Dopo il post monografico, torniamo ad analizzare il dato etnobotanico. Nel seguente spezzone tento di riassumere parte dei dati etnobotanici più recenti relativi all’utilizzo dei cibi funzionali tradizionali latu sensu nei disturbi gastroenterici, cercando, quando possibile, di limitarmi a disturbi non specifici (indigestione, gonfiore, dispepsia, ecc.), e cercando di trarre qualche indicazione di massima sulla eventuale segregazione rtassonomica dei rimedi. Come vedrete le conclusioni sono chiare (ma con vari caveat): esistono poche famiglie nelle quali si concentrano molti dei rimedi, e questi rimedi sono caratterizzati molto spesso dalla presenza di principi amari, pungenti e/o aromatici. Buona lettura!
Digestive Functional Foods in the ethnobotanical literature
The author compiled a non-systematic survey of FF plants used world-wide for digestive complaints, limiting, when possible, the analysis to plants used only for non specific gastrointestinal complaints, to remain coherent with the spirit of the FF definition. The plants listed were mainly used as digestives, appetite stimulants, antidyspepsics, carminatives, and antispasmodics. Plants with very specific activities (antiulcer) or with specific indications (IBS, etc.) were excluded, when possible.
In a paper on edible plants of Palestine, of the 103 edible plants, 64 (62 %) were used as food-medicines, and the two most important botanical families for food-medicines were Asteraceae and Lamiaceae. This is in agreement with the findings of a similar study on food plant consumption in seven Mediterranean countries.
Of the 78 alimentary species collected in Cyprus, 20 (25,6%) belonged to the Asteraceae, 7 each to Apiaceae and Brassicaceae, and 6 to the Lamiaceae. 40 were used only as food, and 37 (47,4%) as both food and medicine.
In a study on Sicilian wild food plants, of the 188 food species recorded, 37 (19,6%) were used as both food and medicine, and of these 12 (32,4%) belonged to Asteraceae, 4 (11%) to Lamiaceae, 3 each to Brassicaceae and Apiaceae.
In a review of plant foods as medicines in Mediterranean Spain, the authors found that the percentage of edible plants used as medicines varied between 13,39 and 21,42 (17,52% on average), and that of spices and culinary herbs used as medicines varied between 5,74 and 9,25 (7% on average). All in all an average of around 24,5% of edible plants and spices were used as medicines. Lamiaceae and Asteraceae played major roles both in terms of recorded medicinal uses (146 the former and 57 the latter, of all 559 recorded uses) and of number of species used in medicinal treatments (42 the former and 29 the latter).
According to Rivera and coworkers, of the 145 wild gathered food species from Southern Spain, 81 (55,9%) are also used medicinally, and, more importantly, 61 (42%) are administered orally using the same plant part used in the culinary preparations. This proportion was halved when examining cultivated food species.
In an ethnobotanical research in Kenya, the authors found that wild edible-medicinal plants represent 30,2% of all edible plants.
The main datum that emerges from this exercise is the predominance of some taxa.
At a higher level the Family Asteraceae dominates with 41 citations of 25 different Genera, amongst which Matricaria, Sonchus and Artemisia are the most often cited. The second Family by number of citations is that of Lamiaceae, with 24 citations of 16 different Genera, vastly dominated by Mentha and Ocimum.
Also important are the Apiaceae family with 12 citations of 12 Genera, Zingiberaceae (9 citations of 8 Genera) and Rutaceae (9 citations of 3 Genera, dominated by Citrus spp.).
As an aside, similar data emerge when we examine functional foods in general: a significant percentage, between 20 and 60% (average 40%) of edible wild plants is used in traditional societies as a medicine; and secondly, the family Asteraceae seem to be the main source of medicinal plant species used by traditional societies (at least in the northern hemisphere) and one of the main sources of functional foods/medicinal foods/food medicines. Lamiaceae and Apiaceae are also very important in terms of number of species used.
These taxa share a similar chemical make-up: they contain very salient organoleptic compounds, such as essential oils, resins and pungent compounds, and bitter compounds, mainly in the Asteraceae and Cucurbitaceae, usually showing low toxicity.
Similar results can be seen in wider reviews including medicinal plants stricto sensu: still dominant is the triad of Asteraceae, Lamiaceae and Apiaceae, but with a high frequency of Euphorbiaceae (8 citations of 4 Genera), Fabaceae (15 citations of 12 Genera) and Solanaceae: all families with a potentially more toxic chemical profile, containing irritant latex, toxic lectins and cyanide-producing molecules, often characterized by a strong bitter taste. .
Bitters and Spices
The majority of the plants rich in essential oil and pungent compounds have been historically classified as spices. For most of human history, spices have been a canonical example of a fluid entity shifting from the food to the medicine field: they were sold by grocers and spice merchants but also by apothecaries and physicians; they have been used extensively as ingredients in the preparations of dishes, usually accompanying and exalting the main food crops, while at the same time being consumed as infusions and decoctions, like many other medicinal plants. When used as foods, they were very rarely the main ingredient, and seldom provide high primary metabolite intake. Even when used as a medicine, their sensual, organoleptic quality played an important role, quite apart from their effective therapeutic quality.
In fact spices are more akin to medicinal foods that FF proper, and they were ascribed potent medicinal qualities well before empirical validations were available, most probably because they resemble the prototypical medicinal product: “they are specific (have unique and distinguishing tastes), small (in volume), and powerful (in the stimuli they emit and, in many cases, physiologic action)”.
The characteristic aroma and taste of spices is imparted by volatile essential oils and pungents (mono- and sesquiterpenes plus a few shikimic acid derivatives, plus thioethers in Alliaceae and isothiocyanates in Brassicaceae) and non volatile pungent compounds (mainly belonging to the acid amine group, like capsaicin in Capsicum and piperine in Piper).
Although very different from spices in term of economic and cultural importance, bitters too have a recognized place in many different cultures all over the world, in promoting the state of health. The almost universal use of bitter-tasting drinks as aperitif, digestives or fasting tools emphasizes this important role.
Pungent, aromatic and bitter compounds do not exhaust the chemical variety of digestive FF, and their predominance cannot be taken without some caution. It is in fact probable that this predominance is due to many cultural, economical and social factors beyond the biological ones. Having said that, these compounds are extremely interesting because they seem to be able to act on gastrointestinal physiology before or even without systemic absorption, hence potentially with low toxicity profiles.
Moreover, in the last ten years research on gastrointestinal physiology has focused more and more on the health implications of tastants and olfactants, and this research has blended very well with the hypothesis of the coevolution of plant secondary compounds and human defense mechanisms.
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