Can Pregnant Women Eat Kimchi? Is It Safe? Complete Guide

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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Kimchi is often a ‘raw’ dish made up of fermented vegetables. Due to concern about foodborne illness in pregnancy, it’s no wonder that pregnant women might find themselves double-checking if kimchi is safe to eat when pregnant.

When prepared and stored properly, kimchi is safe during pregnancy. Like other fermented foods, it should be consumed with caution as kimchi can be prone to contamination from harmful bacteria. 

Kimchi is loaded with nutritional benefits but does not come without risks for pregnant women. I’ll walk you through how to safely enjoy kimchi and prepare kimchi and what dishes you can typically find it in. 

a traditional Korean kimchi in a bowl

Is It Safe To Eat Kimchi While Pregnant?

While there is no current medical advice to suggest you can’t eat kimchi during pregnancy, it can sometimes be unsafe to do so.

If you are going to eat kimchi while pregnant, stick to pasteurized store-bought brands that are well within their use-by date, eat in restaurants that practice good food safety, and generally avoid DIYing it, unless you’re a kimchi pro!

Pasteurized vs Unpasteurized Kimchi When Pregnant

The main concern when it comes to consuming kimchi during pregnancy is that fermented foods can easily be contaminated by e. Coli and other pathogens, and by their nature, they are often unpasteurized. During pregnancy, the FDA suggests that pregnant women avoid unpasteurized food as they may be contaminated by harmful bacteria (source: FDA).

Kimchi has been liked to outbreaks of e. Coli in Korea (source: Epidemiology & Infection) as well as norovirus in South Korea (source: Foodborne Pathogens & Disease). This is rare in the USA, however.

Pasteurization is the process of heating foods with heat to kill pathogens and to give them longer shelf life. Although there are strict rules in many states that require dairy products to be pasteurized, there is nothing of a similar nature in place for kimchi.

Part of the problem is that kimchi’s fermentation relies on good bacteria – and pasteurization kills both good AND bad bacteria. However, some store-bought kimchi products and kimchi in restaurants are pasteurized, so make sure to check the label or ask first.

Another good option is to heat the unpasteurized kimchi until it’s hot to make it safe. This is a great option in foods like kimchi stew or fried rice, covered later.

Kimchi Ingredients and Safe Storage for Pregnancy

Kimchi is usually made of cabbage, red pepper powder and fermented fish sauce which is fermented with seaweed, spices such as ginger, garlic and green onion.

All these ingredients are safe in pregnancy but can still be prone to contamination when it comes to making kimchi (source: Journal of Food Protection).

Kimchi has a fairly long shelf-life but as pregnant women have compromised immune systems it’s not recommended to eat store kimchi that has been open for more than a few days.

You can usually tell kimchi is spoiled because it smells different or has mold, but it’s best to err on the side of caution during pregnancy. Spoiled kimchi contains mycotoxins which can upset your stomach and trigger vomiting or diarrhea and nausea in those with weakened immune systems, which includes pregnant women (source: AFP).

Kimchi can be eaten raw (as in uncooked) or cooked, but generally, raw kimchi refers to fermented kimchi, which should be avoided while you’re pregnant. 

gloved hands placing homemade kimchi in a pot

Is Homemade Kimchi OK During Pregnancy?

If you are going to make homemade kimchi then the equipment must be sterilized properly. Both the ingredients and your hands must be washed thoroughly as bacteria such as e.coli, listeria, salmonella, and more pathogens can survive for days during storage (source: Journal of Food Protection).

Cabbage comes from the soil which is where pathogens such as E Coli and Toxoplasma gondii come from and needs to be washed properly (source: NHS). Buy vegetables as fresh as possible and cut away any damaged areas (source: FDA). 

Read more about prepping produce during pregnancy here. 

If you’re experienced with sterilization and fermentation, there’s no reason not to continue during pregnancy, if you’re confident. After all, you control the whole process and know exactly what’s in your kimchi and how clean your equipment is.

However, if you’ve never made kimchi before then it might be best to wait until after you’ve had your baby before experimenting. Homemade kimchi and other fermented foods are more likely to grow both good and bad bacteria than professionally produced kimchi (source: ISA).

Don’t forget that kimchi can also be enjoyed fresh – the safest option for pregnant women making kimchi is to eat it directly after preparing, rather than allowing it to ferment.

Is Kimchi Good During Pregnancy? Are There Benefits?

Kimchi has lots of health benefits, many of which can be great for pregnant women. 

Kimchi is mostly made from cabbage but many people add onions or peppers for an extra nutritional boost. Kimchi is a great source of iron with 14% of the recommended daily amount in a 100-gram serving.

It also contains 1.1 grams of protein, 2.5% of the RDA of calcium and 1.9% of the RDA of vitamin A, which is fairly low but better than none at all! kimchi has a moderate amount of salt with 498mg (which is 21% of the daily allowance) but this in a 100-gram serving.

Kimchi is very low in calories with only 15 calories in a 100-gram serving which makes it a great lean way to add some extra nutrients to your diet (source: Nutritionix).

Kimchi is a great source of probiotics, which are generally safe for pregnant women (source: PMC). Better yet, probiotics can even help prevent diarrhea and help overall gut health (source: PubMed). 

The lactobacillus bacterium commonly found in kimchi is promising when it comes to boosting the immune system, but these results have mostly been observed in animal studies and test-tube studies. More human research is needed on whether it would benefit pregnant women with compromised immune systems (source: JMB, Food Science & Biotechnology).

Animal studies also found that one of the compounds in kimchi, HDMPPA, has been linked with improved blood vessel health as it targets inflammation (source: Cambridge Core). Test-tube studies on the same compound found it can suppress and block inflammatory compounds (source: Journal of Medicinal Food).

While inflammation is a normal response to infection or threats to the body, during pregnancy excess inflammation has been linked with circuit connectivity in newborns and reduced working memory at two years old, as well as higher rates of mental illness such as bipolar disorder later in life (source: NIHM)

However, human studies are still lacking on the purported anti-inflammatory properties of kimchi.

kimchi stew or kimchi-jjigae in a bowl

Types of Kimchi and Pregnancy Safety

Kimchi Soup or Stew – Kimchi soup is often known as Kimchi-jjigae, kimchi stew or just as jjigae. It combines kimchi with diced Dubu (which is Korean tofu), onions, scallions, and pork or seafood.

Any bacteria in kimchi soup should be killed in the preparation process – if the soup has been cooked to 145 F / 63C during pregnancy (source: USDA). One of the concerns with kimchi soup is the other ingredients, in particular seafood.

All meat and fish must be cooked completely during pregnancy, and high mercury fish such as shark, swordfish and marlin should be avoided. Low mercury fish such as sardines, salmon, and sea bass are safe in moderation. Shrimp are also a good choice.

Kimchi ramen or kimchi fried rice – Ramen is safe during pregnancy, and kimchi ramen (even when made with egg noodles) has been cooked which should kill any pathogens. As long as there is no raw or undercooked ramen egg, raw fish, or sprouts such as bean sprouts, then kimchi ramen is safe during pregnancy.

Cooked kimchi fried rice is also safe during pregnancy as long the eggs in fried rice have been cooked completely along with the other pregnancy-safe ingredients. Fried rice should always be eaten fresh and hot.

Overall, kimchi can be a very tasty, healthy pregnancy food – if it’s prepped and/or cooked properly. It can also satisfy one of the most common cravings during pregnancy for spicy food, too!