Our growing interest in natural foods and ‘alternative’ remedies is often accompanied by the ‘discovery’ and marketing of the latest so-called “superfood.” Amid the hype, it is best to recall that many healthy foods have been that way for a long, long time. With a little help from science and marketing, we rediscover their unknown or forgotten benefits, and, thus, superfoods are born.
Each region has its own superfoods, but certain plants have earned global acclaim over centuries for their exceptional taste and nutritional value, as well as for their legendary properties as ‘folk remedies.’ Here we dive into what science has to say about the extensive benefits of three popular superfoods: garlic, ginseng, and ginger.
As with any health regimen, it is always best to consult a medical professional before using any plants or herbs for medicinal purposes.
In many cultures, garlic is beloved for its taste as well as its health benefits. Garlic cloves are rich in organosulfur compounds which provide anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, anti-microbial, and antioxidant benefits. Crushing or chopping garlic triggers the release of enzymes including alliinase that ultimately catalyze an increased release of organosulfur compounds.
Scientific studies have found organosulfur compounds produced from garlic to be effective against inflammation and supportive of the cardiovascular system, helping, for instance, to decrease the synthesis of cholesterol. One such compound, diallyl sulfide (DAS), has also been shown to prohibit the metabolism of chemical carcinogens in the human body. Clinical trials have discovered that garlic can help to reduce blood pressure in people suffering from hypertension. It also displays antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Garlic is a common ingredient in Mediterranean diets which are thought to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system and to increase longevity. However, these benefits may not be entirely due to the consumption of garlic and are likely the product of a combination of features, such as how foods are grown and prepared, as well as the consumption of other foods associated with Mediterranean diets, such as olives, seafood, beans, vegetables, herbs, and more.
For those who cook with garlic, it has been found that the alliinase enzyme in garlic can be deactivated by heat, leading some scientists to recommend that pressed or chopped garlic be left to ‘stand’ for ten minutes or more before cooking.
Ginseng has been widely used in Eastern Asia as a folk medicine for thousands of years. It has been and continues to be regarded as a general tonic that can help improve physical and sexual performance and mitigate the effects of aging. Alongside its beneficial effects on cancer and diabetes, ginseng also seems to have a positive effect on the central nervous system.
Properly known as Panax ginseng—panax is derived from “panacea,” meaning cure-all—and also called Asian ginseng, Chinese ginseng, or Korean ginseng, ginseng is a plant species that is found growing in various parts of the world, including the mountains of East Asia. A slow-growing perennial, its roots are harvested when the plants are between five and six years old. The increasing popularity of wild-crafted ginseng has led to its protection in Russia, China, and throughout the world under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The components of ginseng regarded for their bioactive effects are ginsenosides, a group of saponins—bitter-tasting organic chemicals in plants that can accelerate numerous biological activities including anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-oxidative functions. Ginsenosides are found almost exclusively in the genus of plants called ‘panax’ which are incredibly diverse in structure. This diversity may contribute to the various beneficial effects of ginsenosides on cancer, diabetes, inflammation, stress, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and the central nervous system.
Ginseng also contains other substances associated with health benefits, including various essential oils, antioxidants, polyacetylenic alcohols, peptides, amino acids, polysaccharides, and vitamins.
There have been some reports of ginseng’s effect on the immune system, but inconsistencies make them somewhat unreliable. More reliable are test results showing the beneficial effects of ginseng on cancers in the stomach, lung, liver, pancreas, ovaries, colon, and oral cavity.
Root ginseng has been used to treat diabetes in both humans and animals with some species being effective against hyperglycaemia. Ginsenosides have also been shown to be effective in improving learning and memory acquisition and have displayed promising signs of effectiveness against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Like ginseng, ginger has been used for thousands of years for the treatment of a variety of ailments, particularly colds, nausea, arthritis, migraines and hypertension. Globally, it is widely studied, sold, and consumed.
Though its present name is derived from the Middle English word ‘gingivere,’ the Sanskrit word, ‘srngaveram’—derived from the root’s appearance, meaning “horn root”—dates back over 3,000 years. In fact, the Indians and Chinese may have produced ginger more than 5,000 years ago, likely for its use as some kind of treatment. Ginger was also valued in trade and was exported from India to the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago. By the medieval period it was being exported to England. Surprisingly, ginger does not actively grow in the wild and therefore its exact origins are unknown.
A member of the Zingiberaceae plant family, ginger is related to both cardamom and turmeric. Though the ginger plant is adorned with beautiful blossoms, it is the rhizome—the root of the plant—that is commonly consumed. The rhizome can be consumed raw or cooked, or it can be enjoyed pickled, dried, preserved, ground, or candied. It is particularly prized as a tea.
Ginger is a popular ingredient today in “keto” diets because of the presence of ketones in ginger, a type of water-soluble chemical that the liver also produces when it breaks down fats. Ginger’s chemical makeup includes gingerols—compounds that help to protect the plant against fungi, bacteria, and plant viruses. It is believed that gingerols are the source of many of ginger’s pharmacological and physiological benefits.
There are also substances in ginger called shogaols, which are products of dehydration when ginger is heated. The shogaols in ginger seem to be more effective than the gingerols when it comes to ginger’s modulation of calcium, a process that makes ginger effective against inflammation.
As with other herbal remedies, there are inconsistencies in ginger research. The most well-established effect of ginger is against nausea and vomiting. It is also generally recommended for preventing sea sickness, whereas some studies show no effect against motion sickness. There is also evidence that ginger helps to prevent or suppress a range of cancers and serves as a treatment against cardiovascular disorders.
Healthy and Tasty? Let’s Eat!
If you are new to using garlic or ginger or ginseng, there are healthy recipes available online to enhance your culinary skills with these three impactful ingredients. Though further research is needed to verify the purported health claims that surround these superfoods, generations of users have sworn to their benefits in thwarting the side-effects of the stressors of life. Bon appetite!
*Robin Whitlock is an England-based freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, climate change, and renewable energy, with a variety of other professional interests including green transportation.