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How food has been used as medicine

Watch Janeane discuss some of the ways food has been used as medicine, in the past and and how it’s being used in the present.
JANEANE DART: How has food been used as medicine. And I think a really nice way to illustrate this, is using the Australian aboriginal people. The Australian aboriginal people have been around for 40 to 60,000 years. And their connection to the land, and their connection to native ingredients in food really is a fabulous history of how food has been used as medicine. So, an example of this would be a river red gum, or eucalypt, of which Australia’s got around over 500 species. And the sap from the river red gum, was actually used along the Murray, for example, in Victoria, to actually treat diarrhea.
In addition, the leaves of the red gums were actually used in a steam bath for a variety of illnesses. A nice extrapolation of this, is thinking about eucalyptus oil, which we use now. Another example, I guess, is a group of aboriginal people from the central and north east Arnhem Land Arnhem Land. And their classification of foods was grouped into plant and vegetable foods, and then the protein foods. All the meat, and shellfish, and game foods. And their principle was to eat a balance of both of these foods each day, in addition to water. And if they didn’t have adequate amounts, for example of the protein types of foods, then they would often travel, and they would trade with another clan.
So, I think it’s about we have to learn from some of the cultures, or some of the ancient groups. Understand where their food wisdom and knowledge comes from. And at the same time, use the evidence. And perhaps there are opportunities to really combine these knowledges. An example of this is with The Modern Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. It’s been recently reviewed, and how that actually includes some of the indigenous foods. So, I think it’s a nice example of how things are being integrated and moving forward. From ancient and medieval times, spices were viewed as exotic ingredients. They came from the Orient to Europe, and that’s where a lot of the documented evidence has come from.
And spices, interestingly, we perceive them now as being a condiment, used as a food stuff. But historically they came, and they were used medicinally. So for their main medicinal properties. With something such as pepper, was used for the heart, was used to calm the stomach. It was used to treat things such as snakebites. Cloves? Cloves we use for the heart, for the lungs, and for the gastrointestinal system. Clive oil was used to cure a tooth ache. We think of pepper and clove in current times purely as condiments to add to cooking, to add flavors.
But, I think spices are a really interesting subset of food ingredients that really have come from medicine historically, And now being used in that food space. Historically, things such as caffeine, tobacco, tea, alcohol, sugar, cannabis, were also used medicinally. And we know now that they’re not part of what we’re recommending. Things such as sugar and salt were actually used as payment for people. When the colonists first came to Australia, salt and sugar were a key part of their ration. Salt was a highly valuable commodity, and was used primarily as a preservative. So, this was before refrigeration. So without salt, food would become rancid very quickly.
In current times, of course, we’re aware to eat less salt, you know, reduce salt products, et cetera, that pervade our food supply. And I think that highlights, really, that how much of our food supply now is based on processed foods, manufactured foods. Compared to salt being used in certain foods as a key preservative. Alcohol was something that was revered, because there was such poor access to it. It’s also been used, of course, to try and maintain septic techniques when someone had an injury, and also used to numb the pain sort of metaphorically and literally, I guess. Cannabis is an interesting example that’s undergoing a lot of research in Australia, and a lot of exploration at the moment.
And it’s used in chronic pain management. Again, something that’s been an illegal substance, but now actually, potentially, might have a role to play as a medicine or a therapeutic agent. So I think this highlights, we really need to keep a nice open mind when it comes to food and its role in medicine and in health. But also be open to some of the history and the rich stories that come with food and its uses across the centuries. What we also have currently, is a range of other health care professionals, a range of other medicines and special products, that we can use.
For example, we no longer need to use clove oil on a toothache, because we have got a dentist we can access, and we’ve got pain relief we can access.

Watch Janeane discuss some of the ways food has been used as medicine, in the past and and how it’s being used in the present.

A voyage to Australia in the 1850s… Foods and medical comforts

Sailing around the world on a sailing ship in the 1800s was a long and potentially dangerous journey; with limited fresh foods, cramped conditions, poor ventilation and questionable hygiene all having the potential to influence an individual’s health.

Go to the Downloads section of this step to access a document that lists the food and drink stores supplied on one of these voyages; a trip from the United Kingdom to Hobart Town in Australia (now known as Hobart) on a ship called the Great Tasmania in the mid-1800s.

These food and drink items were loaded on board for both the passengers and crew. The document also lists ‘Medical Comforts for Passengers’ made up from a range of foods and drinks.

While this document doesn’t list what these items were used for in regards to ‘medical comforts’, it does however give us an idea of the foods provided to passengers who may have fallen ill on the voyage.

Talking point

Within the Comments, consider sharing with other learners your thoughts on how food has been used as medicine.

  • What foods do you eat now that historically were considered medicine?

Don’t forget to contribute to the discussion by reviewing the comments made by other learners, making sure you provide constructive feedback and commentary.

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Food as Medicine

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