Healthy Eating: 7 food wonders of the ancient world

From the Ming Dynasty’s black rice to the Amazonian’s acai berry, find out how these ancient civilizations relied on these foods and what they can do for you today.

Chia Seeds (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chia Seeds
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Today foods like the chia seed, the acai berry, black rice and even barley and cinnamon are being proclaimed the new superfoods. Packed to the brim with disease fighting nutrients, it is no wonder that these foods are being praised for their health benefits. However, these foods weren’t suddenly discovered, but rather were rediscovered. Ancient civilizations, such as  the Roman Empire, the Aztecs and, the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, once considered these foods sacred, relied on them as a source of energy and even used them to ward off and cure various ailments. So what are these mysterious foods? And what gives them their health super powers? Here are the 7 food wonders of the ancient world:
Chia seeds
While the chia seed has captured the spotlight lately, landing it a prime spot in most health food stores, it isn’t the first time that this tiny seed has received attention for its mysterious health properties. Indigenous to South (and Central) America, chia seeds were once considered a staple food item amongst the Aztecs and Mayans. These ancient populations relied heavily on the seed as a main source of their nutrition. While it may be hard to imagine, as chia seeds are incredibly tiny, they were used as an energy source by the Aztec warriors. In fact, it is said that that a single tablespoon of chia seeds could sustain a warrior for an entire day! While this may be a slight exaggeration, a serving of chia does provide a substantial amount of one’s daily recommended intake of several essential nutrients. 
For starters, one ounce contains 4.4 grams of complete protein as well as 11 grams of dietary fiber. The seed’s high fiber content helps to slow the rate at which carbohydrates are converted into sugar, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels. This not only sustains energy levels, but it also prevents unwanted sugar cravings, resulting from drops in blood sugar. Moreover, chia seeds are rich in phosphorus, calcium and maganese as well as omega-3 - an essential fatty acid that is needed to maintain proper health but the body is unable to produce on its own. Considered a “good” fat, omega 3 lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol while raising HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as reduces inflammation and is needed for proper brain function. While walnuts, flax seeds and cold water fish such as salmon are celebrated for their high omega-3 content, they have nothing on the chia. While plant based sources of omega 3 are typically less abundant than animal sources, gram for gram chia seeds have eight times more of this essential fatty acid than salmon, one of the richest sources of omega 3 on the planet. Finally, and probably most importantly for the Aztec warriors, the chia seed can absorb more than 12 times its weight in water. This ability to retain water can prolong hydration and retain electrolytes in body fluids, especially during physical exercise.
Black rice
Black riceBlack riceMost of us know that brown rice is better for us than white rice, as it contains more fiber, vitamins and minerals. But what about black rice? Not commonly found or used in western countries, black rice was once revered in ancient China as it was thought to ensure a long and healthy life. In fact it was commonly referred to as “forbidden rice” as no one but the emperor was allowed to eat it. So what makes this rice so special? Probably unknown to the Chinese emperors, black rice is abundant in anthocyanins. Apart from giving fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and purple cabbage their deep red, blue or purple coloring, anthocyanins act as a potent anti-oxidant, riding the body of harmful free radicals that can cause accelerated aging and cancer. In fact, a study published in the "International Journal of Oncology" (in December 2009) revealed that anthocyanins might actually go one step further as they may inhibit the growth and, in some cases, destroy human colon cancer cells. Studies have also shown that the risk of chronic health conditions, including atherosclerosis, can be lowered by regular consumption of foods rich in this anti-oxidant. Moreover, anthocyanins have also been shown to act as an anti-inflammatory, reducing inflammation, as well as the pain caused by the inflammation. While many fruits such as blueberries are revered for their high anthocyanin content, a tablespoon of black rice yields more anti-oxidants than a similar amount of blueberries, as well as has less sugar and more fiber.
CinnamonCinnamonIn 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue – and while he happened to stumble across “The New World”, he wasn’t actually seeking a new land mass, but rather spices (or a new spice trade route to be exact). Amongst these sought out spices, was none other than cinnamon. However, like many other spices, cinnamon’s prized possession dates back way further than the time of Columbus. In fact, its benefits have been documented as early as 2700 BCE throughout China, Europe and Egypt. In the time of Ancient Rome, cinnamon was actually valued more than gold and it was used to treat an array of illnesses and their symptoms including inflammation, poisonous bites, colds, the flu and other respiratory infections.
While many ancient civilizations used this spice for its medicinal properties, today it has scientifically been proven that cinnamon offers many health benefits. For starters, cinnamon contains many potent antioxidant compounds, as well as possessing anti-microbial activity, so it may help to reduce the risk of food-borne diseases caused by bacteria. Moreover, cinnamaldehyde, the organic compound that gives cinnamon its flavor and odor, helps to prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets as well as acting as an anti-inflammatory. Finally, while cinnamon certainly offers a long list of medicinal properties, the medicinal use of cinnamon gaining the most attention these days concerns blood sugar stabilization. Multiple studies have shown that cinnamon may help control and lower blood glucose levels, which is important for people who have type II diabetes or who are prone to the disease. While some studies have shown contrary results, a spoonful on cinnamon can really do no harm.
BarleyBarleyAnother favorite amongst the Ancient Romans, barley wasn’t used for its medicinal properties but rather as food for gladiators and the Roman army. And this use makes perfect sense. Nutritionally dense, hulled barley is packed to the brim with fiber – which slows digestion, thus keeping one feeling full longer as well as stabilizing blood sugar levels staple, thus keeping one feeling energized for longer periods of time. Moreover, barley's dietary fiber is rich in beta glucan, which binds with excess cholesterol, thereby helping to prevent its absorption. Foods rich in beta glucan, such as barley and oatmeal, can help decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as total cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The high fiber content has been shown to help reduce the risk of certain cancers, including colon cancer. One cup of cooked, hulled barley offers more than 13.6 g - half of one’s daily recommended amount of fiber. Even pearled barley, which is more refined than hulled barley, still offers 6 grams of dietary fiber. Apart from fiber, barley is also an excellent source of Niacin, a B-Vitamin that is needed for the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins as well as is necessary for optimal health of the skin, eyes, liver, and the nervous system. Apart from these essential physiological functions, niacin can also help to lower LDL and total cholesterol. Barley is also rich in lignans, phytochemicals found in whole whole grains, which exhibit antioxidant and anticancer properties inside the body.
Acai berry
Acai berriesAcai berriesWhile the acai berry was only introduced to the western world in the 1990s (and most of us probably only heard about in the last few years or so), the acai berry has actually existed for thousands of years. Indigenous to the rain forest, the acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) was used by Amazonian tribes to prevent and to cure various ailments. So what gives this berry its medicinal properties? Let’s start with their anti-oxidant content. Acai berries contain thirty times more antioxidants than a glass of red wine, ten times more antioxidants than red grapes and twice as many as blueberries.
However, antioxidants aren’t the only beneficial nutrients that acai berries contain. Acai berries are rich in fiber and contain 19 of the 20 essential amino acids. Moreover, this Amazonian berry is rich in oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol and improving circulation. It also prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol which results in arteriosclerosis. All these actions help decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Finally, acai berries are rich in Vitamin A, B1 and E as well as manganese, copper, chromium, boron, calcium and beta-sitosterol, a type of compound that is thought to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
TurmericTurmericCommonly thought of as the spice that makes mustard yellow, or the ingredient that gives curry its pungent flavour, turmeric has been around for ages. An ancient spice native of Southeast Asia, it was used for thousands of years in Indian systems of medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent to treat a wide range of conditions, from jaundice, to chest pain, to toothaches, to menstrual pains. However, only recently has modern day medicine taken note of this remarkable spice’s health benefits. 
So what gives turmeric its medicinal properties? An active component of turmeric, curcumin is believed to be the main pharmacological agent in the spice. A potent anti-inflammatory, curcumin effects are even comparable to drugs, such as ibuprofen and hydrocortisone. Moreover, studies have shown that the combination of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects may explain why many people who suffer from joint disease, such as arthritis, find relief when they use the spice regularly. Moreover, growing evidence suggests that turmeric may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. According to current Alzheimer’s research, India, where consumption of turmeric is very high, has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease in the world. Studies have linked turmeric to reduced rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers while the American Cancer Society reported that in laboratory studies, curcumin inhibited the growth of malignant cells as well as interfered with the cancer's development and growth.
Olive oil
Olive oilOlive oilA sacred food in Ancient Greece, olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes, it was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples and used for the "eternal flame" of the original Olympic Games. However, that’s not all - the ancient Greeks were also aware of the many health benefits of olive oil and regularly rubbed it all over their bodies as well as incorporated it heavily into their cooking. In fact the Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, is said to have referred to olive oil as "the great therapeutic." However, just recently, in the last 20 years or so, olive oil has regained its popularity in the Western World for its numerous health benefits. So what are they? To begin with, olive oil’s high monounsaturated fat decreases LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol, thereby potentially lowering the risk of heart disease. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration has officially credited olive oil with decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease. This good fat also acts an anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce and relieve symptoms caused by inflammatory diseases such rheumatoid arthritis. Moreover, unlike other fatty foods which can increase the risk of cancer, studies have also shown that olive oil’s monounsaturated fat may help reduce the risk of breast cancer.