Ingredient Spotlight: Ginger

March 10, 2014

A root with far-reaching health and culinary benefits

Perhaps the gingerbread cookies we consume and the bits of gingerbread houses we surreptitiously nibble aren’t cause for guilt after all. Often considered a spice, ginger is in fact an herb that has been used since ancient times for its medicinal properties and its unique appeal to the palate.

As the rhizome of the Zingiber officinale plant, ginger or ginger “root” is thought to have originated in South Asia, with introduction to other parts of the world via trade ships. Ginger was a sought-after prize in the days of the Roman Empire, continuing its popularity in Europe (despite the very high price its scarcity demanded) following the empire’s demise in 476 AD. Today, ginger is still popular around the globe in wide-ranging applications both for its nutritional attributes and its distinctive taste.

Ginger for Health

Ginger is well known for its ability to alleviate nausea and vomiting, but it boasts many other additional health benefits, extending from reducing pain and allergy symptoms to serving as a source of cancer-fighting antioxidants. A veritable host of ailments throughout the body have shown a positive response to ginger.

Ginger is commonly used as a digestive aid. For this reason, some may eat fresh ginger before a meal. Post-meal, ginger improves food and nutrient absorption. The ingredient is even known to reduce bloating and gas.

Ginger also delivers anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities, which may reduce the pain of arthritic joints, sore muscles, headaches, and menstrual cramps. The antioxidant properties of this herb have also shown an ability to kill cancer cells. In some regions, ginger juice is even used as a topical treatment for burns.

Recent Science

Cancers/Chemotherapy

In a University of Michigan Medical School study, published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, 30 volunteers were randomly assigned to 2 g of ginger root supplement or placebo for 28 days. Results showed a reduction in many inflammation markers, such as PGE2, in the colon. Because inflammation of the colon is thought to be a precursor to colon cancer, reducing this inflammation may aid in preventing this type of cancer.

Results of a 2009 Phase II/III study conducted on 644 cancer patients at the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that ginger supplements, taken with anti-vomiting drugs before a chemotherapy treatment, reduced lingering nausea by 40%. Since an estimated 70% of cancer patients experience nausea and vomiting with chemotherapy, ginger may provide welcome relief.

Blood Glucose Levels

A 2012 University of Sydney study, published in the natural product journal Planta Medica, investigated the ability of ginger to control blood glucose levels. Independent of insulin, ginger extracts were shown to increase the uptake of glucose into muscle cells, a significant area of glucose use in the body. Much of the success was attributed to gingerols, the major phenolic components of the ginger rhizome-particularly the [6]- and [8]-gingerols. Because glucose uptake to muscles in type 2 diabetes patients is markedly decreased due to impaired insulin signal transduction and inefficiency of the protein GLUT4, ginger could potentially help these patients manage blood sugar levels.

Weight Management

A 2012 pilot study, reported on in the journal Metabolism, indicates that consumption of a hot ginger beverage enhanced the thermic effect of food and promoted feelings of satiety, suggesting a potential role of ginger in weight management. Research from the Netherlands also supports the notion that ginger helps accelerate metabolism and burn fat.

Ginger has also been shown to exhibit cholesterol-lowering properties. A double-blind, controlled clinical trial at Iran’s Babol University of Medical Sciences compared the effects of ginger and placebo on cholesterol. Researchers found that including ginger powder in diets resulted in significantly reduced LDL cholesterol. Study participants who took ginger supplements also showed improvements in triglyceride levels.

Inflammation

Inflammation contributes to a host of health issues, and ginger once again is proving its worth here, too. In comparing ginger extract to prescription anti-inflammatory drugs (cortisone and ibuprofen) for the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, the authors of a December 2012 study in the journal Arthritis said “ginger extract was as effective an anti-inflammatory agent as betamethasone in [an] in vitro model.” And while cortisone has been linked to a litany of serious potential side effects, ginger was determined to be a powerful yet safe anti-inflammatory.

Ginger Flavor

The popularity of ginger in food and drink applications is on the rise, with ginger drawing accolades for its pungent, spicy flavor.

Ginger is part of the Zingiberaceae family, along with cardamom and turmeric. Besides ginger’s rising popularity in the United States, its spicy taste and aromatic quality have made it a longtime favorite for dishes in India and China-two key producers of the world’s ginger supply. Ginger is also an important ingredient in Japanese, Korean, and Jamaican specialty cuisine, and it is popular in Africa and many countries of South Asia.

A wide array of foods and beverages benefit from ginger’s distinctive flavor and taste. Candy, cakes, cookies, soups, curries, sauces, wine, beer, liqueur, coffee, tea, and, of course, ginger ale are all crafted with this fragrant herb.

With its long, rich history that spans millennia and continents, ginger has proven itself as a wonderful herb-both for its therapeutic benefits that improve health and for its fresh and aromatic tang that is a feast for the senses.

Ginger has a promising future, trending as a flavor to watch in the industry, while gaining scientific momentum as clinical studies continue to illustrate the bounty of health benefits and potential hidden beneath the knobby, ugly duckling exterior of the ginger root.

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