Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Plant Profile: Corn (Zea Maize)

Corn or Maize, the ‘staff of life’ of the Americas, hardly needs much of a description. Every child recognizes it and it is cultivated so abundantly that it can hardly be overlooked. What few people know, though, is that Corn is just an overambitious grass.

Corn is a giant among grasses. It can grow more than 2m high and covers vast stretches of land dominating rural landscapes. The sturdy, fibrous stalk with its characteristic broad angularly bent-over leaves is a familiar sight. The ears develop in the leaf axils. But they are so well covered by the outer sheathing (husks) that they can barely be seen, were it not for the tuft of ‘hair’, known as corn silk that protrudes from the top of the cobs.

Modern corn was first domesticated in Mexico. It is one of the earliest domesticated plants from the New World. Its wild genetic parents are two species of Teosinte (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teosinte). Today, at least five species of Teosinte exist, but it is not clear whether any of them has been a direct ancestor of our modern corn, or whether the original parent variety has since become extinct.

Although Teosinte resembles modern corn in many ways the differences between wild and domesticated species are quite distinct. Most notably, Teosinte’s cobs are tiny. Its seeds are hard and covered by a tough skin. When ripe, their ears break off and the seeds are released.

Domesticated corn has been bred to hold on to the ears and not to release its seeds voluntarily. In the process, modern domesticated corn has become entirely dependent on humans to sow their seeds. We don’t know exactly when corn first began to morph into the shape and size we know today, but the process must have started a very long time ago. The oldest archaeological record for domesticated corn comes from Guilá Naquitz Cave, near Mitla, which is located in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is approximately 6250 years old.

Surprisingly, corn appears to have been known in Asia for much longer than is commonly assumed. It was long assumed that prior to Columbus there was no contact between the Old World and the New. Yet, archaeological findings from southern India and China that feature corn and other New World plants, seems to prove this theory wrong. Carl L. Johannessen stumbled across some very precise carvings at temples in the Karnataka region of India, which were built during the Hoysala Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th centuries.

Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, “Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion,” Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80, argue that stone carvings of maize ears exist in at least three pre-Columbian Hoysala stone block temples near Mysore, Karnataka state, India.

Their article provides 16 photographs that show a few of the sculptures in question.https://www.asc.ohio-state.edu/mcculloch.2/arch/maize.html. The carvings are quite remarkably accurate. Not just one but many distinctive features of maize are represented as true to life as a record cast in stone. Yet, many scholars have found it difficult to accept the idea of pre-Columbian contact and have thus come up with their own alternative interpretations of these sculptures. None of them seems terribly convincing.

Corn hybridizes quite freely and innumerable varieties have been created since it was first domesticated. Today, corn comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures: some predominantly starchy varieties, some soft, some hard, some sweet, some long, some short and round, some with large kernels, others with tiny ones, some blue, some white, some yellow or red and even glassy, multi-colored ones exist.

The variety appears sheer endless, yet only about five basic types of corn exist. The rest are variations of these basic types.

DENT CORN

The cobs of this type of corn are white to yellow. It is called ‘dented’ because the kernels become indented as the cob matures. This is the most commonly cultivated species as it is very versatile. Dent corn is used to produce oil, cereals, and flour, as well as animal feed. it is rich in cellulose which can be used to make biodegradable plastics and absorbent material for toiletries such as diapers, while the oil is used in cosmetics, soaps, skincare products, and more.

FLINT CORN

The cobs come in all colors and they shrink as they dry. This type of corn has very hard kernels and is used for similar purposes as Dent corn.

POPCORN

This type of corn is characterized by a hard outer skin and a soft, starchy center. This combination gives it its unique ‘pop-ability’.

SWEET or VEGETABLE CORN

This is everybody’s favorite type of corn. As the name suggests, it is high in sugar and deliciously succulent. It is the well-known ‘corn on the cob’ variety. Most of the carbohydrates in this type come in the form of sugars, which make it so tasty and sweet. It is best enjoyed fresh, as the sugars turn into starch if it is stored for too long.

WAXY CORN

This type of corn has starchy cobs with a waxy appearance. It is mainly used in the Far East for its tapioca-like starch. The food industry makes use of its stabilizing and thickening properties and as an emulsifier, e.g. for salad dressings. Other industrial uses include remoistening adhesives for gummed tape, in adhesives, and in the paper industry and as animal feed.

New varieties of corn are continuously bred. But today, these are born in the test tubes of biotech labs. Such modern cobs are not just hybrids but bio-engineered functional plant agents, designed to produce phytohormones and other substances of value to the pharmaceutical industry.

This type of enterprise is inherently dangerous as there is no way to protect people from inadvertently consuming this type of product. The germplasms of edible and bio-engineers varieties are kept in the same storage vaults, which risks accidental mixing. The germ-plasm bank for corn in Mexico has already been contaminated with genetically altered material. And time and again there are reports of non-approved, gene-manipulated types of corn that have entered the human food chain, often in the form of harmless-looking tortilla chips. These can cause severe and dangerous ‘allergic’ reactions in humans.

Corn is also at the center of another controversy: a considerable amount of corn is used to make ethanol as a bio-fuel. While we urgently need to find more environmentally friendly sustainable biofuel alternatives, we must also realize that they have their own environmental problems. Previously uncultivated land or even forest is turned over to agricultural production to fuel our cars.

In the course of its domestication, Corn has adapted so well to our human needs that it has given up its ability to reproduce independently. Natural fertilization still occurs, but corn depends on humans for all its nurture and care.

NIACIN DEFICIENCY AND NIXTAMALIZATION

Corn is very nutritious and supplies about 20% of the world’s food calories. However, a diet that is completely dominated by corn and corn products is deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Niacin deficiency can result in serious physical health problems due to niacin deficiency. The condition is known as ‘Pellagra’, which is characterized by the ‘3 D’s’ – diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia (some say 4 D’s and add ‘death’).

Interestingly, the lack of niacin in corn can be corrected by treating it with lye – a common practice among Native Americans. Such treatment results in a corn product known as hominy or Nixtamal. The process itself is referred to as nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl word ‘nixtamalli’, meaning ‘unformed corn dough’). This forms the basis of many corn products such as tamales, corn tortillas, and masa. The process removes the pericarp or outer skin of the kernel.

The process of nixtamalization also increases the bio-available amount of calcium by 75% – 85%, making it more easily digestible. Other minerals, such as iron, copper, and zinc are also increased. Nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein, and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately, the purpose of this alchemy was completely lost on the Spaniards, who took some corn back with them to Europe. They also introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with pellagra symptoms. The importance of minerals and vitamins had yet to be discovered, so corn soon was eyed with suspicion. It earned a reputation as a poor man’s food that would prevent starvation, but it was not considered wholesome.

CREATION MYTHS

Native Americans of course continued to thrive on it. It is their most important staple food and it is closely tied to all kinds of spiritual traditions and practices.Throughout the Americas, corn is closely associated with various creation myths. According to theses myths it was the Corn God or Goddess him or herself who taught the people how to grow and prepare corn so it may sustain them.

The Mayans revered this God as Yam Kaax, described in the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Mayans. Corn is linked to the very genesis of creation itself, for when the Gods decided to shape the world, they made different kinds of corn brew, which were to provide vigor and substance to their creation. They formed the first man and the first woman from white and yellow corn masa, which they transmuted into human flesh and blood.

And so it is to this day – corn is part of every meal, whether as tortillas tamales or hominy or one or another type of brew. The Aztecs mixed corn starch and cocoa to make a brew known as ‘Atole’, a kind of original ‘hot chocolate’. However, this did not taste much like what we have enjoy as such. It was mixed with various spices including vanilla and chili. An alcoholic brew made from corn is known as ‘Chicha’. Originally, it was used as sacred brew for ritual purposes, but now it is served at any and all occasions, especially during fiestas.

According to a Peruvian story, only two men survived the primordial deluge. They learned about corn from the ‘Macaw Women’. Every day, when they returned home at night, they found a large vessel filled with Chicha in their house. This went on for some days until one day, one of the men decided to stay at home to watch and see who brought them the mysterious brew.

Soon after the other man had left, two red Macaws flew in, took off their feathers and revealed their female bodies, one an old hag, the other a young girl. At once they started to chew some corn and spitting it into the pot. Finally, they filled it with water. This describes the traditional method of preparing Chicha. The man, being the possessive type, jumped from his hiding place and grabbed one of the women by the hair – of course he caught the young one, while the old woman fled. Thus, he came into possession not only of the first corn seeds, which he duly planted, but also of a wife.

In Peru, corn was associated with the Sun, which in this myth are personified as solar Goddesses. Chicha thus represents the essence of the sun’s magical powers.

In the Americas, Corn silk, the familiar tassel of ‘hair’ at the end of the cob, was considered a valuable medicine. It is believed to support the organs of the lower abdomen and was used to treat a variety of conditions: constipation, diarrhea, urinary retention, bladder infection, as well as infertility, and menstrual pains. It was also used to tone the womb after childbirth.

Although cornsilk is not ‘official’ in most of today’s pharmacopoeias, except in China, herbalists still use it to cleanse the urinary system, and to flush out kidney and bladder sand and gravel. Corn silk is considered a cleansing herb, that can eliminate toxins and thus purify the blood. Thanks to its diuretic effect it can also reduce an elevated blood pressure.

The Mayans considered their sacred plant a medicinal food – when suffering from severe illness they would eliminate all other foods from the diet and let corn alone nurture the person back to health. Mythology becomes reality – the corn reconstituted the patient’s flesh and blood just as in the ancient origin myth.

corn silk

Medicinal Uses:

Part used: Corn Silk, the silky ‘hair’ at the end of and surrounding the cob.

Constituents: allantoin, sterols, saponins, hordenine, plant acids, Vitamins C and K

Action: diuretic, demulcent, tonic,

Indications:

Corn silk is a valuable remedy, both, by itself or as an adjunct to other herbs. It can be used to treat afflictions of the genitourinary system. It is particularly helpful when it comes to alleviating the stinging pain of cystitis. The diuretic action also helps to flush out small urinary gravel and sand. In conditions such as prostatitis, it relieves fluid retention and reduces the frequent urge to urinate. The diuretic effect also lowers the blood pressure.

Native Americans have also used it to treat infertility and menstrual pain. Applied externally, the fresh corn silk can be used to clean wounds. For bacterial bladder infections it is best used in conjunction with an antiseptic herb, such as Uva Ursi or Boldo leaves. Cornsilk also seems to have an indirect effect on the liver, as it increases the flow of bile. This may explain the  traditional indigenous use of this herb in the treatment of gallbladder stones. Increased bile flow also improves digestion and absorption of nutrients from the intestines.

Corn Recipes

Green Chili Corn Bread

  • 1 cup of buttermilk
  • ½ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • ¼ cup of flour
  • 1 cup of yellow corn meal
  • ¼ cup of vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4-ounce can of chopped green chillies (or fresh)
  • 1/2 cup of Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 8-ounce can of creamed corn

Mix all together. Pour into well-greased 9 x 9 inch pan. Bake at 350ºF. for 1 hour.

Blue Corn Dumplings

  • 1 cup Juniper Ash Water — (See below)
  • 3 ½ cups Water
  • 6 cups Blue Corn Meal
  • Salt to taste

Boil the water.

Add the juniper water and salt.

Add corn meal and knead until soft.

Shape into small balls and drop into the boiling water. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. Remove and drain.

Serving Ideas : good with stews and hearty soups.

The Hopi form round dumplings in the winter and flat ones in the summer to ward off bad weather.

Juniper Ash Water

  • 2 tablespoons Juniper Ash
  • 1 cup Water

Snip off the tips of several juniper twigs and place them on a fine meshed metal screen. The twigs should not be woody. Light the twigs and let the ash settle on the screen. With a fine brush, (broom grass), carefully sift the ash though the screen. Store in an air tight container until needed.

To make juniper water, boil the water, remove from heat and add the ash. Steep 10-15 minutes, strain. Only make as much as is needed immediately, as it does not keep.

Let Your Foods Be Medicines

Let Your Foods Be Medicines

It is no longer a secret that proper nutrition plays a vital part in maintaining good health. But when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, first proclaimed ‘Let Your Foods Be Medicines and Your Medicines Be Food’ he wasn’t just talking about nutrition. Instead, he was implying that the distinction between staple foods, vegetables, spices, herbs, and drugs are often rather arbitrary. He knew very well that many common foods have healing properties, yet, are much safer to use than chemically more potent drugs.

Even today, the kitchen cupboard can be a veritable medicine chest. Let’s consider the medicinal properties of some common staple foods and vegetables:

Grains

Although some regard them as the root of all evil and shun them for their ‘fattening’ properties, grains and starches are an important part of a balanced diet. The operative word here is ‘balance’. Too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. Also, not all starches are created equal. Processed carbohydrates really are empty stuffing. White flour products including bread and pasta, polished rice and fried potatoes have little to commend them and contribute almost nothing but calories to the diet. Yet, the same items, less processed, form ‘the staff of life’.

They not only supply energy in the form of complex carbohydrates but also provide a large range of nutrients. They are rich in fiber, too, which is especially important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fibers, especially the water-soluble kind, eliminate toxins and keep cholesterol levels low. However, they should not dominate the diet. The amount of carbohydrates you need depends on how much physical energy you have to put out on a daily basis. People who live a more or less sedentary lifestyle need far fewer carbs to keep their burner going.

Grains also have medicinal properties that are very versatile. They are not used in herbal medicine today, but rather as home remedies:

Barley

Barley (Hordeum vulgare)

Barley gruel is an excellent nutritional food that is useful for throat and stomach problems. Boiled in milk it promotes lactation. Externally, it can be used as a poultice to treat sprained or stiff muscles, rheumatism, and skin afflictions. Simmered in milk it soothes sores and ulcers. Even Barley beer has its virtues: it stimulates the appetite and increases the secretion of digestive juices. It improves the digestion of fatty foods and eases heartburn. Warm beer acts as a demulcent and diuretic and has been used to alleviate urinary complaints.

Oats

Oats (Avena sativa)

Oats are very nourishing and provide an excellent source of energy for those who are recovering from sickness or are in poor health. Plain oat porridge is one of the best foods for stomach and intestinal problems such as ulcers and inflammation. Oat bran is an excellent source of water soluble fibre that acts as an inner cleanser, adding bulk while binding endotoxins for elimination.

Wheat

Wheat (Triticum sativum)

Wheat is one of the most important staple foods of the Western diet. However, the highly refined and bleached form commonly used for bread and pasta provides almost no nutritional value. Moreover, wheat allergies are becoming increasingly common. Spelt offers a good, less allergenic alternative.

Externally, pure, unadulterated wheat starch has been used as a drying agent. The soothing powder can be applied to weeping skin rashes and inflamed sores (poison ivy!). Those who are allergic to wheat should not use it for external applications either.

Wheatgerm is nutritionally the most valuable part. It is rich in vitamin E as well as other nutrients. It has been used to alleviate debilitating or nervous conditions, circulatory problems, digestive troubles, blood impurities, and skin afflictions.

Wheat bran is used as laxative or diet aid since it creates a sense of satiation. But as wheat bran is not water-soluble it does not bind endotoxins. While it adds bulk, the sharp edges of coarse bran can irritate the intestinal lining. Wheat bran offers little to no nutritional benefit. However, externally it can be used as a bath additive for rheumatic, gout, and certain skin problems (put in a muslin bag or similar if you don’t want your drains to clog up). . Mixed with honey it makes a good face-mask for treat blackheads and skin impurities.

Vegetables

Vegetables are the best source of vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other trace substances that are vital to our health. Vegetables are essential, yet too much of a good thing can be too much, in this case too. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can be toxic if they accumulate in excessive amounts. Too much asparagus can damage the kidneys and spinach can draw calcium from teeth and bones. But as vegetables are rarely eaten in really excessive amounts, damage is rare.

Onions

Onion (Allium cepa)

The onion family provides a host of wonderful and medicinally potent vegetables. Even the lowly onion has antiseptic and anti-putrefactive properties. It stimulates circulatory system including the heart, has diaphoretic, diuretic and expectorant properties, and increases mucous secretion.

To make an impromptu cough syrup, simply cut up an onion and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover the dish and leave overnight. The sugar draws out the onion juice and makes a kind of syrup.

Onion juice stimulates the kidneys and helps to dissolve small kidney stones. However, this should not be tried in cases of kidney inflamed or serious kidney disease, as it can be irritating.

garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is an excellent home remedy. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties and stimulates the immune system. Garlic is also excellent for keeping the circulatory system healthy as it reduces cholesterol levels, inhibits arteriosclerosis and lowers the blood pressure (vasodilator). It is full of vitamins and healthy nutrients. It can even kill worms (enema). It also stimulates the liver and gallbladder and acts on the metabolism. Cooked in milk it is a powerful expectorant. Garlic juice was once used as a remedy for tuberculosis.

Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus stimulates the kidneys and increases the urinary volume. Asparagus contains a lot of purines though, which can contribute to the formation of uric acid crystals. While this is not normally a problem, people who eat a lot of organ meats may already have elevated levels of purines. In that case, it would be better to not overdo it with the asparagus.

White Cabbage

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capita)

Rich in vitamin C, the lowly cabbage is another wonderful healing plant. Sauerkraut and raw cabbage are great detoxing agents. Fresh cabbage juice, (5x a day for 2 weeks) is an effective remedy for stomach ulcers. Bruised cabbage leaves, applied as a poultice, draws pus and putrid matter from rashes, sores, and boils. Applied to the chest it can be used as a pulmonary plaster for bronchial infections. It can also be applied to engorged breasts. Hot cabbage leaves soothe aching muscle, neuralgia, and rheumatic pain.

Horseraddish

Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana/ Cochlearia armoracia)

Horseradish has a stimulating effect on the circulatory and the digestive systems and boosts the metabolism. It can be used both internally and externally: Applied as a poultice it will act as a rubefacient and soothe aching muscles, gout, rheumatic joints, neuralgic pain, and sciatica. For a more convenient application use the tincture. A dab on the forehead can prevent migraines.

Horseradish mixed with lemon juice can halt an asthma attack – though this remedy is not for the faint of stomach. Added to a pint of ale and sweetened with sugar it makes a powerful diuretic remedy that can be used to treat edema. Steeped in wine and taken in teaspoonful doses it is an anti-catarrhal for the respiratory and digestive system. When using Horseradish internally it is best to start with small quantities. Monitor the effects closely. Too much of it can be rough on the kidneys.

Carrots

Carrot (Daucus carota)

Carrots offer one of the best sources for vitamin A. They are wonderfully vitalizing and boost the immune system. Carrot juice cleanses the intestinal tract and is an excellent remedy for excessive stomach acid and heartburn. It is also good for rheumatism and arthritis and acts positively on sugar metabolism in cases of diabetes. Externally, grated carrots can be applied to bruises, burns, and sores.

Celery

Celery (Apium graveolens)

Celery sticks are an excellent diuretic and are popular as a diet food. The fresh juice stimulates urination, relieves edema, rheumatism, gout and cellulite. It is a good digestive aid, recommended for indigestion, lack of appetite and wind. In Continental Europe it is the root rather than the sticks that is more commonly used in cooking. The water in which celery root has been boiled can be used as a rinse for treating dandruff. The syrup, made by boiling the root juice with sugar, makes an excellent cough remedy. However, avoid celery remedies when in cases of kidney inflammation, since its diuretic action may prove too irritating. The seeds provoke delayed menstruation and should be avoided during pregnancy.

Cucumber

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)

Cucumber is commonly used in home cosmetics to moisturize dry skin. Used externally, the juice is refreshing, tonic, cleansing, and soothing especially on sunburned, dry, or tired skin.

But Cucumber also has medicinal properties: it regulates hydration, acts as a diuretic, and loosens kidney stones. It is useful in cases of edema and cellulite and stimulates lazy intestines.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo)

Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A and B. For medicinal purposes it is only used raw. Mashed pumpkin soothes sore feet, inflamed ulcers, sores and varicose veins. It has blood cleansing powers when added raw to a salad, which soothes the symptoms of kidney inflammation. Pumpkin seeds are one of the most effective and non-toxic worming agents. They are also rich in Zinc and as such are particularly beneficial for bladder and prostate problems.

Potatoes

Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and extremely nutritious. A time limited diet, consisting of little more than mashed potatoes (without salt) relieves stomach problems associated with intestinal cramps and constipation. Used externally, raw, mashed potatoes are anti-inflammatory and can be applied to cankerous growths and sores.

Tomatoes

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Tomatoes stimulate the digestive juices and help to alleviate stomach ulcers and liver complaints. They also have a positive effect on edema, neuritis and circulatory issues, and especially on the peripheral blood vessels. Applied externally, fresh tomato juice applied to wounds can help to prevent infection and relieves inflammation.

Fruit

Delicious and wholesome, but very high in fruit sugar, fruits boost vitality and provide a rich source of nutrients and trace elements.

lemons

Lemon (Citrus medica)

Nothing soothes a cold better than hot lemon with ginger and honey. Lemons are extremely rich in vitamin C and act as a powerful immune system booster. Their diaphoretic action helps to cool a fever. As a gargle, lemon juice is a very useful astringent that can help to soothe a sore throat. Though perhaps not the most pleasant therapy, nose irrigation with diluted lemon juice cures even severe cases of nasal catarrh (e.g. allergies). It also supports the liver (breaks down fats), stimulates digestion and acts as a diuretic to flush out metabolic waste products.

apple

Apple (Fructus malus)

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ Whoever coined the phrase knew what they were talking about. Apples are nutritious and cleansing. They stimulate the circulatory system and metabolism. Apple therapy is indicated for migraines, gout, acidic stomach complaints, constipation, and biliousness, as well as for gout and rheumatism. Apple juice or apple flower tea is beneficial for coughs and colds, hoarseness, bronchial catarrh, and fever.

Apples soothe the nerves. Eaten at bedtime they promote restful sleep.

Apple cider vinegar is a most remarkable remedy for arthritis, gout, sinus catarrh, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic tiredness, and night sweats. Taken regularly diluted with water (sweeten with honey) it is one of the best anti-rheumatism remedies. It is rich in calcium and helps to improve memory and concentration, muscle strength, circulatory problems, badly healing wounds, itchy skin, joint pains, and lack of appetite. Apple wine has been shown to prevent kidney and bladder stones.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries are a cleansing and tone the digestive system. The dried berries simmered in wine with Cinnamon and Cloves makes a wonderful, fortifying, and warming remedy for indigestion and other stomach and intestinal troubles. Blueberry wine eliminates endotoxins without disturbing the intestinal flora. (Blueberry wine = blueberries steeped in wine for a period of time, usually 4-6weeks) Fresh blueberry juice can be used as a gargle for throat infections and as a mouthwash for periodontal disease. Externally, an infusion of the leaves is a useful aid for treating the loss of hair. Blueberries have antioxidant properties and help to fight tumors by scavenging free radicals. The concentrated extract can help to increase circulation to the small blood vessels and can help to alleviate the retinal degradation caused by diabetes.

This list is by no means a comprehensive guide and should not replace a visit to the doctor. It is only meant to give a small glimpse into the remedial properties of common foods. When using any plant for medicinal purposes make sure you have familiarized yourself thoroughly with its properties and possible side effects.

Further resources:

The worlds healthiest foods (ext. link)

Let them eat…beans?

Let them eat…beans?

Beans belong to one of the most widespread and diverse botanical families, known as the Fabaceae, or Leguminosae. They occur throughout the world as bushes, herbaceous shrubs, herbs, and trees. It is estimated that there are about 619 genera with about 18815 species (depending on who’s authority you accept). Of course, not all members of this large family are edible, but many are used in one way or another, as food, for medicine, as a dye, or for their oil. As a further boon, these plants are able to fix nitrogen in the soil (with the help of bacteria). This atmospheric gas is extremely important for plant life, but they can only absorb it from the soil.

 

Edible members of this huge family come in an infinite variety of colours, shapes, and sizes: peanuts, carob, lentils, chickpeas, green and yellow peas, kidney beans, runner beans, broad beans, black beans, mung beans – and, economically probably the most important of them all: the soybean.

 

Pulses, such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils are some of the oldest domesticated plant species. According to the archeological record, the history of their cultivation both in the Old and in the New World goes back 5000 – 6000 years (some claim even earlier dates).

 

Of special importance are the genera Vigna (Old World) and Phaseolus (New World). They have become so well adapted to our needs that they have lost the ability to disperse their seeds naturally. Originally, seedpods evolved to ‘explode’ upon ripening and drying. But if you have ever grown peas or beans, you will have noticed that modern varieties no longer do this. This is convenient for us but means that the plant/human relationship has become so tight that these species have become completely dependent on us for their survival.

 

What makes the pulses so important  as a food is their high protein content. Plenty of plants provide carbohydrates in the form of sugars or starch, but few provide protein in useful quantities. In regions of the world where other sources of protein such as meat or fish are not easily available, or are not used on religious or ethical grounds, pulses fill the gap. In combination with a staple, such as wheat, corn or rice, beans provide practically all our protein requirements.

 

But, because they are seen as a ‘lower value’ protein compared to meat, they have been stigmatized as ‘peasant food’. While the rich can afford to feast on meat, peasants have to make do with beans and rice. Another reason why they are not welcome in polite company is their ‘musical’ (and smelly) note. Interestingly, green beans are innocent of this effect and do not suffer the same kind of disapproval. Au contraire! They are much sought after in haute cuisine, while in ‘ethnic’ cuisines, rice and beans, refried beans, dhal, black-eyed beans, etc. feature as ‘soul-food’.

 

 

string beans

 

Considering our growing problems of food insecurity, climate catastrophe, and population explosion, beans may yet save our species. At present, most of the grain (and soy) is produced as animal feed, but this is a highly inefficient way of fulfilling the world’s protein requirements: it takes 7kg of grain to produce just 1kg of meat. Many more people’s nutrient requirements could be met if the land was used to grow food for direct rather than indirect human consumption.

 

It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss each edible member of the Fabacaea separately. Suffice it to say that there are enough varieties to try a different one for every day of the year.

 

But, this would mean cutting back on cattle farming just at a time when more people than ever can afford to buy meat on a regular basis. If trends in Japan can be regarded as indicative, the demand for meat will grow rapidly, especially among the middle classes of the emerging economies. In Japan, (traditionally a fish-eating culture) meat consumption has increased by 360 percent (!) between 1960 and 1990 (Shah and Strong 1999:19). Due to religious taboos this trend is less pronounced in India, but not elsewhere. 

 

Fortunately for our planet, vegetarianism and veganism are spreading, along with a general reduction in meat consumption among ‘flexatarians’. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is driving this change, but health concerns are one likely cause, while the other might be a growing awareness regarding the impact of a meat diet on climate change. Even the UN has called for a change in dietary habits in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Livestock produces 14% of greenhouse gases, second only to energy production and more than the emissions produced by all means of transportation put together.  Besides, methane, which is produced by cattle ’emissions’ (burps and farts, basically), has a far greater impact as a greenhouse gas than CO2).

America, Oceania, and Europe are still the top meat consuming regions of the world, on average consuming 3 times as much meat as Asia.

 

 

 

The problem with soy

 

Pulses are becoming increasingly popular and none more so than soy. They have been riding a wave of success. Along with wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes soy are one of the 5 top crops worldwide. Soy is also one of the most likely crops to have been genetically engineered. It is difficult to find any truly organic sources. The reason that the food industry loves soy so much is because of its versatility. Soy proteins and oils are used in an incredible range of things (not just food), which makes it a sure fire, immensely profitable crop. However, apart from the GM prevalence, there are a number of other concerns that suggest soy may not be the solution to all our woes.

 

Most soy is produced for animal food, and just as worryingly, for use as biofuel. This is marketed as a ‘green’ product, but nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the world’s soy is produced at the expense of rain forest, which is cut down to make way for the soy. (see The Perilous Progress of the Soya Bean)

 

Medicinal and nutritional aspects

 In addition to their excellent protein profile (17 – 25%), beans are also rich in fibre, which can help to reduce cholesterol levels. In themselves, they contain very little fat and no cholesterol at all. Thus, they are an excellent choice for a ‘heart healthy’ diet. Many types of beans can be sprouted and produce fresh, crunchy greens that can be used to top soups, sandwiches or salads.

Black beans are rich in anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Researchers have found that the darker the bean ‘coat’ the higher the proportion of antioxidant compounds. Thus, black beans lead the pack, followed by red, brown, yellow, and white beans.

They are also rich in vitamin B1, folate, molybdenum, manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, and iron. Soy is rich in calcium. However, there are some concerns over unfermented soy. Another health concern regarding soy is the fact that what ends up in processed foods are mostly isolated soy compounds, such as isoflavones. These act as endocrine disruptors and are considered detrimental to thyroid health. Caution is advised.

Medicinally, the husks of the Phaseolus species rather than the beans themselves are used. Dried bean pods are strongly diuretic and are said to be able to dissolve small gravel and stones in the urinary system. The decoction is recommended for edema, especially where this is due to general kidney or cardio weakness. Old herbals claim this to be the most effective remedy to release excess water from the body. It is thus recommended as a remedy for flushing out uric acid crystals and other metabolic waste products. This is interesting, as beans contain purines, (also found in meats and other foods), which the body breaks down to form uric acid. The shells, therefore, provide a remedy for one of the health hazards associated with excessive consumption of beans.

Such a decoction is also said to be useful for controlling blood-sugar spikes associated with diabetes and hypoglycaemia. Beans themselves are beneficial for diabetics as their energy is released slowly and steadily (low glycemic index due to high fibre content), rather than in one big rush as is common with simple carbohydrates.

 

mucuna pruriens

  

Mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage or velvet bean, is not commonly used as food, although the young shoots and seeds can be eaten if prepared correctly. This interesting bean contains L-DOPA, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is occasionally used as a natural remedy for Parkinson’s disease, in which reduced dopamine levels play a major role. However, self-medication is not recommended, as dosing can be difficult.

The plant also contains dimethyltryptamin and has been used as an additive for ayahuasca preparations.

In traditional Ayurvedic practice, it is known as an aphrodisiac, a claim that is supported by a study involving rats. Apparently, their consumption of mucuna resulted in raised testosterone levels.

Indian medicine uses it to treat cholera, delirium, impotence, spermatorrhoea, urinary troubles, and to expel roundworms. An infusion of the ‘hairs’ that cover the pods is said to aid in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases. Externally,  it is applied as a local stimulant and mild vesicant (Parrotta:2001).

In magical herbalism, it is occasionally used in the practice known as ‘lucid dreaming’.

 

Caution:

 

Although mostly harmless, there are two diseases that are associated with the consumption of beans: favism and lathyrism.

 

Lathyrism is a condition that causes paralysis of the lower limbs as a result of excessive consumption of Indian Pea (Lathyrus sativa). This is not usually a problem when the pea is consumed as part of a normal diet. But in times of drought or scarcity when other foods are less available, it can become problematic. Indian pea, is extremely resistant to drought, and may be one of the few things around that are still edible. The paralysis can be permanent.

 

Favism is an acute anemic condition, which results from eating partially cooked or raw broad beans (Vicia faba). Even inhaling the pollen can cause this condition. Curiously, it only affects males of Mediterranean origin.

Pythagoras may have suffered from this condition as he vehemently rejected beans as a source of food. On the other hand, his objections may have had religious reasons. In Orphism, an ancient religious belief of the Greeks, beans are considered sacred to the Goddess and it was believed that each bean contained a soul. Or, Pythagoras might have considered beans too lowly a food, as even in his days, beans were regarded a peasant food.

 

The flatulence associated with bean consumption only occurs with dried beans. This is due to the fact that the human digestive system finds the oligosaccharides (a complex carbohydrate, which form during the drying process), hard to break down. The effect can be reduced by soaking the beans in two changes of water before cooking them. (soak, drain, soak again, drain, add more water, then boil ). Adding certain herbs and spices, such as epazote (Mexican favourite), fenugreek, cumin, coriander etc. can also help to minimize the flatulence effect.

 

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