First Thoughts on the Kimchi Cancer Scare Article

Because of my love for kimchi, a few people sent me a link to the article The WHO Says Cellphones and Pickles May Cause Cancer. I was aware of some of the claims, but nothing I’ve read so far is shows a definitive link. The 2 types of cancer discussed in the article are stomach and esophageal.

Stomach Cancer

This article and others speculate that the high levels of salt in kimchi and other fermented items can increase your risk for stomach cancer. Standard dietary recommendations are to keep your daily sodium intake under 2,400 milligrams. This works out to 1 level teaspoon.

Since I started making kimchi, I’ve researched many other recipes. I’ve checked out every book in the Seattle library system with a kimchi recipe. They all have one thing in common. They use WAY TOO MUCH salt. It is simply not needed to start a successful fermentation. The more I experiment with ferments, the less salt I use.

Other ideas to further reduce the salt levels in kimchi:

  1. After rubbing the salt into the cabbage, let it sit for a hour or so and then gently rinse.
  2. Use a starter. Take a tablespoon of your last batch of kimchi and add it to the new mix. That starter kimchi is already loaded with probiotics. The healthy bacteria already won their battle. This is like bringing your big brother to a school yard fight.

You could also reduce your sodium levels outside your fermented dishes. You know things like processed food, canned veggies and bread. Since I don’t eat those foods, I figure I have more sodium headroom.

You can also reduce your risk to stomach cancer by not smoking and getting good amounts of Vitamin A and C. Beef liver is loaded with Vitamin A and has a decent amount of Vitamin C too. Organ meats to the rescue once again.


Esophageal Cancer

How can fermented foods lead to esophageal cancer? From the Slate article.

Researchers now think the culprit is the fungi responsible for the fermentation process. As part of their natural life cycle, the microorganisms release a variety of possible carcinogens.

I’m all for digging into the science when I think I’ll have fighting chance of understanding, but researching this is beyond my hobbyist skill level. My guess is Paul from Perfect Health Diet will publish something in the near future. If and when he does, I’ll link to his post. All I can do is review the other known risk factors.

According to the Wikipedia page on esophageal cancer, tobacco and alcohol use account for 90% of all esophageal squamous cell carcinoma cases. Moderate coffee drinkers reduce their risk. Works for me! The study in the British Journal of Cancer states that “more studies are warranted“.

Going Forward

For the most part, this article does not concern me. However, I’d be a fool to dismiss all the concerns raised until we know more. In the absence of that information, this is my plan going forward.

  1. Continue making kimchi using low salt levels. Use high quality ingredients.
  2. Keep my other salt intake low.
  3. Take a day off from kimchi every week and a week off every year. In the event that kimchi represents some form of a chronic stressor (albeit very mild), scheduled abstinence should benefit the body. I can especially see reduced intake of fermented foods during the warmer months when more fresh vegetable options are available.
  4. Continue Intermittent Fasting. See Intermittent Fasting – Protection From Cancer.

I look forward to reading what the smarter scientific minds think about the cancer risks from fermentation.

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  1. chuck says

    dammit! i just finished my last batch of kimchi and rinsed the jar real well. could have used that starter. live and learn i guess.

    i have no fear of my kimchi causing cancer and will keep eating it. i will keep on eating eggs despite so many telling me they will give me a heart attack.

  2. says

    I live in Japan and have been eating Korean kimchi for over a decade. Love the stuff. Thank you for posting on this and let me take this opportunity to thank you for all the information on your site. I’ve been following you for a while.

  3. gwhitney says

    I’d like to hear the Weston Price people weigh in on this topic – they ought to have a view…

  4. ben says

    i don’t get it.
    saurkraut is supposed to be a “superfood” to resist cancer (especially in the food passage) with 3 antioxidants, probiotics, fiber, ect. chili peppers and radishes are supposed to have antioxidant too.

    yet kimchi (often made with cabbage, chili and radishes) is suspected to be a cancer risk, especially in the stomach? what other things are added to kimchi that increases the risk?

  5. says

    @Ben – It may be the quantity consumed. Or as some have suggested, really old ferments.

    From Dr. Jaminet on Perfect Health Diet:

    There are definite links between fungi and cancer – I’ll blog about that later – and fungi are most common in sugary kimchis and older kimchis. A lot of store kimchis add sugar so that overnight fermentation is enough, but these will go bad quickly. Also, Asians tend to tolerate sour flavors much better than Americans and will eat old kimchi.

    Salt and stomach cancer is the other concern, but we keep salt levels relatively low and although we eat kimchi daily, we don’t eat huge quantities. I’m not concerned.

    I’m not worried about our homemade kimchi but I do have a bias toward eating fermented vegetables when they’re relatively fresh. Fungi grow much more slowly than bacteria but they ultimately triumph in any fermentation process.

    The recipes you have here on Critical MAS use less salt, fresh veggies and have a much shorter fermentation period than many traditional Asian ferments. So, I am personally not concerned.

  6. Jason says

    The scare has no foundation. The 1980 paper by Wang reports that:

    Traditionally, pickled vegetables have been a popular food in some high-EC-incidence areas in China. They were prepared each autumn by placing chopped and blanched leaves of Chinese cabbage, turnip, soybean, sweet potato, sesame, and other vegetables in a large ceramic container. The vegetables were pressed, covered with water, and allowed to ferment for several months. The products, usually covered with white mold, were said to be quite ‘tasty’ due to the special flavor and sourness acquired during fermentation. The vegetables and juice were eaten either as is or cooked in gruel. During the summer, some of the juice was also consumed as a drink. In some families, the pickled vegetables were eaten daily for as long as 9 to 12 months a year as an important part of the diet.

    No mention of salt. No refrigeration after a few days. So of course that sort of Kimchi is full of fungi, which produce N-nitroso compounds that are carcinogenic. Nowadays we do not eat food like that, and we can make kimchi with only 25% of the salt by rinsing the cabbage after soaking.

  7. Jake says

    I know this is an old topic, but as someone who dabbles with the lacto-fermenting as well as things like naturally leavened breads, the article this blog referred to kind of confused me. It is my understanding that bacteria, not fungi are typically the agent in most pickling. Yeast is a fungus, and does grow on the surface of the pickling, but fungus in the actual pickle would be a sign of improper pickling. The whole process is designed to give the Lacto bacteria the head start and push it ahead of other micro-organisms, so that it can get the Ph to a level where the other organisms can’t survive. Where is it that the fungus comes in?

  8. Jake says

    Nevermind, I think Jason’s post answered my question and was along the lines of what I was thinking, improper pickling, not salt and lacto-bacteria aided pickling.

  9. says

    DON’T BELIEVE A WORD WHO, FDA, or any other government organization says about organic cures. Kimchi was used in Korea I believe to cure bird flu. It worked miracles on chickens in one trial and that was all they needed to hear. Everyone ate Kimchi, and most cured or prevented Bird Flu.

    In 1931 Dr. Otto Warburg discovered fermentation of sugar & meats is the CAUSE of Cancer. Hitler got Dr. Warburg’s work, then we got Hitler and created the CIA in 1947 to hide this and many other secrets. Kimchi is loaded with anti-parasite foods, and Candida Albicans is the fungal parasite proven by Dr. Tulio Simoncini to be the core of most Cancers.

    Decades ago, the USGov discovered that cannibinoids kill Cancer cells, so they outlawed cannibus. It was also discovered that a hyperbaric chamber could cure almost any disease, so they outlawed it’s use down to only a handful of medical conditions. The same is true for: Vitamin B17, bitter almonds, injectible Vitamin C/Magnesium/B complex(Myers Cocktail), and many others.

    Some doctors making great strides in alternative Cancer & illness therapies: Dr. Andrew Saul, Dr. Tulio Simoncini, Dr. Max Gerson/Charlotte Gerson. SEEk Truth, god knows that’s the LAST thing on world government’s minds. Good Luck.

  10. duplay says

    Read the FACTS, just the facts! a study made by a dozen Korean scientists by as many institutes concluded that indeed “Kimchi and soybean pastes are risk factors of gastric cancer”.
    Of course garlic and non fermented cabbage , included sauerkraut that is cooked, not fermented, protect from cancer and heart disease. The fermentation process is the cause of carcinogenic compounds, also linked to specific genetic traits.

  11. yeni says

    Well, I’ll still eat my kimchi. For sure it’s still way healthier than greasy hamburger, fries, chips (to think of, not only fat, but all the chemical and other bad substances contained in those food, the meat, mayo, ketchup, cooking oil and the amount of salt used.. eeww).

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