Bold and Beautiful Spices for Health

Sharon Palmer

Bold and beautiful spices, one of today’s hottest culinary trends, may offer more than just good taste. Scientists are now fascinated with the health potential of a variety of culinary herbs and spices. A culinary herb is the leaf of a plant used in cooking; any other part of the plant, such as the buds, bark, roots, berries, seeds, and the flower stigma, is called a spice. Once treasured by early civilizations as natural preservatives and plant medicines, these flavorful seasonings continue to have many beneficial properties.

Traditional spices of Thailand

Hot Antioxidants for Health

You probably already know that fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, but did you know that herbs and spices are very concentrated sources of these health-protective plant compounds? Antioxidants attract free radicals and destroy them before they can do damage to body cells; studies link diets high in plant antioxidants (found in foods, not supplements) with longevity and heart health. Science demonstrates that within your daily diet, these zesty flavorings can significantly contribute to your total intake of health-protective antioxidants for the day. In a 2017 review of studies published in the journal Antioxidants, researchers reported that the antioxidant activities of culinary herbs and spices are ten times higher than that of fruits and vegetables and they “top the list” of 100 foods with the highest antioxidant content. For example, about one-half teaspoon of cloves has a higher level of antioxidants than one-half cup of blueberries.

Boost every meal’s antioxidant punch by adding herbs and spices. Check out the spices in my Delicata Squash Soup with Chinese 5 Spice recipe.

Anti-inflammation Action

Herbs and spices are not just about antioxidants; they contain other health properties. Scientists believe that antioxidants in spices can be beneficial, but the health benefits go beyond mere antioxidants. Hundreds of plant foods have high antioxidant activity, yet they don’t have the health properties that spices display. Spices occupy a very special niche because they are anti-inflammatory. Most chronic diseases have been found to be a result of too much inflammation, including cancer, heart attacks, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. While many anti-inflammatory drugs have side effects, spices and herbs have been consumed in the human diet for thousands of years with no side effects.

Mixing it Up

In many cultures, spices are enjoyed in a mélange—take a delicious curry dish, for example, which may include up to 29 spices, including turmeric, garlic, ginger, pepper, and coriander—all in one fragrant pot. Scientists have observed that the benefits gained from these spice and herb combinations may be greater than the sum of their individual effects—a phenomenon called synergy. For example, according to researchers in a 2017 study published in the journal Foods, combining curcumin from turmeric with piperine from black pepper was associated with an increase of 2000% in the bioavailability of curcumin. Curcumin has been shown to work best synergistically against chronic disease through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Spices can also increase the antioxidant capacity of other fruits and vegetables. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that salad dressings containing herbs and spices can increase the antioxidant capacity of the entire salad.

Enjoy the antioxidant—and tasty!—benefits of curcumin in my Turmeric Rice and Black Bean Bowl.

Spicing it Up

What are you waiting for? Break open your spice cabinet and start spicing up your diet for health. The name of the game is variety. Enjoy spices as part of your diet. They add a different dimension to food. Don’t be afraid of them! Be more willing to experiment with them. The beauty of all of these spices is that there are no side effects. How many drugs have no side effects? Best of all: Herbs and spices taste a lot better than medicine.

Tips to Spice up Your Diet 

Spike your diet with scintillating flavor and health benefits with my tips.

  • Grow herbs in a pot in your kitchen window or door step.
  • Snip fresh herbs into your eggs, sandwiches, salads, pastas, soups, side dishes, casseroles, meats and marinades.
  • Don’t be afraid to use a heavy hand when tossing fresh herbs into a dish; it’s hard to overpower food with their flavor.
  • While fresh herbs tend to have higher antioxidant levels than dried herbs (for example, fresh garlic is one and a half times more powerful than dried garlic powder), don’t let it stop you from turning to dried herbs when fresh are not available.
  • Experiment with a variety of dried spices like turmeric and pepper in stir-fries, soups, stews and casseroles.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cloves and nutmeg in hot cereal, breads, baked goods, fruit desserts, puddings and yogurt.
There’s nothing more comforting, aromatic, and health-enhancing than baking with spice, like in this Corn Muffins with Apples and Walnuts recipe.

Get a Kick out of Life with My Favorite Spices

While I suggest that you stock your spice cabinet with an alphabet of herbs and spices, from allspice to za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix), here are a few superstars that should earn a special place in your kitchen.

Turmeric Mango Carrot Smoothie

1. Turmeric. Responsible for the yellow-gold hue of curry powder, this spice might as well be referred to as “superspice.” The leader in the pack when it comes to nutrition science, turmeric compounds (curcumin) have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that have showed protection against cancer, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease in studies.

2. Clove. Famous for its sweet, nutty aroma, this spice is more than meets the nose. Clove contains eugenol, an active compound that studies have linked with the prevention of toxicity from environmental pollutants, certain forms of cancer, and joint inflammation. In addition, clove has antibacterial and mild pain relief effects.

Pistachio Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal

3. Cinnamon. As American as apple pie, cinnamon has more to offer than its characteristic aroma and flavor. It’s been shown to have antioxidant and antimicrobial effects, as well as a potential role in lowering blood glucose in diabetics.

Sage Lentils with Squash and Mushrooms

4. Sage. Three plant compounds—flavonoids, phenolic acids and enzymes—come together in unison in the sage plant to create strong antioxidant effects that help prevent damage to body cells. It’s sage advice to enjoy this herb, as it’s even been linked to memory enhancement.

5. Pepper. You can’t beat the heat of capsaicin, the powerful phytonutrient that gives ground pepper (red, black or white) it’s heat and health benefits. Capsaicins appear to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer affects, according to research.

6. Oregano. Perfectly suited to your favorite Italian foods, oregano also offers potent antioxidant activity, as well as antimicrobial action against common pathogens responsible for food poisoning.

7. Peppermint. Peppermint is so much more than a fresh, aromatic herb; powerful phenols are hidden in its leaves and volatile compounds in its essential oil. Studies say these work together to enable the relaxation of gastrointestinal tissue, pain relief, and anticancer effects.

8. Rosemary. Prized throughout history for its medicinal value, rosemary is rich in polyphenols, plant compounds that act as strong antioxidants. Even the aroma of rosemary may have benefits—it’s been linked to pain relief and mood improvement.

Tahini Ginger Dressing

9. Ginger. With a celebrated history in traditional medicine, ginger is a plant food that contains several hundred potentially active compounds such as gingerols, beta-carotene, capsaicin, caffeic acid, curcumin and salicylate. Experiments have found ginger has cancer-protective activity, as well as benefits in reducing nausea and vomiting related to motion sickness and chemotherapy.

10. Garlic. Forget about guarding against vampires; there’s evidence that garlic may help protect you against a real monster—heart disease. It’s been shown in some studies to lower cholesterol levels, provide anti-clotting activity and reduce blood pressure.

Try some of my favorite recipes filled with potent herbs and spices:

Ginger Pear Date Oats
Roasted Rosemary Potatoes and Tomatoes
Rustic Avocado Garlic Toast

Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN in August 2010; Updated on January 14, 2020.

Main image: Moroccan spice market, Sharon Palmer, RDN

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