Savoring benefits of medicinal foods

Updated: 2015-02-24 00:36

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco(China Daily USA)

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Savoring benefits of medicinal foods

Chen Wei answers audience questions during a lecture on Chinese medicinal food homology held by the Confucius Institute at the University of California-Davis on Feb 18. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Despite the popularity of Chinese food in America, people here have limited knowledge of Chinese medicinal food, said Chen Wei, a visiting scholar from China's Jiangnan University.

"This is because of the huge differences between Chinese and Western medical theories as well as philosophies," said Chen.

On Chinese New Year's Eve on Feb 18, more than 60 local residents gathered at a community center in the Northern California city of Davis for a taste of typical Chinese New Year food as well as a better understanding of Chinese food culture.

The Confucius Institute at the University of California-Daviswas promoting Chinese culture by introducing community members to a traditional Chinese health-preserving concept – medicinal food homology (MFH).

MFH means some food ingredients areboth medicine and food materials.

So far, 87 kinds of food have been approved as MFH materials by China's Ministry of Health, including such herbs as wolfberry, ginseng and multiflora, which are good for the liver, kidneys, eyes and blood, said Chen, a visiting scholar at UC Davis and dean of the School of Food Science and Technology at China's Jiangnan University, the Chinese partner of the Confucius Institute.

"In recent years, the Americans have come to believe in the effectiveness of MFH," Chen said.

Some medicinal foods are more common on people's tables, such as sesame, almond,longan, lotus leaves and seeds, chrysanthemum, jujube and papaya.

Sesame is especially good for hair and alleviating high blood sugar, while hawthorn, a favorite fruit of Chinese, is beneficial for the heart, stomach and spleen and also helps lower lipid levels, Chen explained.

Chinese people have a long history of using food as medicine, which dates back to the legendary ruler, Shennong, who taught the ancient Chinese how to use herb drugs around 4,500 years ago, according to Chen, who is also an expert in food biotechnology.

Chinese emperors used the concept of MFH for maintaining their health, Chen explained. It's said that Qianlong Emperor, the longest-living emperor, ate ginseng everyday after the age of 50; and Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, had the secret of maintaining beauty by drinking wolfberry tea every day, he said.

In traditional Chinese medicine, prevention is more important than treatment, and that's why Chinese people have always emphasized medicated diets to enhance physical fitness, prevent diseases and prolong life.

Through the 5,000-year history of food, the Chinese people have developed distinctive regional fares based on their own health needs.

The Sichuan cuisine, featuring spicy hot pot and hot chili peppers, was created to keep warm in the cold and humid weather in southwest China, while in the hot and muggy south, people like to eat yoyumin soup or porridge to cool down, Chen said.

For Chinese people, food is not only substance or medicine, but also cultural symbolism. They have integrated the culture with their MFH concepts, according to Chen.

The moon cakes for celebrating the Mid-autumn Festival are made with such fillings assesame, smashed jujube, lotus seeds and almonds. During the Chinese New Year, people usually get together to eat dumplings made with sesame and anise.

A member of the audience, Robert Hackman,who is a nutrition professor at UC Davis, said that Western medicine is unable to detect the full benefits of MFH.

"It (the lecture) integrates traditional Chinese practice with modern science to create a new vision so we can work together to make us feel better and look better," said Hackman, who said he has been to China more than 20 times as a research nutritionist.

He believes that Chinese food is going to be even more popular in the US because it's delicious, inexpensive and quickly served, as are the MFH products, such as wolfberry drinks, sesame paste, jujube jam and gingko tea. They can be found in most Chinese supermarkets in California.

The Confucius Institute at UC Davis, established in September 2013, is the only one of its kind devoted to the Chinese food and beverage culture in the US.