How to Know if Your Kimchi Is Keto-Friendly

Kimchi and various carbs in a bowl

Kimchi is not always low carb, but with a few simple tweaks, most types of kimchi can be turned into a keto-friendly dish. The main high-carb “culprits” in Kimchi are glutinous rice flour, corn starch, carrots, onions, Korean pear, and apple. Most kimchi call for one of these ingredients. Luckily it is very easy to spot them in store-bought kimchi and most of the time substitute or exclude them from a kimchi recipe. WE will show you how!

What is low carb and keto?

People who follow the ketogenic diet try to reduce their carbohydrate consumption, by restricting their dietary choices towards low-carb foods. The calories you would get from carbs should be replaced with calories from protein and (mainly unsaturated) fatty acids. Thus potatoes, rice, noodles, bread, sugar, pastries, and especially the soda should be avoided. The long-term health benefits of a keto diet are subject to many debates between nutritionists. But since this wasn’t your original, let’s dig into the kimchi!

The most common kimchi is keto-friendly

The traditional napa kimchi only has 23 calories and 4 grams of carbs per serving. So if you’re a liberal low carb trying to cut down carbs to around 50-70 grams per day, then kimchi is low enough on carbs for you. Especially considering it is hard to overeat on kimchi due to the pungent smell and intense smell. Those 23 calories can be very filling. If you are, however pursuing a strict ketogenic diet, with the recommended dietary allowance of fewer than 20 grams of carbs per day, then you should probably stick to a low-carb kimchi recipe. Below you will find some tips on how to source low-carb kimchi or make it yourself. Radish kimchi for instance, can have as little as 1g of carbs.

Some Kimchi variations may have carbs

No kimchi is created equal. Kimchi is more or less an umbrella term for a variety of salted, fermented vegetables. In addition, kimchi is not just a side dish but also a versatile ingredient used to craft other unique dishes. Cabbages, such as Chinese cabbage and radishes are the most common vegetable used in the making of kimchi. Others may include cucumber, eggplant, celery, garlic, cilantro, chives, ginger, mustard greens, scallions, pak choi, soybean sprouts, spinach, sugar beets, sweet potatoes, bamboo shoots, potatoes, and tomatoes. If you are a seasoned low-carb eater, you’ve probably spotted a few carbs in here. Since every vegetable can be fermented, virtually all of them can be used in a kimchi recipe to create a unique spin. Most Korean housewives have their own kimchi recipe handed down from generations. All of these recipes not only use different vegetables but are also seasoned and fermented differently.

How to ensure your kimchi is low carb

There are plenty of high-carb, starchy ingredients, such as various types of flours, fruits, and vegetables, used in the making of kimchi. Luckily these are relatively easy to spot. You can use the following two lists to find out whether store-bought kimchi or a kimchi recipe can be considered low carb.

Common kimchi ingredients you may want to avoid on a keto diet:

  • Carrots: These are a staple ingredient. While they do not contain as many carbohydrates as closely related root vegetables, such as potatoes and yams, they are still slightly high in carbs. 
  • Onions: Yellow onions contain around 11 grams of carbs per cub (2g more than carrots). However, most kimchi only includes green onion/scallion. Scallions contain significantly fewer carbs (7g/cup). Since only half a cup adds lots of flavor to your kimchi, you may decide it’s worth the 3.5g of carbs. 
  • Glutinous rice flour: Many kimchi recipes and store-bought kimchis contain around 10 grams (1 tbsp). The flour doesn’t add any flavor itself but rather speeds up the fermentation process. In other words: It is food for your lactic acid bacteria. So you can actually completely avoid it. If you make kimchi yourself, removing this ingredient simply means, that your kimchi will take longer to ferment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it will also make your kimchi last longer. 
  • Sweet rice flour or corn starch: They are sometimes used to substitute glutinous rice flour. However, from a low-carb perspective, these are not viable substitutes as they also contain plenty of starch and serve no purpose tastewise. 
  • Sugar: Virtually all types of kimchi contain added sugar. Just like the flours mentioned above, sugar is used to speed up fermentation. So if you want to remove sugar, perhaps you should also remove some salt (which inhibits fermentation) in order to achieve the same rate of reaction.
  • Fruits, like Korean pear, jujube, and apple: Some traditional Korean variations of kimchi include chunks of Korean pear or its brine in a recipe. Other more non-traditional recipes also include an apple as a means to add contrast in terms of taste, texture, and aroma. Both of these fruits are high in carbs. 
  • Potatoes: Although not a typical kimchi ingredient, many kimchi fans who love experimenting will add a grated potato into the recipe. Of course, this is a no-go for keto or low carb.
An easy to follow low carb kimchi recipe

Substituting Glutinous Rice Flour for a keto-friendly alternative

Most kimchi recipes ask for glutinous rice flour, and if you follow the keto diet this may seem frustrating to you.. Psyllium husk powder has 8 grams of carbs per tablespoon. So why do we consider it a keto-friendly substitute? Because it’s all soluble fiber! So while the lactic acid bacteria can flourish from these carbs, we humans won’t absorb them. This makes psyllium husk powder a carbohydrate-rich, yet keto-friendly alternative to rice flour.

These types of kimchi may be a red flag for carb-conscious consumers:

  • Cucumber kimchi (Oi Sobagi): This kimchi typically consists of a cucumber stuffed half. Then you fill this gap with veggies, that may be high in carbs, such as onion or carrots.
  • Green onion kimchi (Pa Kimchi)i: This kimchi is pretty much all green onions! Thus, it is not recommended, if you are striving towards a carb-restrictive diet
  • Red water kimchi (Nabak kimchi): This kimchi is also typically served with sliced green onions and carrots. You usually ferment this one in brine derived from Korean pear juice.
  • Radish water kimchi (Dongchimi): This kimchi often includes chunks of Korean pear.
  • Wrapped kimchi (Bossam): There are both green onions and Korean pears in this recipe.
  • White kimchi (Baek): This kimchi often contains pears and jujubes and is also preserved in a fruity brine. 

Please note: Just because your kimchi isn’t listed here doesn’t mean it’s low carb. Even for each type of kimchi, there are multiple variations and all of them may contain glutinous rice flour or other types of starches.

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