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Reviewed by:
  • Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food
  • Ellen Messer
Nina L. Etkin , Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2006, 304 pp.

Anyone who has ingested herbal teas to soothe a sore throat or alleviate digestive distress probably has wondered what active ingredients the remedies contain and whether principles of traditional medicine are widely shared across cultures. This volume, representing a lifetime of research by ethnobiologist-pharmacologist expert, Nina Etkin, provides basic outlines and evidence of the scientific (active biochemical) properties of plants, animals, and microbials selectively but widely used by peoples all over the world to counteract infections and other ills. The stated goal, which is to transect the lines usually separating but potentially connecting food science and nutrition, biochemistry and medicine, and food and agriculture in a single volume, is largely achieved, as is the stated purpose, which is to draw attention to the pharmacological potential and health implications of foods in the specific cultural contexts in which people use them. Etkin pointedly is not writing about the potential commercial values of particular foodstuffs or dietary/nutritional regimes, although in most [End Page 849] instances she does advocate for preservation of traditional foods, especially those, like many fermented products, that are disappearing both as the raw materials are replaced by other crops and as the artisans who labored to make them die off and are not replaced. Nor is she personally interested in developing or commercializing traditional edible medicines as health products, although she clearly thinks that some of these anti-microbial and other pharmacologically active items could be marketed, and so offer fresh livelihood opportunities as specialty niche crops for beleaguered farmers in developing countries. Instead, she offers a carefully organized compendium of ethno-pharmacological theory and practice as a way for readers from the health, life, or social sciences to familiarize themselves with the systemic, evidence-based, bio-cultural health-giving properties of foods that simultaneously function as pharmaceuticals in most societies.

To set the stage, Chapter 1 introduces her biocultural and co-evolutionary theoretical framework, which systematically outlines and explains the biochemistry of plant metabolism, and how these properties in foods as medicines figure in human dietary, cultural, and biological evolution. Chapter 2 follows with a summary history of edible plant and animal categories that entered into concepts and classifications of food and health in the evolution of Western medical beliefs and practices. The next four chapters illuminate different categories of pharmacologically active foods: spices, fermented foods and beverages, beverage and masticated plants that stimulate the body, mind, and social life (coffee, tea, mate, kava, chocolate, kola, qat, betel, various gums), and finally, animals as edible medical categories. Each chapter follows a standard format that begins with a historical introduction, then describes the general and specific biological categories that conform to this class, indicates how these elements are used in multiple cultural contexts, and last, but not least, probes the "scientific" basis of their pharmacological activity. The final chapter explores various categories of "functional foods" that appear in the contemporary U.S. marketplace, and reviews their evaluations by various official scientific institutes, who judge the efficacy as complementary and alternative medicines. The volume ends with a short appendix on the names, botanical classifications, and properties of "Some Common Spices."

Overall, this relatively slim volume provides a much-needed summary of multi-disciplinary approaches and evidence illuminating biological products for health. It should enlighten a broad audience, ranging from anthropologists to health practitioners, who desire more scientific knowledge [End Page 850] of materia medica and cross-cultural insights into the ways different cultures have discovered and manipulated plants and animals to organize their worlds of the body and substances that act upon it.

That said, some anthropologists might find this book difficult, because they are required to understand technical medical and pharmacological terminologies with which they probably are not familiar. The meanings of simple terms describing medicinal qualities like "anti-tumor," "ulcer-protective," "serum-lipid-reducing," or "hypotensive," "carminative," "expectorant, "anti-spasmodic" are not necessarily self-evident. Non-specialists might also find it challenging to keep in mind the many classes of chemicals that may account for the culturally assigned medicinal...


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