A Dash of Health

Variety is said to be the spice of life—and a variety of spices
have been shown to enhance your well-being.


February 2011

by Linda Melone

Adding flavor to your food may add years to your life. From chilies to cinnamon, black pepper to cumin, your spice rack contains surprising keys to good health. “Herbs and spices contain phytonutrients and other active ingredients that help reduce the risk of disease,”
says Alexander Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN, a New Jersey-based certified clinical nutritionist (www.coactivehealth.com).

Phytonutrients promote health and healing in a number of ways. Most contain powerful antioxidants that control free radicals, molecules that can damage cells, causing illness and aging, says Bharat Aggarwal, PhD, professor at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and author of Healing Spices (Sterling Publishing).

“Phytonutrients may also be anti-inflammatory, which is key,” says Aggarwal. “Chronic disease stems from too much inflammation.” Spices not only reduce inflammation but can help with other issues such as memory loss and even depression, notes Aggarwal. Chronic diseases often require long-term drug usage, which can result in unwanted side effects. Aggarwal points out that spices may be used safely over the long term.

Similarities between people and plants help account for spices’ healthful properties. “Plants face similar enemies to us, including bacteria, fungi and viruses,” says Rinehart. “So they’ve adapted many natural protective mechanisms on their own.” For example, plants grown in harsher conditions produce higher levels of phytonutrients—the same substances that protect not only the plants but also the people who eat them.

Spices were among the first medicines. “Historically, spices have been used as an integral and important part of not only cooking but also in special rituals indicating status, or for relaxation and healing,” says Helen Lee, DC, of Touch of Life Chiropractic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Egyptian records dating back to 1500 BC mention medicinal uses of coriander, cumin, fenugreek and mint.

Olive-oil ointments containing cinnamon and other spices appear in the Bible.

If you’re not a fan of spicy food, remember that not all spices pack intense heat. “It’s a major misconception and makes some people shy away from them,” says Aggarwal. “Aside from chili, very few spices are hot. In fact, most are very mild.”

While the terms “spices” and “herbs” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction. “Herbs are leaves and are not always edible,” says Aggarwal—consider the difference between basil and, let’s say, hawthorn. For example, cilantro (an herb) is the fresh leaves of the plant. Coriander (the spice) is the dried seed of the same plant. However, leaves become spices after they’re dried. The following spices all contain health-fortifying properties backed by research.

Black Pepper

Second only to salt as the most frequently used spice, pepper in generous doses may help lower blood pressure and heart disease risk, enhance brain functioning and improve gastrointestinal health. Piperine, a compound found in all peppercorns, is most abundant in black pepper and is credited with its health benefits.

Kitchen Tips: As a robust spice, black pepper works best with strongly flavored foods such as red meat, seafood and beans. But a light sprinkle also adds flavor to fruits such as apples, pears and strawberries, and a kick to cheeses. Freshly ground pepper offers better flavor than the pre-ground variety, so keep a peppermill on the table.

Cinnamon

Ironically, a spice most often used in sweet confections actually helps control blood sugar, according to studies. People with type 2 diabetes taking one gram of cinnamon a day for three months experienced a drop in blood sugar, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (9-10/09). Cinnamon has been associated with reductions in LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels and in infections caused by Helicobacter pylori, the leading culprit in stomach ulcer formation.

Kitchen Tips: Sprinkle cinnamon onto apples, bananas, melons and oranges for a flavor kick. Add it to rice pilaf and stir it into hot cocoa. Mix cinnamon with mint and parsley in ground beef for burgers and meatloaf.

Chili

Surprisingly, capsaicin—the substance in chili peppers that gives them their bite—does not stimulate but inhibits acid secretion. Instead, “it stimulates alkali secretions and helps in the prevention and healing of ulcers,” says Aggarwal. In addition to easing pain, topical capsaicin cream helps reduce symptoms of psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory skin condition.

Kitchen Tips: Use care in handling chilies and keep them away from your skin and eyes, as capsaicin can burn and even cause blisters in sensitive individuals. Start with a small amount of chili peppers and add them to slow-cooked foods, which allows the heat to blend into the dish.

Coriander

One of the world’s oldest spices, coriander was used to treat digestive ills in ancient Asia; studies have confirmed its gastrointestinal benefits. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often find relief in coriander as do those suffering from constipation—Aggarwal says that it appears to relax muscles in the digestive tract. Coriander may also help people who suffer from anxiety and insomnia.

Kitchen Tips: Add whole or ground coriander seeds to stews, casseroles and marinades. Mix coriander seeds with black peppercorns in your peppermill, sprinkle on sautéed mushrooms and add to steamed rice or couscous.

 

Cumin

A key ingredient in curry and chili powders, cumin is being studied for its ability to reduce cholesterol and blood sugar; in one study, feeding cumin to diabetic rats delayed the progression of cataracts. In addition, “cumin’s volatile oil and rich content of vitamins C and A make it a potent antioxidant—and a potential cancer stopper,” says Aggerwal. Cuminaldehyde is the major active ingredient.

Kitchen Tips: Use cumin as a flavoring in cheese sauces and sprinkle it into cheese omelets. Spice up creamy dips with cumin and add the toasted seeds to lentils and rice pilaf. Or use it as a roasted vegetable glaze by combining 1/4 cup canola oil with 1/4 cup orange juice and 1 tablespoon ground cumin.

Ginger

Ginger contains gingerols, which provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Studies support ginger’s traditional use as a nausea fighter, especially in relieving motion and morning sickness; evidence suggests that it may also help some patients suffering from post-chemotherapy or post-surgery nausea. In addition, ginger helps relieve heartburn by speeding digestion.

Kitchen Tips: Grate fresh ginger and dried mint into melted butter and serve as a dipping sauce with steamed lobster or shrimp, or grate ginger by itself onto cooked noodles or rice. Sprinkle ground ginger and brown sugar on acorn squash or sweet potatoes before baking. Stir ground ginger into applesauce or rub into meat before grilling.

Star Anise

Star anise contains flu-fighting shikimic acid, which along with an antioxidant called anethole gives the spice its sweet, licorice-like flavor. These compounds play a role in counteracting viral, bacterial and fungal infections—and the inflammation that infection leaves behind. Star anise inhibits the growth of Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, and it battles the hepatitis B virus as well as the bacteria that cause cavities.

Kitchen Tips: Add star anise to soups, stews and casseroles or to the poaching liquid for chicken or fish. It makes a great addition to stewed apples or plums. Make a poultry rub by combining two ground star anise seeds with 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds, 10 black peppercorns and 1 teaspoon salt.

Turmeric

Also known as the poor man’s saffron, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that has been shown to improve health throughout the body: Studies show that it can help combat cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin also reduces inflammation—often the basis of many of these diseases—better than over-the-counter remedies.

Kitchen Tips: Turmeric enlivens stir-frys, sautéed poultry, fish and meat. Add a teaspoon or two to meat and vegetable stews, scrambled eggs, salad dressings and dips, homemade chili and dishes using coconut milk.

More Healthy Spices

Cardamom

“Cardamom’s stomach-soothing ability is legendary,” says Bharat Aggarwal, a power explained by this Indian spice’s anti-inflammatory and –spasmotic properties. Aggarwal adds that cardamom’s spasm-easing power has also helped people with asthma reduce their medication dosages. Cineole, a key cardamom component, has been linked to lower blood pressure and prevention of abnormal blood clots in studies.

Kitchen Tips: Add the whole pods to savory stews and soups; to release the flavor, bruise the pods first by whacking them with a rolling pin. Enliven your morning coffee by dropping a crushed pod or two into the pot of your coffeemaker (strain the brew into your mug). Ground cardamom, used sparingly, enhances sweet dishes such as rice pudding, gingerbread and chocolate cake.

Fenugreek

Best known as an ingredient in curry powder, fenugreek has long been used in traditional medicine to increase milk production in nursing mothers among myriad other usages. Today, researchers have focused on fenugreek’s ability to reduce blood sugar as well as cholesterol in people with diabetes.

Kitchen Tips: Fenugreek needs processing to bring out its maple syrup-like flavor. Either toast the raw seeds, which are too tough to chew, for a minute or so before grinding, or soak them overnight to soften them. Add the seeds to vegetable casseroles, or add a pinch of the powder to mayo or cookie dough.

Oregano

Oregano oil is a noted infection fighter for a good reason: Carvacrol and thymol, the main components of this pungent spice, are “powerfully antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal—and anti-parasitic,” says Aggarwal. He adds that oregano has also been found helpful in supporting proper liver function, easing intestinal inflammation and improving circulation.

Kitchen Tips: Used extensively in Italian and Greek cooking, oregano is often paired with the sweeter-tasting basil in tomato sauces. You can also add it to marinades, meat rubs and dressings based on oil and vinegar.

Rosemary

Rosemary is known traditionally as the “herb of memory,” a reputation supported by research. Aggarwal recommends using oregano at cookouts to defend against the carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), free radicals which form when meats are grilled. He says that rosemary’s antioxidant effects may also protect the skin against ultraviolet (UV) radiation—in addition to providing nearly a dozen other health benefits.

Kitchen Tips: Fresh rosemary sprigs can be used in roasting lamb, poultry and fish or to flavor vegetables such as cabbage and eggplant. Finely chopped, it makes a great addition to tomato-based soups as well as breads and biscuits.

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