Botanicals are the lifeblood of the world’s food supply.
They have been used for centuries to treat illnesses, cleanse and even cure cancers, and their popularity is rising rapidly.
But how do they work?
And how do you eat them?
We asked a botanist and the director of the Botanical Gardens of Australia (BGAA) about their research on the botanical roots of the most common foods.
Here are some of their answers.
Molecular botanyA study of botanical compounds has been conducted in the lab over the past 20 years by the BGA to identify the botanicals in the foods we love.
The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, is the first to look at botanical ingredients in foods, and it’s a big step forward for the botanic community.
“This is the most comprehensive study of its kind, to date, of the botany of foods,” says Dr Kate Nettle, director of botanics at the BGAA.
“The botanists are looking at the compounds in foods and comparing it to the compounds found in plants,” she says.
“It’s a very powerful way of looking at how they might interact with each other in the food.”
The BGA has been able to compare the compounds of some foods and other foods using data collected over the years, as well as the chemistry of the compounds.
“They’ve identified a whole bunch of different compounds that are in food,” says Ms Nettle.
“There’s also some new information that they’ve got to get from the food,” she explains.
“They’ve got some new compounds that we haven’t been able previously to test, and some compounds that you’d expect.”
The botanical origin of the food compounds can help explain why certain foods are so good for people.
“The foods that are best for human health are the ones that are closest to plants and the roots,” says Michael Eaves, professor of plant science at the University of Queensland and author of the book ‘A Botanist’s Botany of Food’ (University of Queensland Press, 2018).
“And so we have to look closely at the roots to see if we can detect anything there that we might be able to detect on the outside of the plant, in the animal, in our gut, in those gut bacteria, in what we’re eating,” he says.
The BGGA is now conducting more research to test these new compounds in humans, and has published two papers on these new botanical origins of the foods.
The first paper is called ‘The Origin of the Essential Nutrients and Amino Acids in Nutmeg’, and the second paper is titled ‘Botanical Origin of Food Chemistry in the Plant-Food Interaction’.
The botanic origins of these compounds are being used to test the efficacy of the traditional methods for making food, such as cooking, boiling, and grinding.
“We’ve been trying to get some of these old methods to work for the last 20 years, so we’ve done all sorts of things that are now going to be new and novel,” says Nettle of the new method.
“I’m hoping to be able in about five years to make food that’s actually as good as we’re using it now.”
A lot of our food is made with a mix of botanic and traditional ingredients.
“In many cases, we can’t do that,” says Eaves.
“But we can have some of the old recipes, and we can cook them on the stove, we’ve got the whole range of traditional cooking techniques that we know how to use.”
It’s important to note that botanical extracts, botanically modified ingredients, and plant-based foods are all still made from the same plant material, and these ingredients are still the same as they were in the botancourt, or traditional cooking method.
“So we can still get that traditional flavour of the meat, but we can do that in a way that’s more modern,” says Terence Tuck, director at the Botanics Institute at the Queensland University of Technology.
“So we don’t have to cook the meat every time, we don, we’re not having to cook everything,” he explains.
“We can still make these old-fashioned recipes, which are very traditional, and so we can really enjoy them.”
To understand how these compounds work in the kitchen, it’s important that we understand how the botanolic compounds are metabolised by the body, says Eave.
“Because if you don’t understand the metabolic pathway, and the way they’re metabolised, it can be very dangerous,” he tells us.
“That’s why we need to understand it so we don’st cause harm.”
But there are some other compounds that may be able help with digestion, so if you’re trying to digest them