Saturday, April 21, 2007

Prozac in a pita-Abu Yaakov the best hummus in the Universe

Could the humble chickpea have changed the course of history? As one of the founder crops cultivated in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the chickpea's nutritional benefits have been cited as one of the reasons for the rise of civilisation there.
Now Zohar Kerem from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, thinks he has evidence to support that view. Kerem and colleagues collected wild chickpeas (Cicer reticulatum) and compared their nutritional value with that of cultivated varieties. Wild chickpeas are rare and difficult to cultivate, so there must have been a good reason why our ancestors persevered with growing them around 11,000 years ago.
That reason, says Kerem, is the amino acid tryptophan - a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Increased amounts in the diet may improve performance when under stress. Tryptophan also promotes ovulation, an advantage during a time of human expansion. Cultivated chickpeas had over 3 times as much tryptophan as their wild cousins (Journal of Archaeological Science, in press).
Kerem speculates that prehistoric people knew chickpeas were nutritious. "It probably made them feel good," he says. Not everyone is convinced that chickpeas kick-started human empires. "There is no clear indication of when selection for increased brain effects occurred - was it 10,000 years ago or 5000?" says Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

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