However, #spices can offer more than just creative #cooking. In fact, spices have a long history, going back to the discovery that salt, as well as the bark of certain plants, could be used as a preservative, which made it a valuable commodity.
Spices also have a long medicinal history. “Many recent studies validate the historic habit of using spices for #health benefits,” says Donna Tainter, a food technologist and author of “Spices and Seasonings, A Food Technology Handbook,” (Wiley-Interscience, N.Y., 2001). Although the amounts we consume in any given meal are tiny, they can add up to big health gains. In addition to the small amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber they contain, their key health benefits lie in their pigments which may help stabilize damage to our cells from oxidation.
However, according to Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, “Their potency rapidly declines when the spices are ground. Freshly-cracked pepper even smells stronger than ground pepper that has been sitting on the shelf for a year or more. One can assume that the phytochemicals in pepper are lost during storage by oxidation as well as evaporation. Plus, there is a limit to how much spice can be palatable, and we do not yet know what would be considered an effective dose.”
Nonetheless, one of the clearest benefits that spices provide is flavor that is lost when we use less butter, oil and other fattening extras, which directly helps with weight control.
Which spices are the healthiest, tastiest and simplest to add to your foods? Here are a few that are particularly noteworthy.
Background: One of the world’s most popular spices, cinnamon comes from a cinnamon tree’s dried brown bark, which is then rolled into a tube or ground. There are more than 100 varieties of this fragrant, somewhat sweet spice. According to Tainter, “Cinnamon not only tastes good, but also, according to recent studies, can help stabilize blood sugar and has strong antimicrobial properties.”
Purported health perks:
- Anti-clotting Action: Helps prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets.
- Anti-microbial Activity: Stops growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the yeast Candida and pathogenic Bacillus cereus.
- Blood Sugar Control: In December 2003, a study appearing in the journal “Diabetes Care” suggested that 1-6 grams of cinnamon a day significantly reduce blood-sugar levels in patients with type-2 diabetes. In addition, the study showed that cinnamon reduced triglyceride, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. A number of studies suggest that as little as half a teaspoon a day can help individuals with non-insulin dependent (type-2) diabetes improve their response to insulin. And another recent study suggests that taking cinnamon may stabilize blood sugar even when eating foods high in sugar.
- Antioxidant Activity: Cinnamon is one of the spices highest in anti-aging antioxidants. One Norwegian study in the “Journal of Nutrition” indicates that it may be among the highest in antioxidants in the spice category.
- Brain-Boosting Function: May improve cognitive processing.
Nutrients: Cinnamon contains manganese, dietary fiber and iron — all typically lacking in our diets. Two teaspoons have about 12 calories.
Uses: Sprinkle cinnamon on cappuccino or regular coffee, on toast with margarine spray, or, for an interesting twist, on chicken or mix into ground meat.
Background: The capsicum family includes red and green chilies and generally adds “heat” to all kinds of foods. Paprika is a ground form of capsicum.
Purported health perks:
- Antioxidant: Capsicum has beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A and is beneficial to the mucous membranes, eyes and skin and wards off infection. It also has antioxidant properties that neutralize the free radicals that cause tissue and cellular damage, and it can promote cardiovascular health by helping reduce blood pressure.
- Anti-inflammatory: Topical creams with capsaicin (the “heat-producing” property of capsicum) may relieve joint pain. It has also been used to treat eczema topically by drawing blood to the skin and is an ingredient in many over-the-counter heat patches.
Nutrients: Great source of vitamin A and beta carotene. Dried red chili peppers have 25 calories in 2 teaspoons; dried cayenne pepper contains 11 calories in 2 teaspoons.
Uses: Typically used in Mexican, South American and Asian cuisines, chilies add flavor to meats, poultry and vegetables.
Background: This yellow spice has been called the poor person’s saffron and is the main ingredient in curry powder. It gives curries their characteristic yellow color and has a slightly bitter, spicy taste.
Purported health perks:
- Turmeric tops the list of all spices when it comes to health benefits. It contains high concentrations of the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory curcumin, which has been said to inhibit tumor growth and help treat rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. In addition, curcumin has been associated with reduced risk of childhood leukemia, improved liver function and even protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
- Antioxidant: High levels of curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, inhibit cancer cell growth. It has been studied more than many other spices and has been shown to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells as well as prevent the activation of genes that cause cancer. “We found that curcumin shuts off the master switch which controls tumorigenesis [tumor growth]. Our studies indicate that curcumin works against skin cancer and against breast cancer metastasis,” says Bharat B. Aggarwal, Ph.D., a professor of cancer medicine at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
- Anti-inflammatory: Apparently the antioxidants contained in turmeric fight the free radicals responsible for joint inflammation and damage.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: Recent research conducted at UCLA indicates that eating foods with low doses of curcumin slashed the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-like plaque in the brains of mice by 50 percent.
Nutrients: Turmeric contains calcium, magnesium, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, iron, potassium and manganese. Two teaspoons have 16 calories.
Uses: Curry powder can be used to enhance the flavor of chicken, rice, meat and lentils, among other foods.
Background: This popular spice, one of the first traded in Western Europe, was originally grown in Southeast Asia and is now cultivated throughout Asia, South America, Africa and Australia.
Purported Health Perks:
- Gastrointestinal Relief: Certain properties in ginger seem to ease motion sickness as effectively as over-the-counter remedies. It has been shown to inhibit vomiting and gastric ulceration, and its nausea-fighting properties can also be helpful for people who are suffering the side effects of chemotherapy.
- Anti-inflammatory: Inflammation is believed to be a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and arthritis. Gingerols, compounds found in ginger, are said to thin the blood and help reduce pain like aspirin does. Research at the University of Miami has demonstrated that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who took ginger had less pain than those who didn’t.
- Antioxidant: According to a report in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” ginger has been identified in several studies as one of the plants with the highest antioxidant content.
Nutrients: Ginger is a good source of potassium. One ounce of ginger root has about 20 calories.
Uses: Minced fresh ginger is great with all kinds of meat as well as poultry, vegetables, sushi and, of course, many desserts. It’s also used in tea.
Background: This strongly aromatic, nutty and peppery spice has been cultivated in western Asia since biblical times and is now grown mainly in India, Iran, Indonesia, China and the South Mediterranean. It is among the most commonly used spices in India and is also popular in Asia, Latin America and North Africa.
Purported health perks:
- Cumin aids digestion and also has strong antioxidant effects. It contains limonene, a chemical also found in the essential oils of citrus fruits, which is now being examined for its role in preventing cancers. It may also help reduce cholesterol.
Nutrients: Cumin is a source of thiamin, phosphorous, potassium, copper, calcium, magnesium, manganese and fiber, and a very good source of iron, which is instrumental in keeping your immune system healthy. One teaspoon of ground cumin has about 8 calories.
Uses: In addition to many Asian and Middle Eastern dishes, cumin is also used as a flavoring in chili. Add it to veggies, sauces, meats and poultry. It can also be mixed with a bit of ketchup to make a tasty sauce.