The World’s Healthiest Spices

(And why you should use them)

Since prehistoric times, humans have used plants to help alleviate pains and treat illnesses.  In Iraq, unearthed fossil records dating back 60,000 years showed the use of yarrow.  (Yarrow is a plant similar to thyme and chamomile and acts as an astringent that causes tissues to contract. This contraction helps reduce bleeding, ideal to treat wounds and cuts.)  Long before modern medicine, the ancient Greeks used spices derived from plants like saffron, cinnamon, thyme, and coriander as treatments for fevers, aches, pains, and other ailments.  Throughout history, wars fought and empires built allowed for the availability of the spices we commonly use in our kitchens today.

What Does Science Say?

Nutrition researchers say that there are more than 100 spices used in cooking around the world, and some of these are not only flavorful but good for you.  There is little scientific evidence that spices can directly cure serious diseases.  However, research does show that some of their properties may help lessen symptoms.

Traditional medicine based on 5,000 years of medical practice believes otherwise.  Through thousands of years of practice, techniques developed use specific natural plants, process them, prepare them, and administer correct dosages to cure certain illnesses or ailments. Practitioners of TM argue that natural products have evolved over millions of years and have a unique chemical diversity that results in drug-like properties. 

Scientists, especially in physical chemistry, have realized the potential as well.  In TM, a single plant carries chemical properties that create an isolated result.  In science, the individual chemicals create a desired pharmacological effect when combined.  The scientific approach isolates certain chemical bioactive elements (phytochemicals), then synthesizes these compounds. The result – today’s modern medicine.  With the technology available to us, the simple spice you use to flavor your food could also play a role in curing diseases.

The Healthiest Spices

There is some argument amongst nutritionists and health experts regarding which spice is the healthiest to use.  Most of them are high in antioxidants, and some have unique benefits.  Experts suggest that frying and grilling spices decrease their health benefits. It is better to simmer or stew foods with spices to heighten their benefits.  In addition, supplements are not the same as natural products.  In most cases, supplements that contain these spices may also include a host of other ingredients that may not be good for you. It is also important to note that you should not consume too much of each spice as it may be more detrimental to your health than helpful.  Check with a nutritionist or doctor before consuming them as a daily supplement.

Image Courtesy Nirmal Sarkar

Turmeric

Turmeric is also referred to as curcumin and is one of the spices that scientists have isolated to help treat hypolipidemia (abnormally low levels of lipids in the blood).  It is also a popular spice used in food manufacturing.  Products such as cheese, mustard, and soups use it as a food coloring additive.  As a spice, it has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties.  Research has also suggested it may reduce inflammation in the brain, a determinant linked to Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Because of the anti-inflammatory qualities, it also helps reduce the pain and swelling associated with arthritis.  This super spice improves oxidative stress (an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body).  Antioxidants stabilize free radicals.  When stable, these atoms do not cause harmful reactions with other molecules in your body.   Because of this balancing effect, it is considered helpful against cancer.  In addition, it helps enhance the appearance of the skin and slow down the aging process.

Turmeric does have some limitations.  It has blood-thinning properties (people using blood thinners should not use it).  People with active liver disease or gallstones should also avoid it. It can stimulate bile secretions and contractions. 

For optimal absorption in your body, it is best to eat turmeric with heart-healthy oils, nuts, or avocado.  Doctors recommend daily consumption of no more than a maximum of 500 to 1,000 milligrams (1/2 to 1 teaspoon). Turmeric is a great spice to use in soups and rice dishes.  Its taste is a bit peppery and almost curry-like.  It adds a deep, earthy flavor that is best when balanced with other sweeter spices. 

Image Courtesy Katja Heigl

Ginger

Ginger is one of the oldest known spices used for medicinal purposes.  For thousands of years, ginger has combat against nausea and gastrointestinal issues and continues to be utilized even in today’s modern medical world.  It has a very high level of antioxidants (only pomegranates and certain berries contain more) and also contains anti-inflammatory properties.

Ginger can be found in teas and, more recently, as a primary ingredient in radiance and anti-cellulite cosmetic products.  Ginger blocks the effects of serotonin, a chemical that is produced by the brain and stomach when nauseated.  In cosmetics, its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help generate circulation in the skin.  Orally, studies have demonstrated that gingerol (a compound found in ginger) possesses antiviral and antifungal agents that help reduce the risk of candidiasis. 

Science has also looked into the benefits of ginger and its compounds.  Some studies show that it may have anticancer effects.  It slows down the reproduction of cancerous cells and stops them from dividing.  More importantly, it halts specific activator proteins that contribute to cancer in the first place.  One of its compounds, Ginkogolide B, is used for treating cerebral infarctions (disrupted blood flow to the brain that causes parts to die off).

Doctors and nutritionists recommend no more than 3 to 4 grams (0.7 to 0.9 teaspoons) of ginger per day.  High doses may cause heartburn and gastrointestinal irritation.  People with heart conditions, diabetes, and gallstones should also talk with a doctor before consuming.  Ginger has anti-coagulation properties that may affect blood thinners.

The healthiest way to eat ginger is raw but used as a spice, it is just as healthy.  Add it to your coffee or tea.  Mix it with maple syrup for a sweet and zesty flavor. Similar to turmeric, it has a slightly peppery and sweet taste.  Whatever way you decide to use it, ginger is a spice that should be a staple in your pantry.

Cumin

Cumin is an interesting spice. It has high antioxidant properties and is beneficial for weight loss, cholesterol, and stress management.  On the downside, the oil in cumin seeds is highly volatile and can eventually lead to liver and/or kidney damage.  Of course, this is only with the consumption of an excessive amount. Unless you plan to overindulge, you don’t have to worry about including this spice in your pantry.

Cumin’s nutrients include amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.  It is an excellent source of iron and contains a compound unique only to this plant, thymoquinone. This phytochemical is full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects and has successfully treated rheumatoid arthritis.  Its antibacterial and anti-aging properties help keep skin smooth and clear of blemishes.  Research has also shown that it can help reduce blood sugar levels.

As mentioned before, moderation is required.  As a medicine, maximum consumption is for up to six months. In oil form, no more than 25 to 75 mg, and in powder form, 1.5 to 3 grams (0.3 to 0.6 teaspoons) daily.

Cumin works exceptionally well when cooking rice dishes, chili, or couscous.  Souzoukakia, a Greek meatball dish, is also an exceptional choice. The flavor of ground cumin is more concentrated than whole cumin seeds (use a smaller amount of ground than you would seeds). Cumin seeds only release their aroma when added to a fat, but the powder mixes easily into any dish.  Like turmeric and ginger, it has a warm, earthy flavor with a bit of both sweetness and bitterness.

Image Courtesy Ulrike Leone

Oregano

Greeks have been using oregano for centuries in herbal medicine to treat many ailments such as skin sores and aching muscles.  This super herb is full of antioxidants that help strengthen the immune system against infections.  It can reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar, improve insulin resistance, and alleviate urinary tract symptoms and menstrual cramps. 

Oregano is an excellent source of fiber, vitamin K, manganese, iron, vitamin E, and calcium.  Fresh, it is a great antibacterial agent.  Its natural phytonutrients (thymol and carvacrol) fight infections such as staph.  Some studies have suggested that the compounds found in oregano may help to relieve coughs and muscle spasms.  These compounds have multiple uses in medicines.  Wound healing after minor surgery, parasitic infections of the gut, skin conditions such as acne and warts, and fungal infections such as athlete’s foot are just some of the applications.  Oregano also helps treat arthritis and breathing issues related to asthma and bronchitis. 

Although there is not enough scientific evidence to measure its effectiveness, oregano can also treat certain heart conditions, varicose veins, diabetes, depression, and high blood cholesterol levels. 

Just one teaspoon of this super spice fulfills about 8% of your daily vitamin K needs.  Like any other spice, consuming too much may have side effects.  One of its phenols, thymol, can affect the skin or internal organs in large doses.  Whether you use it fresh or dry, oregano is a flavorful spice whose benefits far outweigh its risks. 

Oregano will brighten up any food.  Slightly earthier than basil, it also makes a great pesto.  Otherwise, Greek it up and make a traditional Horiatiki salad.    

Image Courtesy Theo Crazzolara

Cinnamon

Ancient civilizations have been using cinnamon since 2,800 BCE for treating ailments.  Even before science identified its potential, people realized its worth.  It is one of the first traded spices in the ancient world and one of the oldest known to man.

Cinnamon contains the phytochemical “cinnamaldehyde”. It helps fight viruses, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, and protects against neurodegenerative diseases. It is an antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and anticarcinogenic spice. The myriad of health benefits has brought it to the forefront of scientific research.

In one such study, researchers have studied its cognitive enhancement effects (specifically CEppt, an extract found in cinnamon bark) relating to Alzheimer’s disease.  More recently, trials have explored its beneficial effects against Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other ailments1.

Cinnamon does contain coumarin, a compound with anticoagulant properties (people on blood thinners should not consume it).  Whether used as a stick or as a powder, cinnamon is a spice that you can safely add to your menu in multiple ways. Up to one teaspoon of cinnamon is safe for most individuals to consume each day.  Use it in spreads, desserts, or main dishes.  Its sweet and woody flavor balances with citrus and spice notes.  A spice often used in fragrance manufacturing cinnamon will add flavor to any dish.    

Image Courtesy Tatiana Melnik

Peppers Including Chili Powder, Paprika, and Cayenne

If you are not a fan of heat, you will miss out on this spice’s benefits. Research suggests that capsaicin, the phytochemical that makes peppers spicy, plays an integral role in regulating heart and metabolic health. Research conducted by the American Heart Association found that those who regularly consume peppers may reduce their risk for developing heart disease by 26%.

Even more interesting is that consumption of these spices triggers beneficial protein changes in our body conducive to weight loss. Scientists do not fully understand how it works, but studies have shown that adipose tissue (fat) levels reduce, appetite suppresses, and fat metabolism improves.  Capsaicin has also been shown to have analgesic effects and is used therapeutically for pain management (some over-the-counter pain treatments include this compound). 

Chili powder helps control your body’s insulin and decreases acne pigmentation.  It has anti-inflammatory properties that help with arthritis or muscle/joint pains and calm skin redness.   It is also a good source of vitamin A, iron, and dietary fibers.  Paprika is rich in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, which helps build strong bones, teeth, and muscles. Studies have shown that paprika also helps fight the damaging effects of the sun.  A good source of essential vitamins, including vitamins A, E, K, and B-6, paprika’s antioxidant properties can help reduce risks associated with cancer. Cayenne, like paprika, enhances the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. Studies have demonstrated significant reductions of cancer cells in the lungs, pancreas, and prostate of mice from the consumption of cayenne. 

However, don’t start adding these spices to your dishes every day.  The laxative effect of capsaicin can lead to gut issues and, in extremely high concentrations, can become a deadly neurotoxin. Young children should not consume these pepper spices as they can cause skin and mucus membranes to swell and potentially cause an anaphylactic reaction.  Generally speaking, adults should consume less than 15 grams (4 teaspoons) in a day and for a maximum of four days a week.  People on medications for hypertension, diabetes, or blood-thinning should consult their doctor before consumption.

Spices made from peppers only differ in their heat level.  Cayenne is usually hotter than both paprika and chili powder.  All have earthy and spicy notes that work well in many dishes.  The only question that remains is how hot do you want your dish to be?

Image Courtesy Abuyotam

Cloves

Native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, clove seeds contain at least 15% of the volatile oil eugenol, a phytochemical responsible for its effective antiseptic and anesthetic properties.  This oil is used in dental plasters and fillings, as well as for topical anesthesia.  Cloves help promote healing, prevent aging, help treat cardiovascular disease, arthritis, infections, digestive problems, skin cancer, and thyroid disfunction2.  Cloves are also effective in inhibiting the growth of foodborne pathogens, certain bacteria, and fungi.  As a result, its compounds are incorporated in many manufactured foods to extend shelf life and prevent bacterial growth.

A mere half-teaspoon of clove contains as many antioxidants as a half-cup of blueberries.   (Antioxidants are compounds that reduce oxidative stress that leads to many chronic diseases.)  Animal studies have found that the compounds in cloves can support liver health and help stabilize blood sugars.  Cloves contain fiber, vitamin K, and manganese, essential nutrients for maintaining brain function and building strong bones.  The eugenol found in cloves also is believed to have anti-cancer properties. 

As with many other spices, moderation is essential.  Eugenol in high amounts can be toxic, especially in children. The World Health Organization suggests an acceptable daily intake amount of clove oil should not exceed 2.5mg per kilogram of your body weight.   Other nutritionists recommend no more than one to two cloves per day.  They also recommend using whole cloves (and grind them as needed) to maintain their health benefits.

Image Courtesy Ulrik Mai

Garlic

Garlic has over 100 distinct phytochemicals identified by scientists and researchers.  The most significant of these, allicin, gives garlic its pungent smell and exceptional health benefits.  Allicin is an active component that contains a high concentration of sulfur-containing amino acids that protect your body from a host of diseases.  Not only does it keep your heart healthy and prevent changes that lead to heart disease, but it also reduces blood pressure, improves lipid profiles, and boosts the body’s immune function.  Researchers have linked garlic intake with keeping blood vessels flexible, especially in women.  As you age, your arteries harden and narrow.  This hardening can make you susceptible to heart attacks and stroke.  Eating garlic not only helps prevent this hardening but reduces cholesterol and triglycerides that build up on the inside of the artery walls.  Garlic is an integral ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that doctors often recommend.

The biggest downside to consuming garlic is bad breath and possibly body odor.  Too much garlic can also cause an increased risk of bleeding as garlic has antithrombotic properties that prevent blood clots from forming.  People that take blood thinners or are having surgery should avoid the consumption of garlic.  Nutritionists recommend no more than one to two garlic cloves per day. 

The more finely chopped the garlic is, the hotter and more pungent the flavor.  Crushing it with a bit of salt in a mortar and pestle will produce the strongest flavor of all while roasting it brings out its sweet side.  Unlike other spices, garlic is not a hard seed.  Using garlic powder will have fewer nutrients than fresh garlic, so it is always best to use the real thing.  Garlic can be used in many dishes or roasted as a spread for bread.

Other Notable Mentions

Two other spices to keep handy in your kitchen include peppermint and parsley. Both have unique properties that make them worth a notable mention:

Image Courtesy Conger Design

Peppermint

Research shows that peppermint is effective in improving cardiovascular and pulmonary health. It acts as a bronchodilator by widening the air passages in the lungs. By supplying more air to the lungs, both the heart and the lungs benefit. Peppermint is also an effective muscle relaxer. Over-the-counter ointments and creams that target muscle pain use its cooling menthol compound.

Parsley

Parsley is another spice used in the Mediterranean diet. Full of antioxidants, carotenoids, and beneficial vitamins such as vitamin K, parsley is ideal for treating high blood pressure and allergies. The leaf, seed, and root make medicines that treat bladder infections, kidney stones, gastrointestinal disorders, constipation, and some skin conditions. Although often used as a garnish for foods, incorporating it into your meals has numerous valuable health benefits.

Which Spice Will You Use First?

If you have not used some of these spices before, now is the time to try them. Mix cloves into your hot drink or make your favorite dessert. Make a Greek Horiatiki salad with oregano. Make some extra spicy chili with a myriad of peppers. Whatever you use, adding a little spice into your life will make you a much healthier foodie in the end.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4466762/

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6392875/

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