Remember the last time you ordered a Chinese meal, it came with a small helping of kimchi salad? Now, a study has found that kimchi made without fish products has the same type of bacteria as more traditionally made kimchi. The finding suggests any “probiotic” benefits associated with traditional kimchi could be present in vegan versions as well. Now that is good news for vegans.
Kimchi, along with other fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha, is surging in popularity as a probiotic food. It is one that contains the same healthy bacteria that are found in human gut. Though a traditional Korean side dish, kimchi consists of fermented cabbage, radish and other vegetables and is often served in India with Chinese delicacies. Conventionally, it is made using fish paste, fish sauce or other seafood. This means it is not on the menu for vegans. But to appeal to vegan consumers, who don’t eat any products derived from animals, some producers have begun making a vegan alternative to traditional kimchi.
Researchers gathered bacterial samples from the starting ingredients of both the varieties of kimchi as well as the ones during the fermentation process. They also took it from final products. The team took additional environmental samples from the factory, including from production tables, sinks and floors. The researchers then used high-throughput DNA sequencing to identify the types of bacteria present. The study showed that the vegan and traditional kimchi ingredients had very different microbial communities to start, but over the course of fermentation the communities quickly became more similar. By the time fermentation was complete, the two communities were nearly identical.
Both were dominated by lactobacillus and leuconostoc, genuses well known to thrive in fermented cabbage. Those bacteria were present only in small amounts in the starting ingredients for both products, the researchers found, yet were the only bacteria to survive the fermentation environment. That’s not exactly what the researchers expected to see.
Miso has a lot of live bacteria in it at the start. The fact those bacteria were lost almost immediately during the fermentation was surprising. It was presumed they’d carry over to the kimchi but they didn’t. It probably happened because bacteria found in miso thrive in extremely salty environments and the kimchi isn’t quite salty enough for them.
The study looked at only one brand of kimchi, and it’s not a sure thing that the findings will to the same for other brands. In fact, researchers point out that the microbial community that dominated the kimchi they tested closely matched the community in samples taken from the production facility.
It’s not clear from this study whether those bacteria in the environment came from the kimchi or the other way around. It’s possible, the researchers say, that the facility provided a “starter culture” that influences the eventual microbial community in the kimchi. The findings show it is possible to make a vegan kimchi remarkably similar in terms of microbes to for kimchi made with traditional ingredients.