The ancient herbalists and shamans of Mesoamerica knew the amazing qualities of many substances that modern humans only see as cooking spices or food flavor enhancers. Some of the plants they administered to heal the sick are yet to be re-discovered. But one plant that produced very special beans was known to have powerful properties to heal and keep people healthy. Today, the essence of that bean is on the shelves of many kitchen cupboards: vanilla extract.
Origins of vanilla
The vanilla bean plant grows in Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. Natives indigenous to the region understood the special qualities of vanilla for many centuries. When the Europeans arrived, they soon discovered the amazing plant, its medicinal uses and how to use it with food and beverages.
Of the three types of vanilla bean, Vanilla planifolia has the best health benefits and is the most treasured.
Other than its near ubiquitous use in many baked goods, vanilla was used for centuries to help heal wounds. It can also be used to relieve mild anxiety, and many anectodal tales from as far back as the Aztecs purport the bean is a powerful male aphrodisiac and also assists with weight loss.
Of course, if the vanilla is taken in fudge and cakes and cookies, weight loss becomes problematic.
The website livestrong.com notes: “Vanilla contains high levels of antioxidants, according to a study led by B.N. Shyamala from the Spices and Flavour Technology Department of the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India. Shyamala’s study was published in a September 2007 issue of the ‘Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.’ Antioxidants are valuable for reducing free-radicals in your body, which are the waste products from normal as well as harmful metabolic processes. Excess free radicals may cause diseases, including cancer.
“Vanilla’s anti-carcinogenic property primarily comes from the compound vanillin, a polyphenol known to be a powerful antioxidant. The essential oil of vanilla has been shown to reduce free radicals thought to promote the development of inflammation and certain cancers.”
According to Nutrition and You vanilla extract has an array of vitamins and minerals including the B-complex and calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Other significant health benefits obtained from vanilla extract (processed to purity with alcohol) is its ability to act as a mild tranquilizer and sedative, an antidepressant, and helps fight inflammation from fevers.
Many swear that whole vanilla beans offer the best health properties. Although expensive, discounts on quality beans can be found on the Internet. Nutrition and You advises caution when shopping for vanilla beans “as adulteration with artificial flavorings is quite common. A well processed good quality pod will remain potent for as long as three to four years.”
Vanilla extract has also been shown to be an effective scent used in aromatherapy and patients report it has a calming, soothing effect. It can even be successfully used to combat mild sleep disorders.
Far beyond a tasty ingredient of ice cream and candies, vanilla can be a powerful ally in the ongoing quest for good health.
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