What is Compound K?

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Compound K is a ginseng saponin metabolite found in minute quantities of aged ginseng. It is typically not found in young ginseng and not created through physical processes such as heating and drying. Ginseng saponins are broken down by microorganisms typically in the gut where it is converted to Compound K. In the asian population roughly 30% have the microorganisms to create Compound K. This is the main reason why ginseng have been effective in some while others have no effect.

Many understand Korean Ginseng as a wonder herb but no one really understood the reason until now.

For over 2000 years, humankind have used herbal medicine to treat various kinds of symptoms and diseases. Around 400 B.C. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended chewing on the willow bark and drinking tea from the willow leaves to relieve fevers and pain [1]. In the mid 1800s, the active component from the willow extract was derived to be salicylic acid – modern day aspirin. To this day aspirin is being used by millions of people worldwide for the prevention of heart attacks and strokes. While the era of antibiotics started with penicillin in the 1940s, modernization and mass production of drugs have only took off since World War II [2].

Ginseng comes from the root of Panax ginsengKorean ginseng, amongst many other ginseng variants such as the South China and American ginseng. It has been in use for at least 2000 years but only recently the secrets of ginseng have come into light. It has been well documented that saponins from Ginseng (also known as Ginsenosides) have various medicinal properties. The first of 6 saponins have been isolated during the 1960s. To date there are over a 100 saponins found in Ginseng.

Compound K has only been recently discovered as a “saponin metabolite” from Ginsenoside Rb1. While Compound K is 100% absorbable through the human gut, these saponin metabolites have not been reported to be found in raw or processed ginseng.

Compound K has anti-inflammatory, anti-fatigue, and immune boosting effects.

As most modern day drugs are metabolized in the liver, Compound K is created through the metabolism of Ginsenoside (Rb1) through the intestinal flora. In other words the human gut plays an important role in metabolizing ginseng saponin to active metabolites. Unfortunately, studies show that a majority of individuals do not possess the enzymes that can break down ginseng saponins to Compound K. This finding may help explain the discrepancies and effectiveness of ginseng between individuals [4].

Thus, metabolism of ginseng saponins to the Compound K plays an important role and effectiveness in the pharmacologic effects of ginseng. Various studies show that Compound K exhibit potent pharmacologic effects such as anti-inflammatory [5], anti-diabetic [6], anti-tumor [7], and cardiovascular protective [8] to name a few. This broad spectrum activity is most likely attributed to its activity against inflammation while boosting the immune system.

Quite a few dietary supplements contain ginseng extract but does it contain Compound K? Compound K is not found naturally in raw or (dried or heat) processed ginseng. Consumers who seek effects associated with ginseng should actively seek Compound K in order to receive maximum benefit.


  1. “Aspirin”. Chemical & Engineering News. August 13, 2007

  2. “Discovery and Development of Penicillin.” ACS Chemistry for Life. http://www.acs.org

  3. Kim D.H. Gut microbiota-mediated pharmacokinetics of ginseng saponins. J. Ginseng Res 42 (2018) 255-263

  4. Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, South Korea

  5. Kim J.H et al. Role of ginsenosides, the main active components of Panax ginseng, in inflammatory responses and diseases. J. Ginseng Res 41 (2017) 435-443

  6. Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) improves insulin sensitivity and attenuates the development of diabetes in Otsuka Long-Evans Tokushima fatty rats. Metabolism. Vol. 58 Issue 8, August 2009. 1170-1177

  7. Kang KA et al. Compound K, a metabolite of ginseng saponin, inhibits colorectal cancer cell growth and induces apoptosis through inhibition of histone deacetylase activity. Int J Oncol. 2013 Dec;43(6):1907-14

  8. Lee C.H. et al. A review on the medicinal potentials of ginseng and ginsenosides on cardiovascular diseases. J. Ginseng Res 38 (2014) 161-166