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An A—Z Guide to Healing Foods
A Shopper's Companion
By Elise Marie Collins
Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2009 Elise Marie Collins
All rights reserved.
The A–Z Guide
Acai (ah-SAH-ee): Grown mainly in South America, fresh acai berries may be hard to find in Europe or North America. Yet even when consumed frozen, powdered, in a paste, or as a juice, acai has more antioxidants than almost any other food. Acai is an excellent source of potassium, B vitamins, vitamins C and E as well as magnesium, copper, zinc, and phosphorus. Beta-sitosterol, a phytosterol found in acai, has been shown to lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Acai juice or smoothies have anti-inflamatory properties and can help reduce symptoms of arthritis. Scientific interest is growing on acai's ability to prevent or help reverse cancer. Lab tests showed that acai berry extract exposed to human leukemia cells killed between 45 and 86 percent of the cancerous cells. Research on this turbocharged antioxidant berry is continuing, but its reputation as an Amazonian superfood precedes it. * Preparation tip: Avoid acai processed with high heat.
Acerola: A berry rich in ascorbic acid, acerola is also known as Barbados cherry. Acerola grows on a tropical fruit-bearing shrub in warmer climates, from southern Texas to Mexico and down to South America. Also cultivated in India and highly prized for their potent healing powers, acerola berries are an excellent food-based source of vitamin C, bioflavonoids, rutin, and other vitamin C cofactors. Vitamin C helps build collagen, the stuff of bones, teeth, and connective tissue. And of course it will ward off the common cold. * Preparation tip: If you live in Texas or Florida, find acerola berries fresh or grow your own. Otherwise buy acerola dried into powder or made into pills or tablets.
Adzuki Beans; Aduki Beans; Azuki Beans: Native to Japan, nutty and sweet adzuki beans are high in protein and plentiful in vitamins and minerals. A favored food in macrobiotic cuisine, adzuki beans are easier to digest than most legumes. Considered the most yang of all beans in macrobiotic cuisine, adzuki beans have plenty of fiber, folic acid and B vitamins, and high levels of trace minerals like molybdenum, copper, manganese, and zinc. Adzuki beans are used to make red bean paste.
Agar; Agar-Agar: Most often used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin, which is made from animal protein, agar can help fight inflammation and relieve constipation. A great source of calcium and iron, agar can also be added to broths or teas, or used as a thickening agent in sauces or preserves. Made from a red algae called gelidium, agar is very fibrous and, when wet, it triples in size. Agar's expansive properties make those who eat it feel full. It's a popular ingredient in foods promoted for weight loss.
Agave: Considered sacred by the Aztecs, agave comes from a plant indigenous to Central and South America. Agave has a low glycemic index, creating less of a spike in blood sugar levels than most processed sugars. A flavorful amber liquid, similar to a runny honey, agave delivers sweetness without the unpleasant sugar rush that is associated with processed sugar or artificial corn syrup. For these reasons many diabetics have found agave to be a safe alternative to conventional sweeteners or chemical, diet sweeteners. Raw chefs recommend using unheated agave.
Ajwain (AHJ-oh-wen): A staple seed found in Indian kitchens, ajwain contains thymols that are antibacterial and antiseptic. Related to cumin and caraway, ajwain is often used to add flavor to samosas as well as lentil or potato dishes and roasted nuts. Pungent and bitter, ajwain seeds are often chewed after a large meal to aid digestion and freshen breath. Ayurveda recommends carminative ajwain for many gastrointestinal disorders such as lack of appetite, indigestion, flatulence, and diarrhea.
Alfalfa: Alfalfa's unusually deep roots can grow to over fifteen feet, allowing them to pull minerals from deep in the earth's surface. Consequently alfalfa has a naturally high content of essential and nonessential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron, all culled from the soil. Plentiful in vitamins and eight essential amino acids, alfalfa has powerful nourishing and rebuilding properties. Alfalfa can help build and purify blood, so it is helpful in treating anemia. It's also known to heal ulcers as well as boost immunity. Great for people who are fearful of green veggies, dried and powdered alfalfa can be added to smoothies, baked goods, and other foods to give them a boost of green power. Pregnant and nursing mothers will find alfalfa provides a great source of much-needed absorbable calcium and minerals. * Preparation tip: Add dried or fresh alfalfa to boiled water for a nutrient-rich tea. As a whole food additive, powdered alfalfa can boost smoothies, juices, and even baked foods.
Alfalfa Sprouts: Pound for pound, alfalfa sprouts rank among the most powerful antioxidant vegetables, surpassed only by kale, brussels sprouts, garlic, and spinach. Sprinkling delicate and sweet alfalfa sprouts on sandwiches, soups, and salads isn't just for hippies; it has been scientifically proven to disarm specific harmful free radicals and hydroxyl and peroxyl radicals. Alfalfa sprouts contain vitamins C, B2, and B5 as well as folic acid, copper, molybdenum, zinc, manganese, and magnesium. Foodbased phytoestrogens are found in abundance in alfalfa sprouts and are known to be critical factors in the prevention of cancer, osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms, and heart disease. Saponins in alfalfa and especially alfalfa sprouts are beneficial phytochemicals that can lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol without affecting healthy HDL cholesterol. Alfalfa sprouts can be purchased in most grocery or health food stores.
Almond: Considered in Ayurveda to be the most beneficial of all nuts, almonds help build ojas, or vital essence. In the Indian science, foods like almonds not only nourish the body, but increase our spiritual and intellectual abilities. Almonds have a high concentration of protein and nutrients and are a good source of vitamin E, calcium, zinc, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Ayurveda recommends peeling or blanching almonds to remove the difficult-to-digest outer skin. Blanch or soak almonds overnight, and then remove the peel by squeezing it off the almond. Soaking raw almonds improves digestibility and nutrient content. Soaking also activates the ability of almonds to take seed, as it starts them sprouting, thereby releasing many nutrients as the almond prepares to transform from seed to plant. Unfortunately most almonds in the United States originate from California and legally must be flash pasteurized, a sterilization method that destroys many vital enzymes and minerals. Raw almonds can only be purchased directly from farmers at farmers markets or imported raw from other countries. Almonds are the only nuts that alkalize the body. Almond milk was commonly used in medieval times when cow's milk was hard to come by. * Preparation tip: Enjoy nutritious, dairy-free, fresh almond milk. Soak 1 cup almonds in 4 cups water overnight, place in a blender, blend, strain, and enjoy. Peeling or blanching the almonds is a little more timeconsuming, but will makes the almond milk less bitter and more auspicious, according to Ayurveda.
Aloe Vera: Known as the miracle plant, mysterious and alluring aloe vera has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. Gandhi consumed aloe juice to sustain him during long fasts. Almost every system of the body benefits from this stupendous superplant. A natural antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral agent, aloe has been used as a traditional cure for all diseases of the stomach and intestines, including ulcers. From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the internal gel of aloe was processed and used as a commercial laxative. Rich in plant sterols, amino acids, and polysaccharides, aloe is often used as a liver cleanser. Known in Sanskrit by a name that means "goddess," aloe has toning and fortifying properties for women. It helps alleviate menopausal symptoms aggravated by a sluggish liver. Aloe vera juice can help stabilize blood sugar levels and help boost immunity. Externally, aloe vera has been used for wound healing, sunburn alleviation, and as an additive for antiaging creams. Aloe has been shown to improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients in the digestive tract. Commonly used as a detox herb, aloe has a growing reputation as a weight loss aid. Look for minimally processed aloe gel, juice, or canned aloe pieces. To preserve vital phytonutrients, avoid heating aloe products to high temperatures. A natural antibiotic, antibacterial, and antifungal, aloe vera helps a long list of ailments and conditions. Fresh aloe vera leaves can be ordered online or, in the right climate, grown in your yard. * Preparation tip: The leaves can be filleted to remove the hard outer coating. The most potent part of the plant is the gel, which can be added to drinks or smoothies. Pregnant or nursing women and children should not consume aloe vera gel, especially fresh gel, because of the cleansing effects on the liver.
Amaranth: A highly nutritious grain revered by the ancient Aztecs, amaranth was used in religious rituals and consumed by Aztec athletes. Ancient Greeks believed that this unique seed bestowed immortality and gave it a name derived from the Greek word amarantos, which means "unfading." World health workers discovered that in areas of Africa and Latin America where amaranth grows, there is little or no incidence of malnutrition. Amaranth thrives in poor soil and in drought conditions, making it a miraculous storehouse of energy and nutrition for people in poor farming regions. Extremely high in protein, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium, iron, lysine, and silicon, amaranth makes a great healing agent. It is an excellent vegetarian food source for infants, children, and nursing and pregnant women, whose calcium, protein, and mineral needs are high. Amaranth also benefits those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, as regular consumption of the grain has been shown to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Amaranth appears to lower cholesterol via its content of plant stanols and squalene. A glutenfree, high-fiber grain, amaranth flour can be substituted for healthier baking.
Amaranth greens are super suppliers of B vitamins and minerals including calcium, manganese, potassium, iron, and magnesium. Studies have pointed to amaranth greens, also known as Chinese spinach, as helpful in lowering unhealthy cholesterol. Research suggests that when amaranth greens are consumed, the liver enzyme 7 alpha-hydroxylase significantly increases, which helps to break down cholesterol into bile acids. Numerous other animal studies have verified amaranth green's cholesterol busting potential. Avoid amaranth greens if you have any type of kidney disorder, as they contain high levels of oxalic acid. * Preparation tip: Make amaranth breakfast cereal by mixing ½ cup steel-cut oats and ½ cup amaranth with 2½ cups water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 15–20 minutes. Steel-cut oats mask amaranth's crunchy consistency.
Amasake: A traditional Japanese sweetening agent made of fermented sweet rice, amasake is often recommended in macrobiotic recipes as a less processed sweetener that is relatively easy to digest. Many health food stores carry koji, the beneficial bacterial starter for amasake, or the dark, syrupy liquid sweetener itself.
Amla Berry; Amalaki; Indian Gooseberry: Amla berries have the highest known concentration of natural vitamin C of any food. Amla berries grow on trees in India where they have been used medicinally for thousands of years. In Ayurvedic medicine, amla berries are often consumed in a specially prepared medicinal paste. Before the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, ancient Indian sages blended herbs and foods into pastes and gels. These formulas are still regularly consumed by millions of people in India and around the world to prevent degenerative diseases as well as to alleviate symptoms from many chronic conditions. Chyavanprash is one such formula made mainly of amla berries and can be found in many health food stores. Amla berries also strengthen veins and support the circulatory system. It's highly unlikely that you'll find fresh green, tangy amla berries in the supermarket, but amla paste, juice, powder, or pills are usually available in health food stores.
Anise: Anise is a rich source of coumarin compounds, which have shown potential to prevent cancer. Anise seeds are good for digestion and remedying bad breath. The combination of phytochemicals in anise has a wide range of health benefits, most notably helping the body expel gas and relax intestinal spasms. Anise gives foods a licorice flavor. Some say that anise will cure the hiccups as well. A blend of anise seeds, fennel seeds, sesame seeds, coconut, sugar, and peppermint oil, called Mukhwas, is often served after an Indian meal for better digestion and to freshen the breath.
Apple: Apples, like blue jeans, are ubiquitous and sturdy. Apples seem to fit into everyone's dietary wardrobe. They come in many designs or varieties and can be found everywhere from the corner store to the gourmet grocer. One of apples' best health boosting agents is found in its skin—the miraculous antioxidant quercetin has been found to have natural anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties. Eating apples can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal allergies. Apples also contain vitamin C and a healthy dose of both insoluble and soluble fiber. Consuming apples has been associated with decreased risk of cancer, asthma, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. An apple a day will help lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, alleviate symptoms of gout and arthritis, and promote digestive regularity.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Made from fresh fermented apple juice, apple cider vinegar has been used as a folk medicine for countless ailments from acne to indigestion. Preliminary studies on apple cider vinegar and its main ingredient, acetic acid, have evidenced support for these remedies. Studies have shown apple cider vinegar may lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while helping to keep blood sugar levels steady. Many report that drinking a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water helps them keep the pounds away, provides relief from acid reflux, and can be used to treat arthritis and gout. * Preparation tip: Drink raw, organic, unfiltered, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. Make an alkalizing cocktail by mixing 8 ounces of water with two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar. Sip and, if you don't enjoy the flavor, add 1–2 teaspoons of raw honey.
Apricot: A stone fruit, the apricot was brought from China to Greece by Alexander the Great. Hundreds of years later, the first apricot tree was delivered to Virginia in 1720. Apricots are pocket-size, carotenoid-rich secret weapons against macular degeneration, many forms of cancer, and heart disease. Rich in potassium and iron, apricots are as fiber-filled as they are juicy.
Arame: A dark and thick seaweed, arame blends well into soups or salads. Plentiful in iron, protein, calcium, and iodine, arame supports the spleen and pancreas in traditional Chinese medicine. Rich in phytonutrients, arame gets its brown color from a plant compound called fucoxanthin that Japanese researchers have found promotes fat burning in rats. * Preparation tip: British nutritionist Dr. Gillian McKeith recommends cooking arame with root vegetables such as turnips and parsnips. See also Seaweed.
Artichoke; Cardoon: Fresh and festive, artichokes found in markets in the United States are almost always globe artichokes. The hearts and inner leaves of these unusual flowers have a unique, somewhat bitter flavor. High in fiber, vitamins A and C, folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, biotin, magnesium, manganese, chromium, and potassium, fresh artichokes are low in calories and fat. Most of the carbohydrates in artichokes come from inulin, an oligosaccharide that is handled differently than other sugars in the body—it can only be partially digested. The undigested portion serves as food for friendly bacteria in the digestive tract, making the artichoke a natural probiotic food. Particularly beneficial to diabetics, inulin in artichokes has been shown to assist in keeping blood sugar levels under control. Traditionally artichokes are known for healing the liver. Silymarin, a compound that helps liver tissue regenerate, can be found in artichokes and milk thistle. Artichokes assist the gallbladder in generating bile and increasing the flow of bile to and from the liver. Artichokes' effects on the liver and gallbladder make them a helpful food for those suffering from hepatitis and other liver diseases. Artichokes have also been used traditionally as a diuretic and to lower blood fats and cholesterol.
Arugula: A sassy, pungent, and bitter green from the mustard family that was considered by ancient Romans and Egyptians to be a potent aphrodisiac, arugula is high in vitamins A and C, niacin and iron, riboflavin, calcium and magnesium, potassium, copper, and zinc-phosphorus. This rich mineral blend makes arugula's ragged leaves an effective alkalizing food, helping balance the diet of someone who eats meats or processed foods or has high levels of stress. Glucosinates in arugula are powerful antioxidants that protect against many forms of cancer. Because the glucosinates stimulate the natural detoxifying enzymes of the body, arugula can help release stored toxins. Greens like arugula contain many phytochemicals, such as carotene and chlorophyll.
Asian Pear: Crisp Asian pears have some vitamin C and fiber and have an especially high water content. See also Pear.
Excerpted from An A—Z Guide to Healing Foods by Elise Marie Collins. Copyright © 2009 Elise Marie Collins. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC.
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