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Kitchen cures

Many years ago, in a visit to my parent's home, I saw a covered glass jar sitting on the kitchen counter. It contained a colorless liquid with golden raisins nesting at the bottom. My mother said it was gin (my parents were non-drinkers, so that definitely got my attention). She indicated my father was soaking the raisins and then ultimately eating them, one by one, as a way to reduce arthritic pain. My mom thought it was "definitely working."

I queried my dad, and he thought so, too. At this point, it may be important to note that my father continued to have many late-in-life physical ailments, but arthritic pain was seldom an issue.

That visit with my folks was an introduction to "kitchen cures." This month's issue of Eating Well magazine contains an article written by Rachel K. Johnson, from the University of Vermont (no relation, but I like the way she thinks), in which she discusses frequently mentioned home remedies or "cures" and ponders their effectiveness.

This can be a tricky topic if you are on the faculty of a university because it always is advisable to link information provided to a research base — and that may be hard to do with home remedies. For instance, there used to be relatively little solid research involving cranberry juice. Now research has indisputably determined that drinking two 8-ounce glasses a day — or eating 1/3-cup of dried cranberries prevents urinary tract infections. I touted cranberry juice drinking for years — and was grateful when studies affirmed its value.

I think the most powerful food remedy for which there is definitely well researched benefit is seafood — particularly fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Findings from a large study at Harvard School of Public Health indicate just one or two servings each week can lower the risk of fatal heart attack by 36 percent. Fish oil supplements offer benefit too — but I opt for salmon with a sprinkle of lemon pepper or oil-packed sardines resting on crispy soda crackers.

I tend to think food trumps pills, but then I look at the research indicating fish oil supplements and cod-liver oil may help with the swelling, pain and inflammation that accompany rheumatoid arthritis. Here is a situation where "supplements-only," not the actual fatty fish, hold the assured benefit — and research should trump.

How should we approach all this? I suggest watching for replicated studies on issues that address the health challenges closest to your life. Make sure any research has a reputable source. Ponder what fits for you, and apply thoughtfully.

For example, I trust research that points to seafood as important to heart and brain health. So, if canned salmon is on sale, I buy it in bulk. However, there is also research that talks about the presence of mercury in fish. I have concluded the mercury-in-fish issues are relevant for pregnant women and very young children but not for me. And so I eat salmon and all its fatty fish friends with thoughtful abandon.

As for the raisins-soaked-in-gin, if that is something you intend to explore further, I should probably mention my father enjoyed his golden raisins with a side of King Oscar sardines.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.