Today the pendulum is swinging back, and researchers are confirming what herbalists have known all along -- the spice rack can be as potent as a medicine chest. Spices are rich sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, both of which help our cells repair damage while easing symptoms of many common conditions. "They're powerhouses of pleasure and health," observes Victoria Zak, author of The Magic Teaspoon (Penguin Group, 2006).
There's another advantage as well. Flavoring food with more spices and less butter, oil, cream and salt can help improve health and make weight management easier.
Science has not yet investigated all of the dozens of spices on store shelves. But here is the latest research on eight of the most familiar.
Cayenne: The pepper spice that puts the zing in chili and other dishes, cayenne's claim to fame comes from its compound capsaicin, a popular ingredient in pain-relieving creams. But wait, there's more: One study found that a diet rich in cayenne-spiced chili protected against the formation of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, while another demonstrated that chili helped keep insulin levels low after meals. "
Cinnamon: One of the most versatile spices, cinnamon can be used to flavor everything from cookies to soups. And that's a wise choice because cinnamon has plenty to offer. Not only does it ease common tummy troubles like gas and bloating, but in a recent clinical trial, cinnamon significantly lowered fasting blood glucose, triglycerides and cholesterol levels in diabetics. Worried about E. coli? New research shows that cinnamon can wipe out the bacteria. When a teaspoon of cinnamon was added to highly contaminated apple juice, the E. coli was reduced by 99.5 percent after three days.
Coriander: For hundreds of years, coriander has been a favorite remedy for anxiety and insomnia. Now research has confirmed its tension-taming properties. Like cinnamon, coriander aids digestion. And it has shown promise in reducing blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Zak recommends a simple method for getting a daily dose of coriander -- adding it to honey. "Stir a teaspoon of coriander into one-half cup of honey for an uplifting afternoon treat, " she explains. Or mix it with hot water, tea or hot cereal.
Ginger: A common ingredient in ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines, ginger boasts an antioxidant power equal to vitamin C. Among the spice's reported health benefits; easing arthritis pains, improving digestion, and treating colds, coughs and flu. Plus, research has shown that ginger is more effective at combating motion sickness than Dramamine.
Oregano: Reducing inflammation and battling bacteria and viruses are good reasons to include oregano in favorite foods. And now scientists may have discovered why the spice is so effective. In a study examining the antioxidant activity of nearly 40 different herbs and spices, oregano won the highest scores, beating out apples, oranges and blueberries.
Rosemary: A staple in Mediterranean cuisine, rosemary fights the formation of blood clots and reduces inflammation, making it a powerful ally against heart disease. Even the fragrance of this powerful antioxidant has healing properties. Aromatherapy research has shown that inhaling essential oils of several spices, including rosemary, eased depression and pain in arthritis patients. A 2004 study found that rosemary's phytochemicals may even be useful in treating Alzheimer's disease.
Saffron: Harvested from crocus blossoms, saffron is one of the world's most cherished spices. It's also a potent antioxidant, packing more punch than vitamin E. On the health front, saffron has been shown to protect against cancer and to treat depression as well as Prozac. "This spice is a great rejuvenator and circulatory tonic," Zak says. "If your spirits need lifting, saffron is for you."
Turmeric: A common ingredient in curries, turmeric is a powerful antioxidant that protects against cancer, lowers cholesterol and eases arthritis aches and pains by reducing inflammation. It has also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity by 300 percent.
More good news: Researchers at UCLA found that curcumin, a compound in turmeric, was more effective at preventing the development of brain-damaging plaques seen in Alzheimer's disease than any drug being tested. It is probably no coincidence that
Take a look at your store's spice shelves, and you'll see that we've only scratched the surface of what's available. Even though research has a long way to go when it comes to unlocking the health secrets of spices, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy their abundant flavor and satisfying aromas in the meantime.
Perfect Spiced Cider
Makes 20 servings
The proportions in this recipe need not be absolute. Remove and discard the apples when they get soft and brown.
- 1 gallon apple cider
- Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
- 4 medium apples
- 2 teaspoons whole cloves
- 1 lemon, sliced
1. Combine cider and cinnamon sticks in Dutch oven or large pot over low heat.
2. Insert cloves in apples. Add to cider.
3. Increase heat, and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
4. Add lemon slices, and serve warm.
For a large party, make three separate batches. Start the first a half-hour before the party. When that batch begins to get low, put on the second pot. Have the third assembled in the refrigerator and ready to go, if needed. Keep the apples (cloves inserted) and lemon slices separate until the last batch goes on the stove.
Per serving: 96 calories; 0 grams protein; 0 grams total fat (no saturated fat); 24 grams carbohydrates; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 20 milligrams sodium; 0 grams fiber; 20.8 grams sugars.
Reprinted from the Vegetarian Times.
How to Buy and Store Spices
Faced with the option of buying spices in glass or plastic containers, choose glass, Zak says. And unless you're cooking industrial quantities of food, go with the smallest size. "Spices should not be kept more than six months as a general rule." she says, explaining that sitting on the shelf longer can rob a spice of flavor. "Spices that are not fresh will show it. They lose their color and appear blanched or have no aroma. Fresh spices are fragrant."
Source: Better Nutrition.