In recent years research scientists have been doing foodies a big favour — by discovering that some of our favourite foods are actually very good or us. Some of this produce even comes into the superfood class.
We keep reading about the beneficial effects of chocolate, wine, beer, coffee, tea, blueberries, cherries, oranges, walnuts, bananas, watercress, honey, prunes, potatoes and many other fruits, vegetables and fish that most of us already eat and enjoy.
Some people wonder why these stories about superfoods suddenly appear in the media. The answer is that in clinics, universities and research centres all over the world, doctors and scientists are conducting thousands of experiments on an extensive range of foods.
Some of these experiments don’t lead anywhere special, but others give surprising results. That’s when we hear about them.
As western research scientists look more closely at the effects of hot spices on the human body, for instance, they are seeing what traditional eastern medicine has known for centuries — hot spices and curry powder are beneficial for general good health.
Doctors have been discovering that curries help to protect us against deterioration of the brain and help to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. It’s the curcumin in turmeric that does most of the good work and turmeric is the main spice in curries the world over.
Turmeric gives curries their yellow colour and distinctive taste, so anyone who eats curries regularly is getting all the benefits curcumin can bring.
A study on rats showed that curcumin could trigger enzyme activity that protects the brain from degenerative disease. Doctors say this could be why Indians, who produce and use most of the world’s turmeric, have lower rates of Alzheimer’s in the over 65s than of those in western countries.
This enzyme is called HO-1 and acts as a defence against free radicals, the infamous molecules that can cause body cells to stop working normally and then die. The damage cause by free radicals triggers diseases such as Alzheimer’s and is also thought to be one of the main causes of ageing.
Some cooks add a little turmeric as a colouring agent — but never put it into a paella, as some recipes recommend. The spice that works wonders for a curry produces a culinary disaster when used to give a touch of yellow to a paella.
But there is more to curry powder than turmeric. Research has shown that nine other spices in most curry powders also have health-boosting components. They are cardamom, chilli, cinnamon, coriander, curry leaves, fennel, fenugreek, ginger and nutmeg.
Cardamom, a member of the ginger family, can have anti-blood clotting effects, according to Indian research. Tests show there were fewer clotting problems when the spice was consumed in large amounts.
Scientists discovered that hot chillis help the body to fight cancer and they were hailed as a new superfood. Hot peppers have been used in traditional medicine for centuries because of their ability to ease the symptoms of colds and flu and also as a relief for nasal congestion.
Research at the University of California showed that the active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, shrinks tumours and could have beneficial effects for millions of patients with pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Tests on mice fed with hot peppers showed that tumours reduced in size and there was a slowdown in the cancer’s development. Researchers think the capsaicin may be able to ‘burn’ prostate cancer cells. Another study at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that capsaicin also helped to kill pancreatic cancer cells.
Investigation has shown that lots of chillis are not bad for the stomach, as previously thought. Chillis put the brake on acid production and improve blood flow to stomach tissue, which helps the prevention and treatment of ulcers.
It is also known that gastric ulcers are three times less common in those countries where large amounts of chillis are consumed.
For most of us, hot peppers are simply a way of adding a touch of spicy heat to a wide array of dishes, especially those from Mexico and India. But they also have a well-documented history for helping to treat ailments such as asthma and arthritis, as well as lowering the cholesterol count and boosting the immune system.
The medical prospects for hot peppers are so promising that dozens of scientific studies are currently being carried out on the effects of capsaicin and on the benefits to be had from eating hot peppers.
Dave Dewitt, founding director of the Chilli Pepper Institute at New Mexico University, has said: “Chillis are a remarkable food and have significant medical uses. Eating chillis is a preventative measure for stopping stomach ulcers from developing. They are also crammed with vitamin C when green, and vitamin A when red.”
Hot peppers were unknown in Europe until Columbus discovered the New World. Until then, black pepper was used mainly used to add a touch of spicy heat to food. It was thanks to chillis that we now have the hot dishes of India, Bangladesh, Africa and Asia.
Contrary to what many people think, chillis are used extensively in Spanish regional cooking. In Majorca we have fairly good selection of fresh green and red chillis, some grown locally and others imported from the mainland.
Spaniards call them guindillas and they are an ingredient in recipes in all of Spain’s autonomous communities. The biggest consumers of guindillas are the Basques who are fond of adding them whole or in snippets to every kind of dish except desserts — although I wouldn’t be surprised if some creative Basque cook has guindilla ice cream on his menu.
The people of Navarra and La Rioja also enjoy very piquant food. Some of their dishes, such as La Rioja’s patatas con chorizo, are much too hot for most other Spaniards.
As a rule, it’s the people who live in the south who use hot chillis. The high temperatures not only sap their strength, but they leave them with jaded palates: hot spicy food helps to perk up the tastebuds.
But Spain is different, and it’s the people of the coldish north who are hooked on hot chillis. However, we needn’t go to the cold north to find Spaniards who like their food truly piquant. Some Majorcans, especially the people of Sa Pobla, also adore dishes well spike with guindillas.
Majorcans like to buy strings of hot chillis and hang them up in th kitchen for future use and also for decoration. They are shiny and bright red when fresh, but they eventually turn wrinkly and take on an almost black colour.
The Italians, especially the Sicilians, also have pasta dishes in which chopped fresh chillis or dried flakes are generously mixed into the sauce. Some varieties dry out and become so brittle they can be crushed almost to a powder between the fingers.
There is a scene in the movie Prizzi’s Honor in which Jack Nicholson, a tough Mafia hitman, rubs a dried chilli between his fingers and showers the splinters of skin and the seeds over a plate of spaghetti. Very macho and strictly for hot chilli addicts.
If you decide to give it a try don’t touch any sensitive skin areas until you have thoroughly washed your hands with plenty of soap.
Cinnamon, one of the most widely used flavourings in Indian cooking, is a warm highly aromatic spice also much favoured in North Africa. Research shows it can lower blood sugar levels to a significant degree.
Doctors at the US Human Nutrition Research Center gave daily doses of cinnamon powder to men and women with the more common type-2 diabetes.
Results showed blood sugar levels dropping by up to 20 per cent compared to the control group. It’s not clear how it works, but doctors think a polyphenol in the spice may act like insulin.
The leaves and seeds in coriander are used in Indian cooking and Indian research has shown that this herb and spice has high anti-oxidant levels. Tests at the University of Ulster suggest it may help insulin levels in diabetics. Other tests have shown it has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels and colon cancer.
Fresh curry leaves are supposed to be highly aromatic but I have always found them to be quite useless as a kitchen herb. However, it is said they may help to lower cholesterol levels and can be useful for some diabetics.
Fennel, from the same family as parsley and carrots, has been use to ease indigestion and bronchitis symptoms and is also an efficient pain reliever. In research on period pains, a group of young women given fennel for two months had a notable reduction in symptoms.
Fenugreek is one of the highly distinctive flavours in curries. One study showed fenugreek seeds may stop or slow the growth of breast cancer tumours. A Tokyo University study found that animals given the leaves were able to exercise for longer periods.
Tests at Purdoe University in the United States, showed that fenugreek was beneficial or bronchitis, fever, sore throats, skin irritations, diabetes and ulcers.
Ginger, one of the most popular spices, is widely used in Indian cookery and Britons cook with it more than any other European nation — think of gingerbread, ginger snap biscuits and, of course, ginger beer.
There is no excuse for not using fresh ginger because it is now available in just about every supermarket and local fruit and veg shops.
Research at Kyoto Pharmaceutical University in Japan showed that it lowered the risk of stomach ulcers, and doctors at the University of Miami used it to reduce the pain of knee osteoarthritis.
Ginger, one of our oldest medicinal plants, is renowned as a potent remedy for travel sickness. If you are prone to nausea produced by motion sickness, eat a few pieces of crystallised ginger before setting off on a journey.
Nutmeg is another of the British people’s favourite spices. The best eggnog always has a scraping of nutmeg on the surface, and in Chaucer’s time they sprinkled some on a tankard of ale. In Indian cooking it is the least used of the above spices.
But perhaps men should add some to their curry sauces as well as to spinach and cheese sauces for pasta. Why? Nutmeg is said to boost male libido. And there comes a time for most men when a little lift-up isn’t a bad idea.