What Is Ginseng and How Is It Different from Ginger?

Every time I open a newsletter about herbs used in supplements and traditional medicine, they’re always talking about ginseng! It’s always ginseng this and ginseng that and I’m over here wondering what they’re talking about and how exactly did I get on this mailing list. What is ginseng? What is ginseng good for? Is ginseng ginger? Because I know ginger. Let’s gingerly approach these questions and discover more about ginseng.

What is ginseng?

Ginseng is a root that has been used in food and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. These days, ginseng can be found in supplements, traditional remedies, and even candies and energy drinks. Okay, so it’s used in all this health stuff, what exactly does it do?

What is ginseng good for? 

Turns out, ginseng is used for a lot of stuff. Ginseng is rich in antioxidants, so it may have benefits for your immune function, brain, blood sugar, and more. It has been used to treat inflammation, supposedly repairing muscle damage. It has shown that it may improve memory and reduce stress. It may even be effective in treating erectile dysfunction. These health benefits come from two compounds called ginsenosides and gintonin. Ginseng is sold in the U.S. as a supplement and not a drug, so the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) does not regulate it. Ginseng can have some side effects and possible drug interactions, so it’s best to consult a doctor before loading up on it.

What does ginseng look like?

Ginseng plants are green and leafy and produce little red berries. But neither those leaves nor those berries are typically used. When people talk about ginseng, they usually are referring to ginseng root. The root has a long neck with small forks jutting out—it looks a little bit like ginger or turmeric or even sunchokes. There are many different types of ginseng but the most commonly used types are American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). There’s not much difference between the two types, although some studies suggest American ginseng is more relaxinging and Asian is more invigorating. The roots are sold as fresh ginseng, white ginseng, and red ginseng, depending on their age and whether they’ve been dried. Ginseng is also available in wild or cultivated varieties. Wild ginseng is more expensive than the farm-grown variety. 

Does ginseng have caffeine?

Ginseng does not contain any caffeine by itself. But it is used in some energy drinks, which definitely contain caffeine. 

Ginseng vs ginger: What’s the difference?

Ginseng is different from ginger, the two are not the same thing. They’re both roots that have a long history in traditional medicine, but ginger is used in a lot more straight up food dishes than ginseng. That is probably because ginger has a pleasant sweet and spicy taste. What does ginseng taste like? Ginseng tastes straight up bitter. That’s probably why I like ginseng so much, because we’re both bitter! Also, I’m shaped like a root.

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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