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Vol. 17 No. 3 - July 2011

Interesting Biochemical and Medicinal Properties of Some Common Indian Spices

By: S. K. Basu

Common plant species constitute a wide range of organic chemical compounds such as essential oils, alcohols, aldehydes, flavonoids, phenolic compounds, terpenoids, alkaloids and various aromatic compounds such as anethole, estragole, camphene, pinene, myrcene, cymene. These compounds collectively generate a pungent aroma to ward of insects and many have anti-microbial properties and are a part of defence mechanism of the plants. Several medicinally important chemicals are also present in the spice plants attributing to different medicinal properties to spices in traditional medicines. It is also important to note that food habit is cultural in origin and people exposed to specific dietary habits at the younger age depending upon their social and cultural perspective get used to specific diets. Some of us are capable of adapting to newer foods with widely divergent taste and aroma while others cannot. So the same flavour may feel like unpleasant to some and stimulating to others. Some plant products are also allergenic to some individuals resulting in uncomfortable responses.

Fenugreek/methi (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) is an annual legume crop and is extensively used as a spice and, to a certain extent, as a forage crop and as nutraceutical in parts of Asia (particularly India), north Africa, Mediterranean Europe, Australia and North America. The plant has been reported to possess a number of important medicinal properties. Research has indicated that the presence of steroidal sapogenins, 4-hydroxyisoleucine (free amino acid) and mucilaginous fibres (galactomannans) present in the seed and leaves contribute to the anti-diabetic and hypocholesterolaemic properties attributed to this plant. It is also known as a powerful galactogogue (an agent increasing milk production in both humans and animals). While several species are reported worldwide, T. foenum-graecum is the most well known and widely cultivated species.

Fenugreek has a characteristic strong aroma in the seed as well as in the foliage parts (both fresh and dry). This is mostly due to presence of specific aromatic compounds such as n-alkanes and sesquiterpenes and several oxygenated organic aromatic compounds like hexanol, γ-nonalactone and others. In addition, the presence of several steroidal sapogenins such as diosgenin, tigogenin, neotigogenin, gitogenins, yamogenins, and other complex chemicals such as spirostanol saponins (graecunins), sapogenin peptide esters (fenugreekine), alkaloids (trigonelline), flavonoids, carotenoids, and coumarins in the seed and foliage parts synergistically contributes to the characteristic aroma, well know for the “curry flavour” of fenugreek. It is the constituent of most commercially sold East India curry formulations.

Hot and spicy food items such as chilli pepper (Capsicum spp.) usually contain specific stimulant chemicals (such as capsacin) that stimulate the nervous system and sensory receptors distributed in the oral cavity and inner part of the nostril. Such specific stimulant chemicals also stimulate the circulation rate in the body and also raise the average body temperature. Once the receptor receive these chemicals (i.e. they bind to the receptors surface), it simultaneously stimulates mucous secreting cells to secrete mucous profusely. It is a kind of an internal defense mechanism of the body that tries to eliminate irritant and stimulant chemicals and tries to bring back the normal homeostasis or equilibrium. It also reflects to the personal immune system activation and differs from person to person. For some, it has violent allergenic reactions while for others, it is mild dribbling. It is also important to note that the body could be trained to react according to subsequent exposures to such irritant and stimulant chemicals. For example, people living and sharing a culture where consumption of hot and spicy food is common and is a regular part of their diet, experience less or infrequent dribbling compared to those who are occasional or amateur consumers. The receptors in the nostrils get trained or recognize the stimulant chemicals over long exposure and do not alert the mucous secreting cells frequently to cause dribbling. Frequent consumption of chilli and other hot spices help in clearing of the sinuses in human beings.

University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada - E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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