you. Many people, including the scientific community, recognize the health benefits of fermented foods. Kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and others are becoming more and more popular. It seems odd to suddenly question the validity of kimchi as a health-food based on the over-zealousness of Korean reporters. Also, literal translation will get you into trouble, either learn Korean better or stop judging what you get from google-translate. And honestly, given that mainstream media in the US decides to report on such trivial things as Larry the Cable Guy getting a TV show, or kids huffing fumes from their own feces, I think you should hold off on all the Korean journalism hate. There will always be 'hard news' and 'soft news', and, unfortunately, straight haters like you.

Party Pooper said...

Party Pooper here

So, someone questions whether kimchi really can fight SARS and your response is that he must hate Korea.

That's about the size of it, right? You don't offer anything about the actual points I made. No corrections whatsoever. I speak and read Korean (apparently better than you), and thus do not rely on google translate for anything. If you don't believe me, find your kyopo buddy who can actually read Korean and confirm it. Koreans claimed kimchi can ward off SARS, and I pointed out that this is not the case. If you disagree, act like an adult and show me the evidence otherwise. And while you're looking for the evidence, check out this link and see what Korean researchers say about kimchi and stomach cancer. Are you saying they all hate Korea too?

You just say that kimchi is generally healthy, which, if you would just calm down and read my post again, you'd see that I say basically the same thing.

So what more to say than 'grow up'? People will continue to point out errors in your culture, religion, country, etc. You can continue crying like a baby and whine that the world hates you, or just calmly look at what they have say and see if there is something to learn from it.