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Two women in a kitchen cooking with medicinal ingredients from around the world.

5 medicinal foods from around the world to use in your cooking

For centuries, cultures from around the world have used medicinal food to treat bodily ailments or supplement their diets. Today, we can bring these healthy options into our lives as well. Try incorporating these medicinal ingredients with scientifically proven benefits to your next meal:

  1. Papaya. Often eaten to help with digestion.
  2. Turmeric. May assist with reducing inflammation.
  3. Moringa leaves. Consumed for their high level of vitamin C.
  4. Ginger. Known to help relieve nausea and indigestion.
  5. Licorice root. Proven to prevent and relieve sore throat.


A fleshy, bright-colored fruit widely grown in the tropics, papaya is a popular addition to fruit salads. It is also known in South and Southeast Asia to remedy digestive issues like constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies show that ripe papaya has high activities of proteolytic enzymes, fiber content, and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The combination of these three makes papaya a great potential digestive aid, particularly with papain assisting with protein breakdown and SCFAs helping increase the body’s fiber consumption.

What is papain? A proteolytic enzyme extracted from the raw fruit of the papaya plant. Papain helps break proteins down into smaller protein fragments, making them a popular meat tenderizer in some cultures.

Here are a few ways to include papaya into your daily diet

  • Eat it fresh―slice the fruit open and get to work with your spoon!
  • Blend ripe papaya chunks into your smoothie.>
  • Mix ripe papaya into a fruit salad or salsa to add a tropical twist.

Tip: Many cultures in the tropics enjoy eating chilled ripe papaya on warm days. This can be achieved by briefly refrigerating the papaya or placing the sliced fruit in some ice.


Also going by the name “Indian saffron” for the intense golden color it lends to South Asian dishes, turmeric has been a staple medicinal plant in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Curcumin, the most studied natural phytochemical in turmeric, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies report several health benefits associated with turmeric, including the management of exercise-induced muscle soreness, arthritis, and hyperlipidemia. The National Psoriasis Foundation even supports the use of turmeric to help with psoriasis symptoms.

There are a few easy ways to prepare this ingredient:

  • Try mixing turmeric powder, honey, and some lemon juice in some hot water for a spicy, refreshing herbal tea.
  • Add a touch of spice to your favorite broth or soup by mixing in some turmeric slices or powder.
  • Make healthy golden milk by blending turmeric into your choice of milk or yogurt, then serve chilled.


Tip: Give your golden milk a sweet and fruity twist by blending in some ripe mango.

Moringa leaves

Moringa is an up-and-coming superfood widely available in supplement form that has been grown in African and Asian countries for centuries. Up close, it’s a skinny and unassuming tree with tiny scattered leaves that are packed with high levels of vitamins A and C, zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Studies show that flavonoids in moringa leaves may be beneficial for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, non-alcoholic liver disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Here are some ways you could cook with moringa leaves:

  • Finely blend fresh leaves and mix with some store-bought pesto, or blend with basil leaves when making fresh pesto.
  • Making chicken noodle soup? Throw in a handful of fresh moringa leaves right before you finish cooking.
  • Mix some fresh leaves into savory rice porridge, curry, or salads.


Tip: Because of tannins, older moringa leaves can be bitter when overcooked. Look for younger leaves that are smaller, lighter in color, and tender to touch.


Ginger is known as one of the most popular spices globally, and it comes in many forms: fresh, dried, powdered, as an oil, or as a juice. Originating from Southeast Asia, ginger has been a staple in ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine, being grown as a tonic root to treat ailments such as nausea, indigestion, and the common cold. Gingerol, a major component of fresh ginger, has been studied and has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. 

Here are a few quick ways to add this ingredient to your diet:

  • Drop a slice of ginger in hot water with honey to make ginger tea.
  • Make a simple peanut dipping sauce by mixing crushed ginger with soy sauce, sesame oil, and creamy peanut butter.
  • Are you averse to chili but want a bit of a warm spice for your soups? Blend in some ginger!


Tip: Gingerol is present in all forms of ginger but is only slightly reduced in dried ginger.  

Licorice root

Because of its sweet flavor, licorice has become popular as a sweetener in candies. However, many well-known licorice candies don’t even contain the actual licorice plant, which has been used in Scandinavian cultures for its antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Studies show that ingesting licorice prevents postoperative sore throat and improves symptoms of indigestion.

Here’s how you can use licorice root in your recipes:

  • Steep ground licorice to make tea and improve a sore throat.
  • Add a complex sweetness to meats by mixing powdered licorice root into spice rubs.


Medicinal foods like these are most effective when combined with a physician-approved diet, but if you have a chronic condition, these foods are not a substitute for a prescribed treatment plan. Talk to a St. Joseph Medical Group primary care physician about how you can enrich your diet with traditional foods and ingredients from around the world.

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