The demand for organic food and vitamins have surged since the pandemic started and now, even some everyday household staples are being crowned as superfoods. The latest under the spotlight is kimchi.
According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Allergy in May, fermented vegetables, like kimchi, could make it difficult for the coronavirus to penetrate the body. Consuming fermented vegetables in large amounts could reduce levels of the enzyme ACE2. ACE2 is a protein that has been found to stick to cells on the surface of the lungs, creating an entry point the novel coronavirus can hook into.
The study noted that countries, where fermented vegetables are integral to people's meals, had lower fatality rates from COVID-19. This is true for South Korea, where kimchi (fermented vegetables like cabbage and radish) is usually part of every meal. As of July 27, South Korea's COVID-19 fatality rate was at 2.11 percent, which is below the global fatality rate of 3.97 percent.
The study's findings quickly went viral.
One Korean Twitter user said: "REALLY? One research team abroad found that kimchi helps to protect ourselves from COVID-19. [Thanks to this study], I want to eat kimchi stew on this rainy day."
It's important to note that South Korea's low fatality rate can be attributable to other factors such as easy access to medical services, the government's quick response, and more people wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The researchers also acknowledged that countries have different methods when it comes to reporting COVID-19 cases.
The South Korean government even went so far as releasing a statement to clarify that kimchi cannot cure COVID-19, even though it could boost immunity against the virus.
"Eating kimchi does not prevent coronavirus infection," a representative of South Korea’s Health Ministry said in a press conference.
Even the lead researcher of the study said that kimchi, or any other fermented vegetable, should not be seen as a magic cure for COVID-19.
Dr. Jean Bousquet of the Pulmonary Medicine Department at Montpellier University in France told VICE that what they proved in the study is the correlation between the high consumption of fermented vegetables and the low COVID-19 fatality rates, not "the cause-and-effect" between them.
However, he also noted that there is merit in studying a culture's eating habits and how it relates to the coronavirus. He gave sauerkraut, a fermented cabbage popular in Central and Eastern European cuisines, as an example.
Bousquet and his team first focused on comparing European countries and found that in countries where fermented cabbage is not regularly consumed, the death rates from the coronavirus were notably higher.
In Germany, where sauerkraut is a staple food, the current death rate is 4.61 percent. Poland has the same affinity for sauerkraut and has a death rate of 3.9 percent. In comparison, countries that don't consume as much fermented foods have higher fatality rates, like Italy with 15.03 percent and the United Kingdom with 15.3 percent.
The researchers then found that South Korea, where kimchi and many other fermented vegetables are consumed, also has a lower death rate.
The health benefits of kimchi aren’t exactly news. It's been known to be rich in vitamin C, minerals, and fiber. It contains probiotics, which could help boost the immune system. Kimchi is also popular as a diet food because it's low in fat and calories.
Bousquet's research team is now studying the possible role of the antioxidants and lactic acid bacteria found in cabbage and fermented vegetables in protecting against severe COVID-19.
The idea that kimchi can protect people from COVID-19 might not be completely crazy.
The World Institute of Kimchi (WiKim), a research institute under South Korea's National Research Council of Science and Technology, is now looking into the possible antiviral effects of fermented vegetables.
Kwon Min-sung, a researcher for WiKim’s microbiology and functionality team, told VICE that they have been developing an antiviral drug for COVID-19, by analyzing kimchi components that work as antiviral agents, since June.
"We've already seen in our previous study that kimchi is effective not only for cholesterol reduction, anti-obesity, and anti-aging but also for anti-influenza," Kwon said. "Finding a way to defeat COVID-19 is everyone's priority now, and we see the promise of success of the project based on our previous studies."
The study is still in its early stages and Kwon’s team has not published their findings yet.
For now, Bousquet suggests adding more of these foods to one's diet.
"Eat more natural food and fermented vegetables. It may be of interest to defeat COVID-19," he said.