On this Earth Day, we recognize the significance of our many plant species and use today to explore several of its flora and fauna and their contributions to not only cuisine but our general well-being. This piece examines common ingredients found in Middle Eastern cuisine and the various health benefits that they can offer.
In popular culture, Middle Eastern cuisine is widely known for the use of different spices which bring flavorful and visual vibrancy to the senses. Yet, in addition to pepping up a dish, there is also a rich historical tradition around the knowledge of how specific herbs and plants can improve overall health. As communities around the world face the threat of COVID-19, we all share in this heightened concern for our health and are proactively looking into ways to keep ourselves protected against these disease-causing pathogens.
While the recommended route for treatment is still yet to be determined by the leading medical professionals and scientists, cultural tradition dictates that there are certain natural preventative measures one can take to boost their immune system and increase their overall health. In this article, we will discuss how certain ingredients stemming from Middle Eastern culinary and homeopathic tradition – some of which are likely tucked away in your pantry already – have significant health benefits and how you can start incorporating them into your diet today.
Teas are widely consumed in the Middle East, typically taking the form of “red tea” (black tea) and mint tea. More recently, green tea has been seen to rise in popularity with consumers in the region, possibly due to studies that have shown that it helps lower the risk of heart disease, boost the immune system, protect against cancer, lower blood pressure and even speed up the metabolism. While it sounds a bit unbelievable that tea can possess so many positive benefits, it does contain a key component that is useful in treating and preventing infectious diseases. Green tea contains phytochemicals called “catechins” which have been observed in studies to be an active antimicrobial agent.
These catechins inhibit microbial activity by binding to bacterial cell membranes, resulting in the bacteria being unable to effectively latch onto human cells and infecting them. Green tea also contains less caffeine than does coffee and provides L-theanine, an amino acid shown to promote a state of calm awareness. Green tea is one of the most popular drinks consumed globally, and it will probably see a rise in consumption once more people understand its remedial benefits.
Peppermint is an aromatic herb that is associated with antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Due to this, peppermint is commonly used to relieve symptoms caused by sinus infections, the common cold, and allergies. Peppermint leaves are most commonly ingested by brewing them as a tea.
A tip is to pair this tea with “crystal sugar,” a sweetener used in the region that contains essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Peppermint also contains catechins, which give the consumer added antimicrobial benefits.
The pomegranate is one of the most celebrated fruits in the Middle East, its origin stretching from India and Ancient Persia to across the Mediterranean. It is prized for its deliciously sweet and sour juice-filled granules sealed inside its thick husk. This dark red juice is packed with punicalagin’s which act as incredibly potent antioxidants.
Pomegranate juice contains higher levels of antioxidants than most other fruit or herb derivatives, even that of red wine and green teas. The antioxidants in pomegranates have anti-inflammatory properties which can reduce inflammation. Pomegranate seeds are commonly used in salad and rice recipes to give a pop of sweetness. Interestingly enough, the peel of the pomegranate is also a good source of catechins, if properly extracted.
Cardamom is a spice that has been used for millennia in foods and medicine. It is well known for its distinctive flavor, this is commonly used in drinks such as coffee and chai, as well as for aromatherapy as it contains properties that help increase airflow to your lungs. The compounds in cardamom are useful for fighting off bacteria and contains high levels of antioxidants.
Cardamom is also known as a way to fight off bacteria in the mouth, which is a common cause for bad breath, cavities, and gum disease. Other traditional uses for cardamom are to aid with digestion and to increase the production of saliva (which is also a great way to stave off infection).
Ginger is one of the most popular rhizome ingredients in the world, next to turmeric. Ginger contains “gingerol,” a compound that contains high levels of antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory effects and can inhibit the growth of many different types of bacteria.
Ginger is commonly used to combat nausea and to promote healthy digestion. Ginger is often regarded as a spice, but it can be consumed in teas if one simply wishes to directly extract the healthy compounds from it.
Cinnamon is the dried inner bark from several tree species of the genus Cinnamomum that is commonly used as a spice in desserts, baked goods, and savory dishes. Cinnamon possesses many antioxidant properties and is used medicinally as a treatment for diabetes and heart disease.
In the Gulf Region, cinnamon is brewed as a tea by simply combining cinnamon sticks and sugar with boiling water. This tea is also said to have antimicrobial benefits.
Turmeric is a spice that comes from the turmeric plant. Turmeric contains curcumin which is a natural anti-inflammatory compound and is a powerful antioxidant and boosts the activity of your body’s antioxidant enzymes. These properties contribute to healthy digestion.
However, curcumin is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream, but a good way to incorporate the properties of turmeric is to have it with black pepper. Black pepper contains a substance that enhances the absorption of curcumin. Studies have supported that turmeric can also be used for pain relief. Turmeric is often used in curries and soups, and the curcumin compound is the reason for giving curries a yellow color.
Less common ingredients that are also worth mentioning are chamomile, thyme, hibiscus, and anise.
Chamomile tea uses the dried flowers of the chamomile plant and is commonly consumed as a sleep aid and to help relieve pain, stress, and anxiety. Thyme tea is also consumed in the Middle East and is said to offer digestive benefits as well as antioxidants. Hibiscus tea uses dried hibiscus flowers to create a flavorful beverage rich in vitamin C. Anise, another spice known for its distinctive flavor (similar to that of licorice or fennel) is also used in teas in the region due to its digestive properties
Of the ingredients above, the ones that are especially great for oral and gut health are green tea, pomegranate, peppermint, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. They contain high amounts of antioxidants, which are substances that protect your cells from unstable molecules known as free radicals that damage cells in your body. Free radicals often occur when your body breaks down food.
By incorporating more of these ingredients into your daily diet, you can aid in boosting your immune system, increasing your intake of antioxidants, and help your body strengthen its defenses against any potential pathogens that enter it. While these tips are meant to serve as additional measures you can take to keep your health up during these uncertain times, it is highly recommended that one continues to follow the guidelines issued by their local and national health centers as they are announced.