A peek into G-d’s ‘cook book’ for healthier living
By David E. Kaplan
When one thinks of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, one’s mind conjures up the immediate image of death and mayhem in a faceoff of firearms on an arid Mexican landscape. Its reference here is quite the opposite – about life’s longevity not its sudden end – more specifically – the seven culinary treasures from the bible that prescribe a healthy life.
On their long journey to the Holy Land, G-d promised the People of Israel “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey (dates)” (Deuteronomy 8:8).
Commonly known as the ‘Seven Species’ (Shiv’at HaMinim), all have deservedly earned a mystical status amongst the Jewish People. Simply listed, they are:
wheat, barley, grape (wine), fig, pomegranates, olive (oil) and date (honey).
Kings and Priests (Cohanim) were anointed with holy olive oil, and the sanctification (the Kiddush) of the Shabbat (Sabbath) as well as of other Jewish holidays is conducted traditionally over a glass of wine. Throughout the centuries, special blessings (Berakhah) have been devoted to the ‘Seven Species’ which have appeared as symbols of prosperity, peace and wealth, and their images have decorated coins, stamps, state symbols and more.
While symbolically and religiously significant, it is their dietary and health value that is even more ‘illuminating’ today. After all, G-d promised:
“Thou shalt eat and be satisfied…”, and “… bless the LORD thy G-d for the good land which he hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 8:10).
Is there any truth to the platitude, “we are what we eat’,” and hence worth being guided by the Lord’s cookbook?
Beyond their religiously symbolic value, is there any evidence that the ‘Seven Species’ from the bible are blessed with healthy attributes?
Studies have revealed that some of the ‘Seven Species’ carried unique health benefits for the Jews in the ancient land of Israel. Supported by medical findings, it is now established that these foods – when consumed in moderation – provide remedies no less beneficial for us in the modern era.
The bible speaks of grains, fruits and oil – all of which can be found in any modern food pyramid and are essential for a balanced and healthy diet.
Olive is all Heart
Olives – which are indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean Basin, played an important role in the daily diet of local residents from time immemorial. Olives were either consumed as pickled or as an oil extracted by a mechanical trapetum (ancient stone olive grinder).
While superior quality (‘pure’) olive oil was used by kings and priests for religious and civil ceremonies as well as for the lighting of the Menorah in the first and second Temples, from a dietary perspective, the high fat content of olives makes this fruit an important source of energy and it is assumed that olives and olive oil provided a significant portion of the daily caloric needs of the ancient Mediterranean population.
Much of the fats derived from olive oil are monounsaturated fats, which in contrast to polyunsaturated fats, carry only one double bond in their fatty acid chain, meaning they are less prone for peroxidation (an undesired process which in turn increases the risk for cardiovascular diseases).
Consumption of monounsaturated fats has been reported to lower the levels of the “bad” (low-density lipoprotein, LDL) cholesterol, and while still debated, monounsaturated fats may also increase the levels of the good” (high density lipoprotein, HDL) cholesterol. Both effects – decreasing of the ‘bad’ cholesterol and increasing the ‘good’ cholesterol levels – are known to be beneficial for our health while preventing cardiovascular diseases. Since the quality of the cholesterol in our body is no less important than its quantity, the heart-protective power of olive oil is not only due to its unique fat composition, but also can be attributed to its high potent antioxidants content, mainly polyphenols, a unique compound that may prevent harmful oxidation of the good and bad cholesterol
Prof. Michael Aviram, Head of the Lipid Research Laboratory in the Technion Faculty of Medicine and a member of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, is a leading expert in cholesterol and heart disease research with a special interest in oxidative stress and the role of antioxidants in cardiovascular disease. According to Prof. Aviram, the unique phenolics and phytosterols which are present in olive oil, as well as in olive leaves, provide the potent antioxidant and cardio protection effects of the olive.
Research also showed that olive oil antioxidants may also act as antithrombotic, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic agents.
And to ‘take one’s weight of our minds’, it appears that monounsaturated fats – the kind found in olives – may encourage weight loss. Olive oil consumption has been shown to breakdown fats inside fat cells and rid belly fat.
People who have the highest olive consumption eat fewer calories overall and are rarely overweight. Blood tests show they have higher levels of serotonin, a so-called satiety hormone that makes us feel full.
Olive oil is also used in many skin care products, where it acts as a natural moisturizer. Since research has shown that application of olive oil may prevent the formation of skin cancer in mice, one may wonder if ancient priests and kings – when selecting olive oil for their ceremonies – may have suspected its healthy potential!
A Hearty Snack
There is no other fruit like the pomegranate. Peel the thick reddish skin and inside, you will find a multitude of bright red sweet and sour arils, stacked carefully in a white and spongy pulp casing.
This complex and unique fruit holds a special place in Jewish tradition – a symbol for prosperity, beauty and wisdom. Pomegranate-like handles decorate the Torah scrolls and during the traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner, Jews all over the world ask the LORD: “May our merits be numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate.”
“Pomegranates are unlike any other fruit,” asserts Prof. Aviram. “They are packed with some of the most potent antioxidants known to man and have remarkable dietary benefits for protection against cardiovascular diseases”. He speaks passionately about his life-long work of unveiling the health benefits of various fruits and vegetables of which some are of the ‘Seven Species’. “We discovered in our research that certain cardiovascular conditions may be linked not only to the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels in the blood, but also to its quality – its oxidation state. Thus, people who have normal levels of “bad” cholesterol may still be at risk for developing atherosclerosis if their LDL molecules are oxidized.” Since we are constantly exposed to oxidizing stress in our daily life from smoke, chemicals, bacteria, viruses and other pollutants, our body’s need for antioxidants is immense.
Prof. Aviram argues that “What we really want at the end of the day is to reduce oxidative stress in our body in order to have less oxidized “bad” cholesterol. One way of doing it is by inhibiting the production of oxidized “bad” cholesterol by dietary antioxidants. We found that pomegranate juice contains high levels of antioxidants even more than red wine, olive oil and cranberries and that it can slow down LDL oxidation and its retention in the arterial cell wall.”
Yet, before rushing to order your juice, “it should include the peel and the membranes,” says Prof. Aviram “and not just the arils. The former offers the richest source of unique polyphenols and antioxidant properties.”
The fig tree — with its distinctive leaves and were used as clothes by Adam and Eve – is a ubiquitous part of the Israeli landscape. In biblical times the fig was eaten fresh or as a seasoning, in addition to being used to make honey and alcohol. The fig itself, ripe in midsummer, is best eaten straight from the tree in the late afternoon after being baked naturally by the sun. Dried figs covered in sugar are today a popular snack.
Like pomegranates, figs too are rich in unique polyphenols and antioxidants, of which some, according to Prof. Aviram may also play a role in preventing atherosclerosis in which an artery-wall thickens as a result of invasion and accumulation of white blood cells (WBCs) (foam cell) and proliferation of intimal-smooth-muscle cell creating a fibro-fatty plaque.
Figs are also high in fiber and are known to stimulate the digestive system. They are rich in simple sugars and minerals, and while fresh fruits can be picked from native and cultivated trees during early and midsummer, dried figs, which are rich in calcium, can be found in the markets all year round. Additional studies are still required to reveal all the secrets of this extraordinary fruit.
A Taste of Honey
Dates in biblical times mainly grew in the Jordan Valley, but with modern irrigation techniques the palms have also taken root near the Dead Sea and further south in the Arava. In the biblical era dates were made into honey, and many believe the notion of the “land flowing with milk and honey” referred to date honey. Today, dates are a popular sweet snack before or after meals and are exported to Europe where they fetch premium prices.
Two of the soft date varieties growing in Israel – the Halawy and Medjool – are indeed as sweet as honey. Not only sweet, dates also contain a variety of complex sugars, fiber, polyphenols and other antioxidants. Research from Prof. Aviram’s laboratory discovered that consumption of both Medjool and Halawy dates by healthy individuals, led to a significant reduction in their blood triglyceride levels, an observation that was attributed to their nutritional fiber content.
Furthermore, a diet supplemented with Halawy dates, have shown a significant decrease in the oxidative stress in the blood of trial participants, possibly due to its impressive antioxidative capacity which results from its unique content of polyphenols.
Interestingly, while the dates are sweet, the blood’s glucose levels and the body mass index of non-diabetic patients were not negatively affected. “We have begun investigating the connection between date consumption and fat levels in the blood and the results are encouraging.” Further research is planned to study the effect of different varieties of dates, which possess different profiles of antioxidants on oxidation of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and other lipids in the blood.
‘Wheat’ Your Appetite
While wheat and barley may have provided man in biblical times with much of their carbohydrate requirements, it is a role that persists to this day. Wheat remains one of the most important cereal grains in the world and while in addition to barley’s robust flavor, it’s claim to nutritional fame is based on its being a very good source of molybdenum, manganese, dietary fiber, and selenium, and a good source of copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium, and niacin.
Barley grains and flour are still important ingredients in many health foods. The seeds are rich in nutritional fiber, and they have low glycemic index. Whole-grain barley may be helpful for regulating blood sugar and lowering cholesterol levels. Owing to their importance in nutrition and health, most of the meals in the Jewish tradition start with the consumption of bread and with the special blessing of “ha’motzi lehem min ha‑aretz” (Who brings forth bread from the earth).
So when the weather’s cold, a big pot of soup simmering on the stove warms the heart as well as the hearth and adding some whole grain barley to the pot will improve your health along with the flavour of whatever soup or stew you’re cooking.
Bread is not the only food to be blessed. A special blessing, “bo’re p’ri hagafen” (Who creates the fruit of the vine) is also dedicated to wine, which is known for its special role in the Kiddush on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. While excessive consumption of wine and other types of alcoholic beverages can be detrimental to health, studies reveal that a moderate consumption of red wine is good for the heart.
According to Prof. Aviram, red wine – unlike white – contains a variety of antioxidants including different polyphenols, which may reduce the level of oxidized “bad” cholesterol in the blood. One explanation for the “French paradox” – the surprisingly low mortality from coronary heart disease among the French people, who are known for their high animal fat diet – is their consumption of red wine with meals. Whether it is due to the red wine’s alcohol content, the specific Polyphenol content found in the region, or due to a completely different reason, is still need to be determined. It is still hoped that certain studies will show major health benefits from wine that may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other life-threatening diseases.
The ancient Israelites who were promised a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 31:20) came to a land blessed with the ‘Seven Species’. Thousands of years later, we are beginning to understand the unique value of these species and can only wonder what other remedies these plants can offer – not only for modern “Israelites” – but also the rest of the world.
This also might explain why when people the world over say “CHEERS” before bringing wine or beer to their lips, Jews prefer to toast – Le Chaim (to life).
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)