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Spices - Antioxidant Source Throughout the Ages

{written by : Dr Keith Scott}

Article word count : 698 -- Article Id : 853
Article active date : 2008-10-16 -- Article views : 8999

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Article is about :
Spices are the most antioxidant-rich of all food types and they contain other important compounds that have had profound health benefits on mankind throughout the ages. The evolution of spices in our diets is a fascinating story that shows how important spices are to our health as much today as they were eons ago.

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Thousands of years ago our hunter/gatherer forebears were forced to adapt to a wide range of climatic and other environmental conditions. Thus, before agrarian societies developed, humans consumed a wide variety of plant species. Some of these plants contained the basic macro and micronutrients needed for survival (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals). Many of the pungent, stronger-tasting, and richly coloured plants also contained an array of "non-nutritive compounds" that had profound health benefits.

Today we know that the piquant flavours and bright colours characteristic of spices are hallmarks of the important phytochemicals these plants contain. The resilience that characterizes many spice plants means that, during times of famine, pestilence and drought, these are often the last edible plants to survive. When taken alone many of them may be very unpleasant to eat. However, these foods, in the absence of tastier alternatives, were frequently the only forms of nourishment available to our ancestors. This was a fortuitous dietary hardship and one which resulted in unwitting, but important, self-medication.

However when agrarian communities began to form, the variety of plant species consumed by these societies decreased and they became dependent on a small selection of crops and a limited variety of wild plants. As our forebears were forced to eat "spicy" foods out of necessity, they probably enjoyed the intense flavors of these plants. Another factor that influenced their palatability was the relative strength of flavors between different foods. To understand this, it is necessary to consider that most of the fruit and vegetable species eaten by early societies were stronger tasting and less sweet than they are today. In fact, the majority of modern plant-food cultivars bear very little resemblance to those varieties that grew thousands of years ago: the bitter, sour and astringent flavors that characterized fruits such as apples, melons, pears and many others have been bred out by generations of selective propagation.

As hunter-gatherer peoples began to be replaced by agrarian societies, motives for the consumption of spices began to change. Among settled societies, spices were the source of flavorings and colorings that could be used to augment the more monotonous diets based on a restricted number of crops. Also, in order to establish food security, these societies began to store the plants they grew or animals they killed. Drying of food was one solution, as was the use of the refrigerant effect of the low temperatures found at higher altitudes and latitudes. However, until recent times, the desiccation and freezing of food was not a viable option for those living in hot, humid climates; these societies discovered chemical preservation, in the form of salt and spices. As the former was only available in certain areas spices were often the only other option to protect food from insect infestation and microbial putrefaction.

We now know that many of the strongly flavoured phytochemicals which give plants protection against insect and microbial attack are the same compounds that "preserve" our bodies, by protecting us against degenerative diseases.

Today spices are consumed in much greater quantity and variety in warm, humid countries than in colder climates. India and Thailand have the highest consumption of spices; the warm Mediterranean countries follow somewhat behind these and other Eastern countries but are ahead of the United States. Chilly Scandinavian countries have the lowest spice consumption of all. Moreover, the importance of spices in helping to prevent chronic degenerative disease can be seen to correspond to the varying levels of spice utilization that occurs across different temperature zones. Cold countries – typically the most developed countries – tend to have much higher incidences of chronic degenerative diseases when compared to hotter regions.

The dearth of spices in the diets of those of us living in most Western countries means that we are depriving our bodies of the important compounds that have, since time immemorial, been used by our physiological and homeostatic mechanisms to protect us from many diseases. We need to consume lots of spices on a daily basis as they can make us feel better, think better, age more slowly, and help us to resist the onslaught of scourges like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer"s disease and other chronic degenerative disorders.

Author Bio :
Dr Keith Scott is a medical doctor who has written several books including "Medicinal Seasonings, The Healing Power of Spices" and "Natural Home Pharmacy"

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