Ginger: A Versatile Spice

By Dr. Bala Naidoo

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The word ginger comes from the Sanskrit “singabera,” which means “shaped like a horn.” Marco Polo described ginger in detail in his diary, after first encountering it on his travels along Asia’s silk route. Ginger was later brought to Europe as live potted plants in ships that plied the East Indies route.

Native to South East Asia, ginger has been cultivated there for around 4,000 years. Nowadays, it’s grown mostly in India, China, the West Indies and Africa.

Ginger is botanically related to several other spices that occupy a place of choice in Asian cooking, namely turmeric, cardamom and galangal.

The most useful part of the ginger plant is the rhizome or root. This is peeled, grated and used fresh in curries, stir fries and other favourite Asian dishes. When peeled, dried and then powdered, the rhizomes are converted into ground ginger. It is mostly used in baking cakes and cookies such as gingerbread men, which date back to Elizabethan times.

The strong flavour of ginger is due to the presence of 6-gingerol, which is found in cells just below the skin. Not only used to flavour food, ginger also preserves it. This is possible because ginger has antibacterial properties, which kill pathogenic bacteria and fungi responsible for causing food spoilage.

Fresh ginger is popular in marinades since it contains enzymes, such as zingibain, which degrade protein and will therefore tenderize meat or fish before barbecuing.

Owing to the presence of flavonoids, carotenoids and phenolic compounds such as gingerols, ginger possesses antioxidant properties. It will thus protect fats in prepared food from being oxidized and going rancid.

Ginger is also rich in several vitamins such as vitamin C and many others of the B group, as well as calcium, potassium and other minerals. Because of its strong taste, however, people normally consume too little of it to significantly affect the daily requirements of these vitamins and minerals. Anecdotal evidence suggests that early Chinese sailors consumed fresh, raw ginger for its vitamin C to ward off scurvy.

Ginger possesses some medicinal properties due to the presence of active compounds such as gingerols and shogaols. It has been used for centuries in Asia to counter nausea and to prevent vomiting from seasickness and motion sickness. Recently, it has performed well in scientific trials to test its efficacy in treating nausea in patients who had undergone surgery or chemotherapy. Several studies have also shown it to be effective in relieving nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy. It is thought that even ginger beer was first used to soothe queasy stomachs.

Ginger has been used by many cultures as a digestive stimulant. Recent studies on rats and guinea pigs have pinpointed the compound 6-shogaol as being responsible for this action.

In Chinese medicine, ginger is used in the form of a tea to treat colds or chills and to promote sweating. Studies have shown that ginger does indeed stimulate circulation, thus increasing the body’s temperature.

The effectiveness of ginger as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent is now being investigated. What sparked this interest is the structural similarity between 6-gingerol and capsaicin, a known pain reliever extracted from hot peppers. The anti-inflammatory properties of 6-gingerol are being evaluated since it is known to inhibit the cyclooxygenase enzyme that causes inflammation. It could prove useful as a painkiller in patients suffering from arthritis and muscular problems.

Recently, 6-gingerol has been shown to destroy human colon tumour cells grown in mice. No trial has yet been done on humans, but the results were impressive enough to warrant an application for a patent by the University of Minnesota.

No one has requested a patent to use ginger as an aphrodisiac, yet, even though in some parts of Senegal women wear a belt made of fresh ginger root to rekindle passion in their husbands!

Dr. Naidoo lives in Ladysmith and is the author of *Nature’s Bounty: Why certain foods are so good for you* and *Nature’s Bounty: More foods for a longer and healthier life*.




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