Healing Foods in Traditional Cultures
September 01, 2001 - Article
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September 2001
World Fare

Healing Foods in Traditional Cultures


By Susheela Uhl
Contributing Editor


Advice given 2,500 years ago by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine — “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” — is being followed today with renewed vigor as consumers are thinking more holistically about their health. Today’s consumers want to control and improve their health and reduce disease risk using natural methods. With this in mind, researchers are investigating many foods valued in traditional medicine for medicinal value, either to complement existing ways of healing or as alternatives to drugs. The popularity of functional foods is on the rise.


With the growing interest in do-it-yourself therapies, people are turning to traditional healing rooted in religious and philosophical beliefs. Many foods and spices have been used historically as remedies: ginger, to aid digestion and treat nausea; cassia in 4th century B.C. China to treat depression and aid in blood circulation; and honey by Egyptians to dress wounds. Greeks ate onions for their curative qualities, Romans used garlic for strength, and Mesoamerican civilizations valued chile peppers for treating headaches and pain.


Foods are not used haphazardly in traditional healing, but are frequently part of a “holistic health system.” Whether ayurveda, Chinese traditional medicine, folk medicine, Mayan healing or Unani tib — traditional healing emphasizes disease prevention through one’s pursuit of mental, physical and emotional harmony with the environment, including foods and dietary practices. Also, traditional dietary healing takes into account the individual’s personality, age and metabolism, along with seasonal issues, to achieve optimum health. Ingredients, cooking techniques and meal presentation are significant tools in traditional medicine.


Native American medicine
Native Americans traditionally used sarsaparilla to provide energy and relieve coughs, sassafras root to lower fevers and chamomile flowers to treat gingivitis. Mayans and Aztecs connected health with nature, spirits and lifestyle. Strong life energy, or ch’ulel, governs health, strength and emotions. Medical diagnostics and therapy were based on the concept of hot (open and flowing) and cold (closed and congested).


Mayan medicine is a medical/religious system to heal both physical and emotional ailments. Under Mayan theory, diseases occur when there is an imbalance of the hot and cold brought about by the physiological state of body, the environment or the plants eaten. Mayans believe hot remedies counteract symptoms of diseases caused by cold conditions, and cold remedies treat the symptoms of illness caused by heat. Mangoes, nopal, roses, avocados and limes are remedies for hot conditions, such as swelling, fever, diarrhea, vomiting or anxiety. Oranges, rosemary, chocolate, chilies, ginger, garlic, coffee and yams are used to treat cold conditions, such as cramping, mucus discharge, constipation, infertility and menstrual problems.


Therapeutic practices based on medicinal plants (called sheev in Mayan) still are popular as traditional healing tools in Central and South America: chayote to lower blood pressure, amaranth leaf to treat anemia, oregano tea for bronchitis, epazote for intestinal parasites, red hibiscus flower to remedy diarrhea, chile peppers to treat severe headaches and relieve cold and flu symptoms.


Today, plants such as guarana, maca and echinacea are growing in popularity as functional foods. South American Guarani Indians dry roast the seeds of guarana, a red berry grown in Venezuela and northern Brazil, and make it into a thick beverage with water and flavorings. They drink it to cure digestive problems, promote mental alertness and regain strength. Orinoco Indians make this drink with water and cassava and allow it to ferment. Unlike coffee, which gives stimulation in a sudden rush, guarana beverages give a slow and prolonged energy release. Guarana contains up to 5% guaranine (caffeine-like), tannin, saponins, theobromine and theophylline, which provide a stimulating effect.


Maca, a root vegetable related to the potato, originates in the Andes Mountains. Peruvians have used it not only as food, but to increase libido, fertility, energy and stamina. Maca is dried, ground and made into soups and beverages. The plant’s leaves are brewed for tea. Today, athletes use maca to increase energy and stamina.
Native Americans used echinacea, purple coneflower, for snakebites and skin wounds, and to cure toothaches and sore throats. Besides its stimulating effect on the immune system, echinacea also may prevent tumor growth in rats, prevent fungal infections and lessen the severity of colds.


European traditional remedies
Ancient Greeks and Romans acquired therapeutic herbal knowledge from the Egyptians and the ancient Ayurvedics. Greeks drank marjoram in teas to clear headaches. In 77 A.D., a Roman herbalist, Pliny the Elder, compiled more than 1,000 plants in Historia Naturalis, including anise to aid digestion, juniper for bladder infections and parsley to cleanse breath.


The Renaissance period was the golden age for herbal medicines and therapeutic use of spices in wealthy households. Angelica was used to reduce muscular spasms, raspberry was used as a diuretic and cabbage was used for treating cathartic problems. In 18th and 19th century Europe, foods used as remedies were found in kitchens and apothecaries.


Many popular healing plants in use today are native to Europe. According to folk medicine, chicory root increases bile flow, decreases inflammation, and serves as a diuretic and tonic for the liver. When roasted, it has a coffee-like aroma and is used as a coffee additive or substitute. Its main constituents are inulin, fructose, tannin, lactucin and lactucopicrin. The latter two bitter principles have a sedative effect on the central nervous system. Thus, chicory counteracts coffee’s “nervous” effects.


St. John’s wort, a golden-yellow flower native to Europe, was used as a nerve tonic during the late 1900s. St. John’s wort has been well-researched for the treatment of mild to moderate depression, insomnia, anxiety and emotional disorders. Its antidepressant effect is attributed to its xanthones and flavonoids. In Germany, its therapeutic use is approved for depressive mood disorders, anxiety and nervous unrest. It is also a popular remedy for gastrointestinal disorders in Europe. Recently, its main ingredients, hypericin and psuedohypericin, have been found to help the body fight viruses.


Healing in Africa, the Middle East
In Egypt, Ethiopia and Morocco, garlic, fenugreek, cumin and fennel have been used traditionally as remedies. Dill is an ancient Assyrian and Egyptian remedy for soothing the stomach and relieving indigestion. Caraway was used to help digestion and prevent nausea, sumac treated an upset stomach, poppy seed acted as a painkiller, tarragon cured insomnia, and cumin lowered blood pressure and relieved stress.


Egyptians and Ethiopians used fenugreek — cultivated in Egypt as early as 1000 B.C. — to reduce fevers, aid digestion, promote lactation and treat diabetes. Today, its trigonelline component is found to prevent a hypoglycemic effect.


In 3700 B.C., Egyptians worshipped garlic and fed it to slaves to keep them disease-free. Egyptian writings list 22 remedies containing garlic, including those for heart disease, ear infections, tumors and insect bites. Garlic’s chemical, allicin, may lower cholesterol, increase HDL blood levels, break down clots, improve blood circulation and enhance the immune system.


Indian art of healing
Indian cooking is based on the therapeutic principles of ayurvedic medicine — ayu meaning life and veda meaning knowledge. In a standard ayurvedic meal, ingredients are chosen not only for taste but also to assure physical and emotional harmony. Food preparation and presentation creates desired healing effects.


Ayurveda categorizes foods into six tastes, or rasas: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent. Many foods and spices contain more than one taste. These are balanced so as not to adversely affect the functioning of the organs. For example, fennel contributes a sweet rasa; tamarind, sour; fenugreek, bitter; tomatoes, sweet and sour; chickpeas, sweet and astringent; and mango, sour and sweet.


To maintain perfect balance and nourishment, all six rasas should be incorporated into every meal. This explains the complex spice combinations and flavor depth experienced with Indian foods. To harmonize the body, these tastes must be balanced in the meal according to each person’s constitution, or dosha, frame of mind, time of day and season. Illnesses and diseases occur when food and a person’s constitution are imbalanced.


Foods are also classified as hot, cold, moist, dry, heavy or light. Hot foods speed digestion. Cold foods slow it. Every meal is well-balanced between hot and cold foods, with different tastes and textures to promote digestion and avoid illnesses. Potatoes, for example, are eaten to decrease blood pressure, cauliflower to reduce stomach and colon cancers, tomato to improve blood circulation and pickled mangoes for colds.


Spices stimulate the secretions of digestive enzymes, which help digestion and provide hot or cold properties. Fennel, a sweet spice, is also considered a cooling spice that brings down fevers and treats nausea; black pepper, a pungent and hot spice, is thought to cure colds and flu. Similarly, mace is used to treat stomach pains, mustard oil to increase blood flow, and asafetida to relieve gas.


Turmeric, called haldi or manjal in India, is a popular spice that provides color and flavor to curries and other foods. Indians also use it to treat stomach disorders, obesity and menstrual problems, and to heal the uterus after childbirth. In recent years, evidence has been found that turmeric’s components, curcumin and curcumene, increase bile flow, break down dietary fats, prevent blood clots, treat gallbladder disease and inhibit tumor initiation and promotion.


Ginger, from the Sanskrit word shringavera, is called “medicine for the stomach.” It has been used to soothe digestion, treat nausea and improve blood circulation. Ginger ale generally is consumed as a home remedy for an upset stomach. Its component gingerol also may have some benefit in the cardiovascular system, lowering cholesterol. Its shogoal and gingeberane content is effective against motion sickness and vomiting. Grated ginger with honey is added to soups or teas to relieve coughs and cold symptoms.


Traditional Chinese medicine
Historically, there has been an integration of nutrition, medicine and foods in China, Korea and Japan. Similar to ayurveda, Chinese traditional medicine has five different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy hot. Each taste affects the qi or chi that circulates throughout the body along prescribed pathways. The proper balance of these five tastes is essential to creating harmony or good health. If qi does not flow smoothly or gets stuck, illness occurs. Qi can be unstuck by stimulants such as food, acupuncture or acupressure. Herbal tonics (called tong shui), soups and tonics made from vegetables, spices, grains, nuts and fruits, generally are consumed as snacks to cleanse and detoxify the body and to restore its balance.


The different tastes, as well as the movement of qi, are described by yin and yang. They describe qi’s location, movement and functioning. Yang represents an action or activity that expends energy. Yin represents a restful phase in which energy is replenished. A proper balance of yin and yang in a meal is essential in maintaining good health. Yin-producing foods (cold) are cooling, soothing, milder and moistening, such as leafy vegetables, seaweed, fruits and mild spices. Yang-producing foods (hot) are warming, invigorating, high in fat, spicier and drier, such as pork, mutton, peanuts, chiles and ginger. Yin spices are sedative and slow metabolism. Yang spices are active and increase metabolism.


As a neutral food, rice is a meal’s centerpiece. Vegetables and fruits are eaten with rice as healing tools, such as shiitake mushroom to fight against cancer, red beans to invigorate the kidneys, bamboo shoots to clear phlegm and jujube for anemia. Contrasting spices and ingredients manipulate a meal’s hotness or coldness. For example, chile peppers are added to seaweed and sugar is added to spicy pork to balance their effects.


Cooking techniques also are classified under hot or cold. Stir-frying, roasting or deep-frying add heat to foods while steaming, boiling or slow simmering cools foods down. So a mix of stir-fried and steamed dishes are served in a single meal to create balance. This balancing is the basis of authentic Chinese cooking styles that give contrasting flavors and textures.


Similar to ayurveda, the state of the person’s health and seasons also become important factors in balancing ingredients for health. A feverish person is given cooling ingredients for balance. During the cold season, yang spices are more desirable for the flow of qi.


Since 2800 B.C., ginkgo biloba leaves have been an ancient remedy for coughs, asthma and inflammation, and are now widely used in East Asia and Europe for beneficial effects on the circulatory system. Its flavonoids and diterpenes are believed to improve blood flow, and acts as a free-radical scavenger. Researchers are examining whether this herb can increase blood flow to improve memory and prevent blood clots. It may also help people with tinnitus and vertigo.
Panax ginseng, with its yang property, contains triterpenoid saponins which may give the body increased resistance to stress, increase stamina and stimulate the immune system.


A picture of health
Around the globe, there is a growing body of research into traditional foods for dietetic and pharmacological qualities. In Japan, foods that have proven medical and nutritional benefits are licensed as FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use). In Germany, the safety and efficacy of herbs are published in Commission E Monographs. In the United States, although functional foods are a growing market, they are still ill-defined, not legally recognized or sometimes poorly regulated as to health claims. Moreover, with Western medicine, scientists generally seek to isolate the specific chemical or chemicals in foods that provide the nutrition or physiological healing effect. We take capsules, tablets, extracts or food products containing the bioactive ingredient, assuming they will give the same effect.


In traditional cultures, whole foods were eaten to give the desired healing effects. They were not consumed in isolation, but with meals, added to beverages or made into tonics. Are bioactive ingredients by themselves the effective agents? Or is the totality of the food consumed and the way a meal is taken traditionally the effective way? The historical use and applications of healing foods in traditional societies need to be understood in order to help us with functional food formulation, marketing, or even to use them as a basis for further scientific studies.



Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons Consulting Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food-consulting firm. She creates culinary concepts and develops ethnic, fusion or “new” American products for U.S.-regional, national and global markets. She provides culinary demonstrations, workshops and presentations on ethnic foods, spices, spice blends and other flavorings, as well as on cultural factors related to trends, product development, menus and nutritional enhancement. She can be reached via e-mail at suhl246@aol.com or by visiting www.SusheelaConsulting.com.

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