This piece was co-authored with nutritionist Jonny Bowden.
To say that our global food supply has undergone major degradations in the past few centuries is an understatement. Our great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize many of the foods we find today in a typical supermarket, including some items in the produce aisle.
But one constant in the way we eat hasn’t changed much ever since early foodies figured out that a hunk of meat tastes way better if you season it before you throw it on the fire. And that’s the use of spices.
Herbs and spices don’t just punch up the flavor; they also boost health and fight accelerated aging. In addition to making your food scrumptious, most spices are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories — an overlooked and underappreciated weapon in the war against chronic diseases.
Many legendary benefits are linked to certain herbs and spices. Some of them may be tall tales — like vampire-repelling garlic — but there is no doubt that even in this era of Big Food, the integrity of pure herbs and spices remains fairly unchanged. These plant foods hold tremendous value as an untapped source of disease prevention and overall well-being.
In our new book, Smart Fat, we share some of our favorite flavors, which we encourage you to use liberally to enliven your meals:
The Benefits of Garlic
Garlic is one of the greatest medicinal foods of all time and is definitely at the top of our list. It has a remarkable ability to lower blood pressure, prevent blood clots, and improve the blood cholesterol profile.
Allicin is the compound that gives this immune-boosting food — which has even been shown to combat symptoms of the common cold — its medicinal properties. Allicin is also responsible for garlic’s fragrant aroma (the one that vampires apparently don’t like). To get the most allicin from garlic, make sure you crush, press, or chop the cloves to fully release and activate this substance. Allicin is formed only when the garlic is smashed or crushed and the enzyme allinin mixes with oxygen; so in case you were so inclined, swallowing a clove of garlic whole wouldn’t do you much good.
When cooking, avoid overheating garlic because you not only wind up with a bitter flavor, but you also destroy its medicinal properties. Whether you like Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, or other flavors, work a clove or two of garlic into foods such as stir-fried dishes, salad dressings, soups, and more — and do it as often as possible.
The Benefits of Green Herbs
It’s astounding how easy it is to get your hands on organic, fresh green herbs throughout the entire year. They are easy to grow at home on a south-facing windowsill even in winter, or in containers on a balcony or patio if you don’t “garden” on a larger scale. Growing your own herbs is an inexpensive way to ensure a constant supply. If you can’t do this, fresh, dried varieties work beautifully.
Parsley doesn’t just freshen your breath; it purifies and rejuvenates your entire system because of the high levels of chlorophyll it contains. Studies have linked chlorophyll to everything from stopping bacterial growth to counteracting inflammation to lowering blood sugar.
Rosemary has been linked to improved memory and brain function because it contains substances that help to protect acetylcholine, a vital neurotransmitter. Rosemary is also a potent anti-inflammatory compound and is often used to treat arthritis.
Sage has an antidiabetic effect in animals. These benefits have yet to be confirmed in humans, but we do know that sage contains anti-inflammatory substances and is an antioxidant. For centuries, it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a purifying herb because of its antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Thyme, which contains an oil called thymol, has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiseptic properties.
Oregano also contains thymol and is considered the herb with the highest antioxidant activity — four times higher per gram than that of blueberries. In addition to thymol, oregano contains carvacrol (another oil), which has antifungal, antibacterial, and antiparasitic properties. Together, these anti-inflammatory substances make oregano one of the most beneficial herbs you can add to your diet.
The Benefits of Savory Spices
Humans are biochemically drawn to certain flavors, like bees to nectar. And nature makes us attracted to these foods for good reasons.
Unlike most animals, we humans can’t make our own vitamin C, and many researchers theorize that our attraction to sugar is actually nature’s way of getting us to eat high-in-vitamin-C foods like sweet-tasting fruits.
We’re also naturally primed to love most spices. Perhaps nature gave them their appealing scents so that we would eat them and enjoy all their beneficial health properties. After all, spices, by weight, are perhaps the most nutrient-dense substances we can eat. Here are a few we recommend:
Cinnamon contains phytochemicals that increase glucose metabolism in cells (and when glucose is metabolized, it doesn’t get stored as fat). It also can help to lower blood sugar, decrease blood pressure, and reduce triglyceride levels and “bad” (low-density lipoprotein [LDL]) cholesterol.
Ginger helps control nausea, but it also decreases the stickiness of blood, which helps to prevent blood clots and decreases inflammation. In animal studies, it lowered cholesterol and slowed the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Turmeric contains curcumin, one of the most powerful compounds in the plant kingdom. Curcumin has been used at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in cancer trials and has been shown to slow memory loss in laboratory animals. It’s extremely healthy for the liver, which is “ground zero” for detoxification. Curcumin has also been shown to improve arthritis symptoms, not surprising in view of its enormous anti-inflammatory firepower.
The research on the benefits of herbs and spices continues, but there is no question that flavoring dishes with these substances can boost the health quotient of our food. Most importantly, it means that we’ll stick with eating the best possible diet for life.
Excerpted from Smart Fat by Steven Masley, MD, and Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS. Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. Copyright © 2016.
Photo Credit: Stocksy