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Pulque in Mexico: Synthesis of Medicinal and Mythical Properties
Since pre-Hispanic times in Mexico, and continuing to the present day, there have been several species of agave used to extract aguamiel (honey water). Once this sweet, coconut milk-like juice is removed from the heart of the juice and exposed to bacteria and yeast in the environment, it ferments and becomes viscous. Fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. Over hundreds of years, and most likely millennia, medicinal properties have been attributed to pulku, through myths that have been passed down through generations of indigenous populations, and more recently as a result of scientific research (not without contraindications regarding the latter). As might be expected, the literature is not always consistent in both its factual basis and conjecture. However, a simple synthesis in a summary way serves to illuminate.
Pulque, for several hundred years was associated with an elixir for the masses, a mild intoxicant with curative powers. Fueled by the natural/organic and to a lesser extent the slow food movement, it has risen in vogue. Predominantly middle- and upper-class millennials living in Mexico’s largest urban centers such as Monterrey, Puebla, Guadalajara, and of course Mexico City, flock to pulquerías. However, most of what is being served is an adulterated form of pulque known as curados. A pulque base, sometimes canned, is combined with a selection of processed fruits, grains and/or vegetables, sugar or another sweetener, and sometimes milk/cream and/or a thickener such as cornstarch. These curados couldn’t be further from the real deal, and it’s likely that by the time they arrive on the table, any beneficial attributes, medicinal or otherwise, have long been lost to its commercial handling. However the pulque available in bars and restaurants in towns near the rural regions where the aguamiel is extracted (ie Oaxaca, from the plains outside the city of Santiago Matatlán) is anything but 100% unchanged. The closer the winery or comedori is to the field from which the aguamiel was harvested, the greater are the chances that the pulp has not been bastardized and has retained its positive properties.
The wide diversity of microclimates in which agave species grow suggests that the attributes of the resultant pulka must inevitably vary, sometimes considerably. And, each plant species itself has a unique series of compounds, minerals, vitamins, etc., which are transformed in a different way. This depends on the sub-region of Mexico as well as the then predominant bacteria and to a lesser extent yeasts in the environment. The species of agaves used to extract aguamiel that have been noted in the literature include salmiana, americana, deserti, mapisaga, atrovirens, ferrox, and hookeri. Various roots, including and especially acacia (referred to in parts of the state of Oaxaca as timbre), are commonly used to make pulque stronger, hotter, more intoxicating, or spicier. It also speeds up the fermentation process especially during the colder weather months. Such additions further change the properties of pulka.
The name pulque is likely derived from the Nahuatl word poliuhqui, meaning spoiled. During the pre-Hispanic era in many regions of the country it was a drink reserved for high priests, warriors and wise men. It was used ceremonially as part of harvest celebrations, to induce rain, as a way or to honor certain gods, and during rites of passage such as marriage, birth and death. Divergent rules abound about the proper way to eat, and myths abound about its origins. But the nationwide thread that connects is its medicinal value. It should come as no small surprise that pulque-drinking populations were generally immune to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century.
Pulque is seen throughout the country as a health drink, a nutritional supplement. In areas of Mexico where there is a lack of safe drinking water due to human or animal pollutants, it is used as a thirst quencher. But its constituent elements, including but not limited to iron, carotene, thiamin, folate, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, protein, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, fiber, bioactive compounds, phosphorus and ash, are likely to lead to its predominant curative role. in traditional medicine and as preventive food.
Ask any tlachiquero (someone who taps agave to extract aguamiel) in Santiago Matatlán, and he (or she, since at least in the state of Oaxaca pulque making is a profession not only reserved for men) will tell you that pulque is 100% natural in part because the only fertilizer, if any, used to stimulate agave growth is manure from cows, sheep, or goats, and the mulch used is bagazo (a fiber left over from the distillation of mezcal); and that pulque’s attributes include stimulating white blood cell production, being good for triglycerides and diabetes control, especially if consumed first thing in the morning, well before breakfast.
The cross-cultural literature, based on studies from all over Mexico, offers a much broader story. Pulque is used:
• in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders including ulcers and renal infections
• as an aid in reducing the general weakness of and in the body
• to fight loss of appetite and anorexia
• as a diuretic
• for improving relaxation before sleep
• as an aid in the development of the fetus
• for stimulating milk production for lactating mothers
• as a means of initiating breastfeeding when applied to the lips of newborns
• for children based on its ability to promote muscle and bone building.
Although the alleged use of pulque to stimulate fertility and improve sexual function does not appear to have any basis in fact (except perhaps to the extent that alcohol consumption can positively affect libido in some), much of the above has been proven with truth through scientific investigation. .
While environmental yeasts play a role in the production of pulque, particularly by contributing to its foaming, the literature most commonly refers to bacteria from the species Zymomonas mobilis as the main stimulant that converts aguamiel to pulque (and to a lesser extent bacteria from the genus Lueconostoc ). Widely encountered in sugar-rich plant juices, Z. mobilis is extremely effective in ethanol production.
Several studies have demonstrated in vitro growth promoting effects due to various lactobacilli and bifidobacteria plus probiotic strains. This helps in the absorption of important minerals. Phytase is present, and probably very important. It is a digestive enzyme. Some believe it can bind corn and increase the bioactivity of iron and zinc through metabolism. Phytase is a bacterium found in the intestines of cattle and sheep, but is not usually found in humans, although there is evidence of its presence in vegans and vegetarians. Phytase breaks down into phytic acid. This has been implicated in DNA repair, clathrin vesicle recycling, neurotransmission control and cell proliferation. While research in animal nutrition has suggested the value of supplementing feed with phytase as an aid in the production of calcium, phosphorus, other minerals, carbohydrates and proteins, the implications for humans are still largely unknown and further study is required.
By examining within the context of scientific research how and why indigenous populations have used pulque over hundreds of years, we gain a better understanding of the current validity and veracity of myths and beliefs about the curative properties of the ferment.
Scientific research proves that the consumption of 850 ml of aguamiel meets the daily human requirements for iron and zinc. Because it is an alternative source of FOS (fructooligosaccharides) prebiotic syrups, it improves calcium absorption in postmenopausal women and iron absorption in general. Consumption has been suggested for the prevention of colon cancer. Pulku is known to contain steroidal saponins which have been studied for their medicinal uses, including antispasmodic activity and toxicity against cancer cells. They have been described as the most important bioactive compounds in greens and some biological activities such as anticancer have been documented.
The melatonin content in pulque helps in relaxation in preparation for sleep. The probiotic potential of lactobacilli isolated from both aguamiel and pulque provides a low-cholesterol alternative to non-dairy sources for those who are lactose intolerant. It is probably the food product with the highest dose and variety of potential probiotic microorganisms. A study in Valle de Solís, in the state of Mexico, found that consumption of pulka resulted in less risk of insufficient hemoglobin for pregnant women.
But just as the potential health benefits of consuming pulp have been difficult to assess and confirm for reasons some of which are noted in this article, so too have some contraindications. We know that alcohol consumption can have harmful effects on pregnant women and their offspring, even at 6%. But this must be weighed against consumption in areas where there are generally poor dietary habits or a lack of variety of vitamins and minerals through food. The literature shows that drinking pulka in small amounts helps the development of the fetus and increases milk production during lactation (helps the mother absorb calcium).
Pulque actually has a short shelf life due to the ambient temperature and constant contact with yeast in the environment. The longer it is stored, the faster it dries. However, since it is essentially undrinkable, in parts of Mexico such as Oaxaca it is used as a base to produce a refreshing drink known as tepache. Typically, tepache is made with vinegar-like pulque, pineapple, and a sugar cane derivative known as piloncillo or panela. Whether this drink retains some of the positive attributes of pulque is uncertain.
For some, another issue is the lack of sanitation associated with aguamiel and pulque. This can become apparent if one ever has an opportunity to participate in the extraction of aguamiel from agave and/or has consumed pulque in a village market. In my opinion, having consumed both drinks for the past quarter century, this is not an issue. Commercial preparation of pulp for sale in cans is a possible solution. Chemicals are added to stop fermentation. However, it is suggested that the benefits of pulque consumption will have long been lost by the time canned pulque has taken off anywhere in the country, or in US states where it is available for purchase such as California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Further study is warranted and necessary to better understand the true benefits of pulque. But for now, depending on the documented risks associated with its consumption, it is suggested that the reported positive attributes should be enough to encourage the reader to inhale a little pulque every now and then, and for this aguamiel if in a region of Mexico where it is harvested fresh from the agave.
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