Ginger – A Health and Wellness Ingredient With Much Potential

The growing demand for more ‘natural’ products is currently one of the biggest trends in the global health and wellness market. Many culinary ingredients, such as herbs and spices, which have long been an essential part of the world’s traditional medical system’s repertoire of therapeutic agents, are not only enjoying a revival in their native geographies but also a global spread in popularity accelerated by the rapid internationalisation of various cuisines.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale), indigenous to Asia and Africa, is benefiting profoundly from the combined force of the spiralling demand for natural ‘superfoods’ and the Asian food boom trends, opening up great potential in the health and wellness realm.

Ginger features heavily in (India’s traditional) ayurvedic medicine as well as in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where it is employed to treat colds and bronchitis, for example. Ginger is also widely used to treat digestive ailments and nausea. Pregnant women, for one, appreciate ginger as a safe remedy to combat morning sickness. Ginger is packed with a huge array of phytochemicals, the most bioactive of which appear to be gingerols and shogaols.

Global Asian food boom fosters a liking for ginger

Ginger is used extensively in Asian cuisine, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian cooking, all of which are enjoying huge – and growing – global popularity. Euromonitor International’s consumer foodservice data show that global value sales of Asian fast food more than doubled over the 2006-2011 review period compared to a 33% increase for overall consumer foodservice sales. In Russia, Asian fast food rocketed by close to 250%, while in Brazil sales tripled.

The global sushi boom, in particular, has brought the joys of ginger closer to millions of consumers. Pickled ginger counts as an essential accompaniment to sushi meals. There is a long list of successes in chained consumer foodservice sushi restaurants outside the Asia Pacific region, for example Sushi Sushi (Sushi Sushi Melbourne) in Australia, whose value sales rose from A$11.2 million in 2006 to A$30.3 million in 2011, while Planeta Sushi’s sales (Rostik’s International Inc) in Russia rose from RUB727.9 million to RUB2.6 billion. Meanwhile in Argentina, Sushiclub’s (Sushiclub SA) sales increased more than five-fold over the same period. In France, where a notable number of chained sushi restaurant players enjoyed outstanding performances, sales at the leading sushi chain, Sushi Shop (Sushi Shop), rose from €4 million in 2006 to €70.2 million in 2011.

In the ready meals category in packaged food, the percentage of Asian chilled and frozen ready meals also crept up over the review period in many markets, demonstrating that people the world over are developing a growing enthusiasm for the kinds of flavours that can often only be achieved with a generous helping of ginger.

Ginger – an anti-inflammatory panacea

Inflammatory conditions are high on the global health agenda because they are responsible for a long list of debilitating chronic diseases, including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and several respiratory system disorders. Even cardiovascular disease and some cancers are known to have an inflammation component.

Inflammatory disorders come in many guises but they share two troublesome characteristics – they are virtually impossible to cure and they cause progressive and permanent damage to body tissues. Conventional treatments are confined to symptom control through the administration of two classes of drugs -corticosteroids and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Unfortunately, both of these have a number of serious side effects. For this reason, consumers are increasingly looking for ways to reduce the levels of inflammation in their bodies in a more natural manner.

Ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties are well documented and as it has no known side effects, it is a prime candidate in the fight against inflammatory diseases. A study published in late 2011 in the journal Cancer Prevention Research suggested that ginger’s anti-inflammatory powers may even help to reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer, one of the five most common types of cancer. The research, carried out by the University of Michigan Medical School, showed that regular consumption of ginger root extract in dietary supplement form reduced colon inflammation, a prime risk factor in the aetiology of colorectal cancer, by 28%.

Weight loss and memory boosting

Besides its anti-inflammatory properties and beneficial effects on the digestive system which have long been exploited in traditional home remedies, ginger may have two more health benefits worthy of exploration – weight management and brain health and memory – two blockbuster health and wellness platforms.

A recent study, carried out by the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, New York, which is shortly due to be published in the journal Metabolism, administered a daily dose of ginger tea, containing 2g of dried ginger powder, to overweight men. This resulted in 43 extra calories being burned on a daily basis (referred to as a “thermogenic effect”) as well as an increased level of satiety experienced by the study subjects.

The other promising study, carried out in Thailand in the spring of this year and published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal, concluded that “ginger extract enhanced both attention and cognitive processing capabilities of healthy, middle-aged women”. The study subjects had been given 400mg and 800mg doses of standardised ginger extract for a duration of two months.

Both studies were fairly small and therefore the results cannot be considered absolutely conclusive, but they are far too enticing to be ignored, considering that benefits like weight management and brain health exert global mass-market appeal, and with excellent long-term growth projections.

Maximising ginger’s potential

Another one of ginger’s favourable characteristics is its versatility. As already pointed out, the global Asian cuisine boom is doing excellent groundwork in boosting the popularity of its distinctive flavour, and sales of fresh ginger root are being positively impacted by this. Fresh ginger root keeps well in the fridge, ready to be used for an infusion/tea, as well as for cooking some of those delectable Asian dishes at home. The global recession is heightening the popularity of home cooking, and Asian-inspired stir fries in which fresh ginger features regularly as a primary flavouring ingredient are among the easiest – and healthiest! – meals to prepare from scratch.

But even for those consumers who fail to develop a liking for the taste, retailer shelves are filling up rapidly with ginger-based dietary supplements, most of which sport quite specific positionings. For example, Australian ginger grower Buderim Ginger, which exports a wide range of ginger products to almost 20 countries worldwide, offers QueaseEase, aimed at pregnant women wanting to combat morning sickness in a natural way, and OsteoSoothe, promoted as relieving the pain of osteoarthritis, under its Buderim Naturals brand.

With ginger’s anti-inflammatory credentials on the verge of gaining more recognition, there is also plenty of scope for putting more emphasis on ginger as a health-enhancing component across packaged foods and beverages. Crystallised ginger, ginger jams, preserves and condiments, biscuits, cakes, ginger sugar confectionery, soft drinks (such as ginger ale) and tea are widely available from mainstream retailers across the globe. With the exception of ginger herbal teas (in the hot drinks market), which are frequently marketed on a digestive health platform, ginger-containing packaged foods and products are usually not health and wellness-positioned, and it seems that manufacturers may be passing up a golden opportunity here.

Admittedly, indulgence products like ginger biscuits and cakes may not be ideally suited to donning a health and wellness positioning, but crystallised ginger, for example, which contains similar amounts of total sugar as raisins and other dried fruit, makes for a promising match.

Furthermore, ginger is much more versatile that it may appear and its use as a functional ingredient is not limited to the packaged food and beverage categories in which it has had a longstanding presence. In the autumn of 2010, for instance, a study published in the LWT – Food Science and Technology journal illustrated that bread could be enriched with up to 3% ginger powder without exerting a negative impact on the product’s sensory properties, while, at the same time, significantly boosting its antioxidant content.