Today, health and wellness doesn’t just mean going for a run then chugging a glass of orange juice or downing mountains of lentils. From nutritious coconut oil to organic meats and fruits and vegetables, we are now (wisely) thinking about everything we put into the fridge and pantry, and in turn, our bodies.
While parts of the world like Asia have long-embraced natural food and ingredients such as herbs, spices, seeds and mushrooms in dishes and other applications to combat various ailments, it’s only recently that the U.S. is starting to catch up. Perhaps in response to America’s ongoing prescription pill abuse epidemic, denizens from New York to Los Angeles are–now more than ever–open to alternative medical treatments, and a generally more holistic approach to diet and preventative medicine.
To get started on a path toward improving one’s wellbeing, I’ve created a guide for anyone curious to add an entry-level medicinal pantry to their kitchen. Note, the ingredients and food products mentioned below are not miracle cures. The idea is to turn these healthy foods into pantry staples; consuming specific ingredients, like adaptogenic dried mushrooms, reishi, spices, and chaga, regularly, in small doses, or working them into a variety of recipes, and over time you’ll feel their magic.
Perhaps you’ve noticed green and turquoise-hued drinks, sauces, smoothie bowls and other food popping up on Instagram and out of kitchens lately. Though it may come as a surprise, those colors are completely natural as they come from dried algae. Dark green spirulina powder has been floating around wellness circles since at least the 1960s, but thanks to this algae’s mild-oceanic flavor and rich protein content–in addition to an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and acids–it has become a popular wellness-boosting ingredient in foods today. On the other hand, Blue Majik, which is an extract of spirulina, is responsible for imparting a swimming pool blue-hue to food and drink. It’s both an anti-inflammatory and a powerful antioxidant, and the use of it in cooking helps the body fight free radicals.
The bad news is, sugar is sugar is sugar. Meaning, regardless of the source of sweetness, cane sugar or raw honey, sugar remains sugar. And ongoing science continues to point out how addictive and unhealthy sugar is for us. However, our bodies process different types of sugar differently, and some natural sweeteners also contain a slew of vitamins and nutrients. You may have heard of the glycemic index. It’s a scale which measures how much a carbohydrate, like sugar or even pancakes, raises your blood sugar. When blood sugar rises, our bodies produce insulin (which signals cells to store the sugar), and when we eat too much sugar that our bodies can’t produce enough insulin, type 2 diabetes happens. With the additional risk of other maladies, like heart disease and certain types of cancer. Point is, we want to avoid these blood sugar spikes by cooking with and eating foods that fall lower on the glycemic index. For example, raw cane sugar has an approximate GI tax of 65, while honey is around 55, maple syrup is roughly 54, and yacon syrup (which I absolutely love and is made from a South American plant) is less than 5.
Try: Dark Horse Organic’s Rose Gold Wildflower Honey, $20 for 12 ounces; Activist Manuka Honey, starts at $32 for 12 ounces; BLiS’ Grade B Maple Syrup, $13 for 13 ounces; Alovitox’s Yacon Syrup, $19 for 8 ounces
Collagen is the most ubiquitous protein found throughout our bodies, and it’s what gives our skin elasticity. As we age, our body’s collagen production slows down, which results in wrinkles and joint pain. Environmental factors like the sun can affect collagen, too. As a collagen boost, I’ve turned to adding a collagen supplement to my morning coffee. Collagen itself doesn’t have much of a flavor, and when added to a warm beverage like herbal tea, the powder disappears.
Adaptogens, $15.22 on Amazon
Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
The Incas have embraced this malty-flavored Peruvian root, typically sold as a powder, for centuries. In addition to containing amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, maca is touted for its ability to increase energy and sexual function. Think of it as a natural form of Viagra.
Try: Moon Juice’s Maca, $34 for 200 grams
Super buzzy matcha is a fine powder made from milled and dried green tea leaves. Matcha is high in antioxidants which guard against heart disease helps detox the body, and packs ample caffeine. It’s important to note that not all dried matcha powders are the same, and the price is often an indication of quality. Don’t skimp when buying matcha powder. For this herbal tea, expect to spend around $20 for 20 ounces, and look for powers with a neon green hue. Matcha has applications in the kitchen beyond as nutritious herbal tea and chefs are starting to use the flavor in other recipes, sauces, desserts and cocktails.
Try: Ippodo’s Matcha, $18 for 20 grams
Medicinal mushrooms, not to be confused with magical mushrooms, fall within the genre of adaptogens, ingredients which help our bodies adapt to, and cope with, outside stress without compromising our immune system. Mushrooms have been consumed medicinally for centuries in parts of the world like China, but they’re just catching on here in the States. In addition to helping the body handle outside stress, mushrooms are considered a general longevity food, and the idea is to take small doses over the course of your life. The beginner mushrooms to know are reishi and chaga (which both promotes general wellness), but I also love lion’s mane (brain tonic), and cordyceps (improves stamina).
Pro and Prebiotics
Another hot topic right now is pro and prebiotics. Probiotics are the gut-friendly bacteria in foods like yogurt and kimchi, while prebiotics are the fiber that feeds the bacteria that’s already there. Ongoing scientific research is uncovering how vital a healthy gut (good bacteria help us absorb certain nutrients in food, while also fighting infection) is, and new studies have even linked gut health to mood and depression.
Try: Innate Response Formulas’ Flora 50-14 Clinical Strength, $39 for 30 capsules
Tocotrienols, or tocos for short, is a nutrient-packed flaky cream-colored dust that’s made from the bran of brown rice. It’s high in fat-soluble vitamin E, making it a great for the skin and connective tissue. It also tastes like a vanilla milkshake!
Try: Sun Potion’s Tocos, $35 for 400 grams
Mustard yellow-stained turmeric––ubiquitous in Indian Ayurvedic cooking and known for adding earthy flavor to recipes––is another ingredient that scientist have been closely studying for the root’s ability to bust inflammation, combat cholesterol, and more thanks to its active compound, curcumin.
Related Video: How to Make a Superfood-Infused Ice Cream with Moringa
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