The kimchi that Ellen White never ate

Are fermented foods good for you?

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Unquenchable fire has more than a theological meaning. Our first experience with kimchi fitted into the afterglow category, the intensity of which we were quick to associate with the redness of the product. The pain of sitting cross-legged at a low table combined with the choice of around a dozen varieties of kimchi (Korean spicy pickled cabbage) meant this experience was unforgettable and one that did not invite easy repetition. However, pleasant memories re-emerged when subsequently faced with the blandest and most unappetising of foods at a health retreat in a nearby country. Some kind soul had provided a mild type of kimchi, which we seized upon to make the meal experiences both bearable and repeatable.

The fermentation of liquids, vegetables, fruits and meats by using microbes is a practice almost as old as time (see 1 Samuel 17:18). This became a necessary practice where seasonal conditions and transport arrangements made food security impossible. Other forms of preservation adopted initially were drying and later canning. Even today many people depend on food preservation through fermentation of local produce.

We have the tools necessary to make wise food choices.

Ellen White’s experience was mainly with Western foods where she was familiar with fermented products such as cheeses, chow chow, olives and pickles.1 She made comments on their suitability as well as related issues, but before we arrive at this point, she was aware that many foods not in her repertoire were nutritious.2 She spoke generously about olives and used cottage cheese (short fermentation process), but avoided hard cheeses (long fermentation) and pickled material.3 This combination of remarks has challenged and confused some, leading to murmurings of unreliability.

Fortunately for all, the scientific world provides evidence for the soundness of her advice, which was given in global terms and just at the dawn of understanding the microbial world. We now know that salt increases the risk of stomach cancer as do pickled products, and hard cheeses represent a mixed bag. Here the difficulty of digestion is overshadowed by the possibility of damaging quantities of biologically active amines, advanced glycation end-products (formed through interactions between sugars and available amino acids present on proteins and the like) and fungal toxins (mycotoxins) forming in aged cheeses.4 Mrs White knew nothing about these chemical substances but made insightful statements about eating mould-contaminated food well before the Western science establishment was aware of the issues.5

Armed with a positive report card on Mrs White’s credibility, it then becomes possible to enunciate natural principles consistent with scientific evidence. This makes it easier to assess the suitability of foods not previously encountered. Vegetable-based food items containing complex carbohydrates and little protein are the least worry (e.g. cassava and sago). Those with reasonable protein levels are likely to show the presence of amines and related substances, which vary depending on the microorganisms involved, conditions during fermentation and the length of the fermentation process. Crops receiving high levels of nitrogen fertilisers are likely to complicate the picture. High levels of nitrates may be carried in plant tissues, which are converted into nitrites in the body. These in turn interact with other dietary components. The generation of cancer-producing substances can ensue.6 Finally, products stored or cured for a long time at near ambient conditions favour fungal growth and they may carry abundant levels of highly damaging mycotoxins. Some plant-based items carry components that have health benefits capable of counteracting some of the adverse effects of the items mentioned (e.g. cabbage and olives).7

So where does this leave Ellen White? As far as I am aware she never ate sauerkraut or the related kimchi, but I figure that cabbage-based kimchi with a modicum of flavour components would fit into our natural guidelines generated above. After all, Mrs White was sympathetic to the issue of making food palatable and appreciated the differential availability of fruit and vegetables in various countries.8 Fermented cabbage products have been shown to have no negative impacts on health in contrast to the more fiery varieties generated from high nitrate containing non-cruciferous vegetables.9 Today we have the advantage of scientific studies that indicate the potential difficulties associated with fermented foods. Through this ability to enunciate natural principles, we have been provided with the tools necessary to make wise food choices that will deliver optimum health outcomes. We can enjoy our food and still follow God-inspired instructions.

Warren Shipton is an educator, scientist, and former missionary to Thailand now living in Queensland.

1. Counsels on Diet and Foods, 242, 345, 359, 360, 368.
2. Ibid., 94–97.
3. Counsels on Diet and Foods, 359, 360, 370, 420; A. L. White, Ellen G. White. The Later Elmshaven Years 1905-1915 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982) 6: 315.
4. J. Uribarri et al., "Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet." Journal of the American Dietary Association 110(6) (2010), 911–916; N. M. O’Brien et al., Toxins in cheese in Cheese: Chemistry, Physics and Microbiol- ogy, third edition (ed. P. F. Fox; San Diego, California: Elsevier Academic Press, 2004), 1: 561–572.
5. W. A. Shipton, "The Day 100,000 Turkeys Died." Adventist Review 162(57) (1985), 10, 11.
6. S. Langley-Evans, Nutrition, Health and Disease: Lifespan Approach, second edition (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 244–246.
7. M. E. Juan and J. M. Planas, "Effects of pentacyclic triterpenes from olives on colon cancer", in: Bioactive Foods and Extracts: Cancer Treatment and Prevention (eds. R. R. Ross and V. R. Preedy; Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2010), 403–414; Wu, X. et al., "Are Isothiocyanates Potential Anti-cancer Drugs?" Acta Pharmacologica Sinica 30 (2009), 501–512.
8. Counsels on Diet and Foods, 311, 355.
9. H. J. Kim et al., "Dietary Factors and Gastric Cancer in Korea: A Case-control Study." International Journal of Cancer 97(4) (2002), 531–535.