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Ginseng's Healing Properties Attract New Fans: Highly praised and priced since ancient times in Asia for its beneficial properties, ginseng is attracting new customers as a herbal medicine adaptogen and tonic wellness ingredient.

Chinese herbal medicine is probably the oldest approach to maintaining good health and curing diseases. The knowledge of herbal medicine has been compiled through oral transmission since Emperor Huang Di (2698-2598 BC). The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (written approximately around year 300 BC) or Classic of Herbal Medicine, was the first written compendium combining all the ancient oral wisdom. It contained the records of 365 plants, illustrating their characteristic features, therapeutic properties, and methods of use. This compilation ranks ginseng amongst the superior or noble category of plants, together with jujube, Chinese cinnamon, liquorice root, the goji berry, etc. The description states that "ginseng cleans the five vital organs, which are the heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidneys; ginseng also has stimulating properties that alleviate the body with the view to becoming immortal and to fly with the clouds."

Ginseng is a perennial, temperate, flowering herb native to the cool woodlands of the Northern hemisphere. The plant's impressive roots have been harvested in the wild forest areas for thousands of years in China, Manchuria, Korea and Japan. The plant was also collected by Amerindian populations in North America, but not so highly considered. Both Asian and American ginseng grow best in locations with well-drained, sandy loam soils and under woody coverings, providing ample shadow from sunlight. Both have been almost totally eradicated throughout the past few centuries by over harvesting. It was in Korea in the early 1900s that commercial ginseng growing was launched.

Today ginseng farming is widely practiced in the USA, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, and Russia, there are small ginseng growers also in France and even in Tasmania, with quality roots fetching high prices. The plant has very specific requirements concerning soil and exposure, it takes two years for the seeds to germinate and the roots need between five and eight years to mature. Also, the fields need to rest for at least 20 years before allowing to grow healthy ginseng again.

It is interesting to recall how the North American ginseng was discovered by French Jesuit Joseph Lafiteau in 1715, after reading the first complete botanical description of Asian ginseng, by another French Jesuit, Pierre Jartoux. The latter was working at the great Chinese Emperor Kangxi's court, commissioned to draw up an atlas of China. Exhausted by this huge task he had been given a treatment of ginseng tonic and was highly impressed with the plant's restorative power.

After searching for botanical details, Jartoux wrote the first botanical description of the plant, which was later published in Jesuit communications and by the Royal Botanical Society of London in 1713. The information attracted the attention of Lafiteau, who was working with Amerindian tribes in Quebec. He asked the Cherokee medicine man about the plant, which led to the discovery and identification of North American ginseng. Native Americans used ginseng to treat headaches, indigestion, fever and infertility but did not think of it as highly as the Chinese.

After great debates in the European scientific circles, the descriptions presented by Jartoux and Lafiteau were accepted and both plants were given the genus name "panax," from panacea or "cure-all." Thus, North American ginseng started its career as a major colonial trade commodity and was diligently collected in Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In 1784, the first shipment under the American flag carried 30 tonnes of wild ginseng from New York harbour to Canton, Massachusetts, thus opening a highly profitable trade, which has continued to grow. North American ginseng is highly appreciated in China, and some Chinese farming of this species has started recently, generating an important risk of fraud and the need for improved control methods.

Two Ginseng Species with Complementary Benefits

According to botanical science, this medicinal root plant belongs to the Araliaceae family in the genus: panax. Its two main species are Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng CA Meyer) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L). The word "panax," which is the Western scientific name of this inconspicuous and slow growing plant with a long fleshy root is derived from Greek. It means all-healing, referring to the long list of health benefits and conditions that panax consumption will help to improve. The word "ginseng" is derived from the Chinese "ren shen" and means man root, with reference to the human like shape of the root that always has at least two main legs growing out of a small upper body.

There are more distinctions to take care of in this complex field, in particular, the way of processing and the way of the root's impacting human metabolism:

* North American Ginseng is usually made into white ginseng, through the cleaning and the drying the root and is reported to have cooling properties, hence yin energies.

* Asian ginseng is usually made into red ginseng, through the cleaning and the steaming of the root, and is reported to confer warming properties, hence yang energies.

Both North American and Asian ginseng roots, but also the leaves and the berries, are rich in ginsenosides, which are the molecules that generate the medicinal properties and benefits, and which are exclusive to the panax plants. However, science states that the variety and contents of ginsenosides in American ginseng are lower than in Asian ginseng. Furthermore, research concludes that American ginseng provides the strengthening and immune-enhancing effects of Asian ginseng in a gentler way and without over-stimulation as it contains higher levels of ginsenoside Rbl, which has a sedative effect on the central nervous system. Therefore, it is more suitable for the young, middle-aged and stressed populations, whilst Asian ginseng restores stamina, invigorates and alleviates fatigue, which makes it more suitable for the senior populations. Although a lot of scientific research has been carried out, there is not enough evidence of the mechanics behind the benefits, as this is also the case for some other very popular herbals like Gingko Biloba and the green tea polyphenols.

Despite this and considering the long-confirmed tradition of recognizing the health benefits of ginseng, several countries have introduced the plant into their official pharmacopeia such as Japan in 1943, Russia in 1961 and France in 1974. Ginseng is commonly considered as a nutraceutical, ie, a compound that provides health benefits beyond the providing of nutrition and as an adaptogen, which means that it can help the body to deal with stress, to increase physical endurance and lessen fatigue, to boost the immune system, to improve concentration and to slow down the ageing process of body and brain.

Herbal Tea & Tea Blend Ingredient

With the biggest share of the production going into nutrition supplements, ginseng has also become a sought-after ingredient for herbal teas and blends of tea and herbals. The characteristic taste of ginseng is often perceived as rather harsh, pungent and medicinal, which may need some cover up through additional flavouring components, like ginger, liquorice, lemon and orange peel. Ginseng also goes well with green teas, the flavours blending smoothly together.

With its growing reputation as stress reliever and adaptogen, ginseng has become an important part of the wellness blends portfolios, targeting health-conscious consumers. Recipes vary widely, from a few percent up to more than 15 percent of this expensive ingredient, which attracts more young and middle-aged customers who live in stressful urban environments. With its inherent complexity, the labelling of ginseng as an ingredient does not give much access to origin or process and price fluctuations may also require some flexibility for sourcing.

According to estimates by the US Ginseng Growers Association, the global annual production of both panax plants amounts to at least 6,000 tonnes of dry root material, of which 500 comes from the US; 2,000 from Canada; and over 3,000 from China, the biggest producer, with no data available for Japan, Korea and Russia. With demand growing both in the East and the West, ginseng farming has become a promising prospect for small farmers in appropriate climate and soil providing regions, with rewarding prices for good quality, which takes many years to grow. Hopefully this will allow the many stressed, enhanced energy-seeking and ageing consumers to continue sipping these comforting cups.

Barbara Dufrene is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du The. She may be reached at: b-dufrene

Caption: Ginseng panax root displayed in a Korean health food store in Paris, France.

Caption: (Above) Green tea from Korea and ginseng root. (Below) Red Korean ginseng.

Caption: (Above) Ginseng grown in Wisconsin (US). (Below) Refrigerated ginseng roots in a food shop in Seoul, South Korea.
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Title Annotation:GINSENG
Comment:Ginseng's Healing Properties Attract New Fans: Highly praised and priced since ancient times in Asia for its beneficial properties, ginseng is attracting new customers as a herbal medicine adaptogen and tonic wellness ingredient.(GINSENG)
Author:Dufrene, Barbara
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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