Spices and Medicine


Michael Heinrich

From Spices to Superfruits- The Changing Role of Global Trade Links


ABSTRACT: Dietary supplements and natural health products are a diverse group of goods now often marketed as superfruits. They are relative newcomers on the global markets of high-value plant products and their increasing popularity is linked both to the 'commodification of the exotic' and to their acclaimed (but often poorly studied or completely unproven) health benefits. For example, the palm Euterpe oleracea Martius (açai, Arecaceae) has been acclaimed to have a wide range of health-promoting and therapeutic benefits due to its reportedly high levels of antioxidants linked to relatively high content of polyphenols. Açai has been of great economic importance in Brazil and in recent years, it has become a poster child of the power of the internet in promoting such products. Evidence on its 'effectiveness' is very limited and mostly inconclusive or based on in vitro data (Heinrich et al 2011). While the evidence for other health products is better, their commercial success, too, depends on the importance of their acclaimed medical benefits (Heinrich and Prieto 2008). This presentation provides a critical assessment of some current global trade products focusing on our recent research in this context.

The spice trade offers amazing and challenging insights into the historical development of the global dependencies which link producers and consumers of such high value products. Historically the main emphasis had been on the products' roles in providing flavour, aroma and acting as stimulants (like tea or coffee). Today we see rapid rise of internet-driven marketing and a push for ever novel exotic commodities. The acclaimed health benefits are an important addition to these claims. This calls for a systematic and critical assessment of the impact of such products on producers and consumers and of the health benefits and potential risks of these products requiring among others a rigorous systematic strategy which integrates phytochemical and pharmacological is needed in order to review the health claims of dietary supplements and natural health products. Lastly, it calls for strategies to ascertain improved livelihoods for the generally poor and marginalised primary producers of these commodities (Booker et al 202).

Booker, A., D. Johnston and M. Heinrich (2012) Value chains of herbal medicines - research needs and key challenges in the context of ethnopharmacology. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 140, 624- 633.

Heinrich, M. and J.M. Prieto (2008) Diet and healthy ageing 2100: will we globalise local knowledge systems? Ageing research reviews 7 (3), 249-274.

Heinrich, M., T. Dhanji and I. Casselman (2011) Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) - a phytochemical and pharmacological assessment of the species' health claims. Phytochemistry Letters 4: 10 - 21.  

About the Speaker

Professor Michael Heinrich (Closing Keynote) is Professor and Head of the UCL Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy at the UCL School of Pharmacy. A pharmacognosist, biologist and anthropologist, his many years of research experience have focused on interdisciplinary aspects of medicinal and food plant research (especially bioactive natural products), as well as at the interface of cultural and natural sciences- especially on the traditional use of food and medicinal plants, for example in Mexico and the Mediterranean. Prof. Heinrich joined the UCL School of Pharmacy from the University of Freiburg, Germany. While on sabbatical in 2011-2012 he was Founding Director of Southern Cross Plant Science at Southern Cross University, Australia.

Prof. Heinrich has approximately 130 original full publications and 70 reviews and commentaries. He is editor/co-author of five books, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Frontiers in Ethnopharmacology, Reviews Editor for the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, is a subject editor of the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology and Phytochemistry Letters and on the Editorial Board of several journals.

Prof. Heinrich earned his doctorate degree in biology from the University of Freiburg, and holds an MA degree in in Anthropology.