While certain plants have always had medicinal benefits, most cooks use only tiny quantities of the leaves, roots, bark and seeds of plants to season and flavor foods. Could these minute amounts really offer much benefit to health?
In a word, yes. Spices and herbs are concentrated sources of disease-fighting chemicals called polyphenols, the same compounds that make berries, broccoli and dark chocolate potential weapons against illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
“There is more and more documentation that several compounds in spices have anti-cancer properties,” John Milner, director of the Human Nutrition Research Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the American Institute of Cancer Research. Speculation is that spices may work to reduce cancer risk many different ways, either by “changing carcinogen metabolism to modifying the microbiome to cell signaling — all changes that would inhibit the growth of a tumor,” Milner said.
Much of the research on spices is still in the early stages, but these six flavoring agents top the list of health promoters:
Oatmeal, snickerdoodles, apple pie — there are just certain foods that beg for a sprinkle of ground cinnamon. It started out as a flavor thing, but researchers continue to uncover a multitude of potential health benefits. Perhaps the most promising finding is the positive impact cinnamon can have on blood sugar, which is, obviously, important for diabetics in particular.
One group of researchers finds that turmeric works about as effectively at treating osteoarthritis pain as ibuprofen.
“A recent meta-analysis reported that whole cinnamon or extract lowers fasting blood glucose by about 10 mg/dL,” Evan Sisson, an associate professor in the department of pharmacotherapy and outcomes science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond told Today’s Dietitian. But that’s not enough, he said, to replace medications for lowering blood sugar. Stir ground cinnamon into yogurt. Add it to oatmeal. Or try these cinnamon recipes from Eating Well magazine.
Studies confirm that adding dried chiles like cayenne (or even fresh chiles) to a recipe offers more than a punch of heat. It delivers a whole slew of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds that might help fight cancer, lessen pain and curb weight gain.
And a 2015 study heralds a new fiftysomething medicinal role for chiles: Longevity booster. When scientists followed a group of adults (ages 30 to 79) for over seven years, they noticed that volunteers who dined on spicy foods on a daily basis had a 14 percent chance of living longer than people who ate spicy foods less than once a week.
“The findings are highly novel,” said Lu Qi, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Channing Division of Network Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the study’s co-lead author. “To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first reporting a link between spicy food intake and mortality.”
More research is needed, cautions Qi, but if you like hot foods, don’t be afraid to kick up the heat more often. From red chile chicken enchiladas to an ancho pork stew, Food & Wine magazine has at least 26 good ways to deliciously stoke the temperature of your plate.
Researchers at UCLA found that adding a mixture of herbs and spices (including dried rosemary and oregano) to hamburger meat before cooking can prevent some of the carcinogenic compounds created during grilling from forming, including the damaging malondialdehyde that arises when beef oxidizes. Pinpointing the protective compounds, scientists centered on rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant found in both rosemary and oregano leaves.
Don’t like the idea of an herb-seasoned burger? One Kansas State University (KSU) researcher offers this option: Try rubbing rosemary extract onto your burgers before cooking. That way the temperatures can be still be kept high, but rosemary’s phenolic compounds — rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid — can break up the potentially cancer-causing compounds (heterocyclic amines or HCAs) that can form when the meat is cooked at high temperatures.
“Put a little bit on the surface,” says J. Scott Smith, a KSU food science professor. The extract won’t have much of an aroma, but Smith’s study shows it can reduce HCA levels 30 to 100 percent.
One of the main ingredients in curry powder, this bright orange spice is often hailed as a potential weapon against Alzheimer’s, colorectal cancer, diabetes and a host of other ills. Researchers single out a compound called curcumin as the promising ingredient in turmeric.
Unfortunately, the evidence linking curcumin to health benefits is a skimpy at present — except when it comes to treating osteoarthritis. Research shows turmeric extracts, alone or in combination with other herbs, do offer some pain relief to people with osteoarthritis. In fact, one group of researchers finds that turmeric works about as effectively at treating osteoarthritis pain as ibuprofen.
According to the Arthritis Foundation: “Several recent studies show that turmeric/curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties and modifies immune system responses.”
Here are some good recipes with turmeric from Vegetarian Times.
One bit of caution: If you’re thinking of taking curcumin supplements rather than cooking with turmeric, keep this is mind. Experts say supplements aren’t a good idea prior to surgery if you suffer with gallbladder disease or if you take a blood thinner like Coumadin. That’s because high doses of the spice can act as a blood thinner.
Trying to lose a few unwanted pounds? Make this ground spice, commonly used in Mexican cooking and native to the eastern Mediterranean and India, your go-to seasoning for a couple of months. Stir in into yogurt. Mix into soups. Use it as a spice rub for lean meats and fish.
Just make sure to take in about one teaspoon a day. That’s the amount researchers at Shahid Sadoughi University of Medical Sciences in Iran fed to a group of overweight/obese women for three months. Half of the women (44 volunteers) were given yogurt with cumin at two meals each day, while a control group ate just plain yogurt. At the end of the study, the cumin group lost more weight, about three pounds more on average, although they ate exactly the same amount of food. But the biggest news: The group eating cumin in their yogurt lost three times as much body fat as the plain yogurt eaters. In addition, the cumin group exhibited significantly lower fasting cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides.
And stay tuned. Early reports are that thymoquinone (TQ), the most abundant component of black cumin seed oil, also shows antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Sometimes it’s not one spice that is beneficial, but a combination of spices. A report from the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests that black pepper might work even more powerfully when combined with other antioxidant or phenol-rich compounds.
In fact, pepper’s role might be to help the body to absorb more of these beneficial compounds. For example, researchers find that when piperine from black pepper is combined with curcumin, that second spice is more available to the body. Ditto for combining piperine with a disease-fighting polyphenol compound in green tea called epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG.
“What we found was that when we gave mice EGCG together with piperine, we could increase the amount of the compound [EGCG] that got into the blood and into some of the tissues compared to just giving them EGCG alone,” Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science at Penn State University and the lead researcher on the animal study, said in the report.
How much pepper are we talking about? In this study, about 1/8 of a teaspoon.
The Bottom Line on Spices and Your Health
The bottom line overall: Researchers are beginning to confirm that small amounts of spices can have a powerful impact on health.
“The question is always how and how much is needed to do that. We need more research on individual spices and their biological consequences,” said Milner of the Department of Agriculture. “This is a really exciting area that we need to know more about.”