Although the origins of Indian cuisine predate the scientific method, some of the foods we eat and the ingredients we use are now being validated for their health benefits by researchers around the world.
On the flipside, there are also several aspects of our cuisine that are only remnants of a past that required certain dietary measures in order to survive or adapt to extreme situations.
Here’s what science says about some of the most common practices of Indian cuisine, in terms of their origins. While we’re at it, let’s take a look at their health aspects and whether these practices remain relevant today.
1] The Fusion of Unique Spices
While the cuisines of the West focus on using ingredients that share flavour elements, we use ingredients that don’t; Indian cuisine fuses ingredients that bring their own unique flavour to the dish.
But these spices don’t just bring flavour and colour to the dishes; they also come with powerful health-promoting compounds. Ginger, for instance, contains active compounds that have been proven to relieve the symptoms of a cold and asthma, and even fight the flu. Red chillies contain capsaicin, a compound being studied for a multitude of health benefits, and cinnamon has an extraordinary number of uses for the heart, brain and even skin.The list goes on.
All these spices, in just a single dish, combine into a burst of powerful nutrients.
This is an aspect of Indian cuisine that should definitely be continued (for more reasons than one).
2] The High Content of Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates are widely believed, amongst Indians, to have always existed as a dietary staple in our cuisine.
This isn’t quite the case, though. We haven’t always consume refined carbohydrates – our diet has changed through the centuries.
An anthropological study sifted through more than two millennia’s worth of data (from legal instruments, historical documents, ancient and medieval scriptures and even poetry!), to understand the changes in our dietary habits and their various reasons like standard of living, faiths, politics and economics.
It found that back when we were hunter-gatherers, we survived on game meat when a hunt was successful, and on very high-fibre carbohydrates (roots, shoots and berries) in the interim. The advent of farming created easy access to plants and animals, continuing the consumption of high-fibre carbohydrates (like fruits and whole grains), along with a small to moderate amount of fats and proteins.
The shift to a primary carboydrate-based diet occurred only over the past few centuries, because these foods were relatively inexpensive and more easily available. This was further fuelled by religious beliefs propagating the elimination of animal protein from the diet.
A few decades ago, the food industry found ways to elongate the shelf life of these carbohydrates and sell them in bulk, in the form of refined flours and processed grains, gradually increasing their intake and overtaking that of high-fibre sources. The appearance of soft drinks and sweeteners has only added to the consumption of refined carbs in our diet.
Now that health and nutrition have been – rightly so – getting more focus over the past few years, it’s undoubtedly time to get back to consuming whole grains, fruits and vegetables as our source of carbohydrates, while limiting (if not avoiding) the consumption of refined carbs.
The same anthropological study that looked at India’s dietary history found an interesting fact: during 1972 – 1975, Gujarat showed the highest prevalence of diabetes, with 69% of its population being vegetarians. The eastern states with low vegetarianism consistently showed a lower prevalence of diabetes.
Vegetarian diets, as opposed to non-vegetarian diets, tend to be primarily carb-based. Although these can be exceedingly healthy when those carbs come from nutrient-rich, fibrous sources, the problem arises when they come from refined sources.
That said, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, diets with an increased intake of plant-based foods are associated with an improved status of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.[3-6]
This is potentially due to the high content of phytonutrients, i.e., health-promoting compounds (such as antioxidants that fight free radical damage) found in plants.[3-6]
While primarily non-vegetarian diets do provide potentially less carbs, they can also be low in phytonutrients. At the end of the day, it all comes down to balancing our intake and improving our sources of proteins, carbohyrates and fats.
4] Food High in Sugar and Fat
Many traditional Indian dishes like halwas, theplas, parathas, pickles etc. have a considerably high amount of sugars and/or fats. The origins of these can be traced back to the kind of foods carried by traders travelling long distances, and/or living in harsh weather conditions, who had to store food over long periods and prevent spoilage caused by microorganisms.[7,8]
The reason? Microbes cannot grow very well in extreme high-sugar environments (even though they do feed on sugar, when it’s present in small amounts). Given table sugar’s tendency to bind with water, a large enough quantity would suck in all of the available water in a dish, thereby reducing its water content. Microbes can’t survive without water – without its presence in food, they shrivel and die.
Fats also keep foods free of moisture because they, chemically speaking, can’t be mixed with water (think about how oil and water persistently separate, even when forcibly made to mix).
The functional use of these foods no longer exists, given today’s availability of fresh foods even when we travel. While good fats should still be included in our diet in reasonable amounts, the calories that come with sugar aren’t usually accompanied by any nutrients and are easily avoidable.
5] Soaking and Fermenting Grains and Legumes
The nutritive value of foods isn’t solely determined by their macronutrients (their content of fats, carbohydrates and proteins), but also by their micronutrients, i.e., the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients they provide.
Plant foods are very rich in micronutrients – but they could also contain certain nutrients called ‘antinutrients’ that block the absorption of micronutrients and, sometimes, even the macronutrients.
Luckily, antinutrients can be degraded with a few simple methods such as heating, boiling, soaking, sprouting and fermenting, all of which are ubiquitous in the Indian way of cooking.
It’s important that we retain these cooking practices – especially in combination, which has been proven to be most effective (in some cases almost completely degrading antinutrients).[10-14]
6] Pairing Pulses with Grains (like Daals with Rice/Roti)
Rajma-chawal, daal-rice, idli-sambhar and other variations of the pulses-with-grains combination are classic Indian examples of a dietary habit that evolved across the world in many civilisations.
A likely explanation for its popularity lies in the way these protein sources work together.[15,16]
A relatively higher quality of protein is one that provides all the amino acids that our body needs (but cannot make) in the right quantities- something that’s often missing in vegetarian sources of protein.
But two different vegetarian sources of protein could be able to, together, give us all essential amino acids, thus completing the amino acid profile.
Legumes provide an amino acid called ‘lysine’, which grains tend to be low in, while grains provide ‘methionine’, which legumes lack.[15,16]
These food pairings are a great way for vegetarians to get complete sources of protein through their meals.
7] Homemade Yogurt and Pickles
Dahi or Indian yogurt/curd (or even its forms like lassi, or chaas) can be found in almost every household in India. These, and pickles brined in water and salt (as opposed to vinegar), tend to be teeming with live cultures of bacteria that add to the numbers of ‘good bacteria’ living in our gut, promoting our digestive as well as overall health in a number of ways.
One of these benefits is of especial importance to individuals who find it hard to digest dairy products.
After weaning, many humans lose the ability (in some cases, almost entirely) to produce an enzyme called lactase, which is required for the breakdown lactose, a sugar present in milk.[17,18]. That’s what’s known as ‘lactose intolerance’.
The live culture that’s used to make dahi converts lactose into ‘lactic acid’, a substance that, in addition to thickening milk and giving it the characteristics of yogurt, also reduces the levels of the sugar lactose, relieving most of the digestive discomfort caused by dairy.
With up to 75% of the Indian population being sensitive to lactose, consuming yogurt in all its forms is still relevant, today – especially considering their other benefits as well.
8] The Use of Ghee
Ghee, or clarified butter, has always been an integral part of Indian cooking, appearing frequently in Ayurveda for numerous medical applications. It’s believed to help the treatment of skin problems, allergies and respiratory diseases. It’s also great for cooking, because of its high content of saturated fats, which are heat resistant and thus don’t go rancid upon cooking.
While it’s still important to limit our consumption of saturated fats, ghee offers an endless list of health benefits, because of its vitamin K (which reduces the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (which is associated with many metabolic and fat-loss related benefits), and butyrate (which promotes digestive health).[20-23]
A study also found that, when used with ghee, the benefits of healthy herbs and their extracts increased, in comparison to being used in a powder or tablet form.
Given all these health benefits, it’s still a good idea to use ghee for cooking – as long as it’s in moderation!
9] The Use of Vanaspati Ghee (and other artificial trans-fats)
During the Great Depression and World War II, butter was in limited supply. That’s when partially hydrogenated oil (or artificial trans-fats) came about, produced on a large scale by adding hydrogen to oils like vegetable oil, to increase the shelf life of foods.
Once partially hydrogenated oil was imported to India, it eventually began to be produced locally and sold as “vanaspati ghee”.
The presence of the word ‘ghee’ in its name can be highly misleading, but vanaspati ghee, which has up to 30% trans-fats, should definitely be avoided, just like any food products that contain artificial trans-fats. Studies show us that these fats are associated with a rise in bad cholesterol and can increase the risk of heart disease. They also cause chronic inflammation, a condition where our immune system attacks healthy tissue.[25,26]
In 2015, the food regulation agency of USA took a step to phase out trans-fats from their food supply.
While India hasn’t quite caught up yet, we can make it our own responsibility to cut trans-fat, including but not limited to vanaspati ghee, from our diet.
10] Marinating Meat with Papaya
Unripe (or green) papaya is rich in an enzyme called ‘papain’, which breaks down proteins. The meat that it marinates becomes tender, making it easier on our taste buds as well as digestive system. This is especially useful in tenderising red meat that’s tough.
In addition to this, when the papaya is crushed and cooked with the meat, it comes with a list of vitamins and phytonutrients that have a variety of health-promoting properties. Papaya also has a high fibre and water content, both of which help prevent constipation and promote a healthy digestive tract.
Tradition is an aftermath of historic conditions, which may or may not apply to our current lifestyle– this applies to nutrition as well. It’s time we made informed decisions on whether we want to continue them or break the habit. In some cases, it’s a no-brainer. In others, we turn to science.
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