These 5 Herbs & Spices Will Give Your Meals A Healthy Boost Of Flavor
Every culture is defined, in part, by the spices used in its cuisine. In India, there's cardamom and cumin. In Italy, there's basil and oregano. In Mexico, there's chili, garlic, and cilantro. In Thailand, there's lemongrass, sweet basil, and galangal. And in North America, there's a bit of everything in the culinary melting pot. But what is North America most known for adding to the mix? Salt, sugar, and fat.
Not that North Americans don't use spices. They're just not what North American cuisine is typically known for. And speaking as a North American, I think that's a shame.
Fortunately, you don't have to live in Thailand to enjoy kaffir lime leaves, or in Mexico to partake of green chilies. Herbs and spices travel the globe. And they don't just bring wonderful, mouthwatering bursts of flavor. They also bring stunning levels of nutrition.
Cooking with herbs and spices is an art form. Knowing which ones are especially good for you, on the other hand, is science.
Turmeric is a flavorful addition to sauces, curries, stir-fries, and casseroles. Popular in India for more than 5,000 years, it's widely thought to be one of the primary reasons that country has one of the world's lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease.
Turmeric is known for its bright orange color. In fact, it's sometimes used as a coloring agent. The orange comes from a polyphenol called curcumin, which is something of a miracle compound.
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that curcumin may help prevent or even reverse Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, reduce unhealthy levels of inflammation, protect against heavy metal toxicity, and even lower heart disease risk.
The average daily intake of curcumin in India is thought to be about 125 mg—the amount found in about a half-teaspoon of turmeric powder. Research has found low rates of certain types of cancer in countries where people eat 100 to 200 mg of curcumin per day over long periods of time.
If a half-teaspoon of turmeric seems like a lot, you might consider a curcumin supplement. My personal favorite (made by a company that also supports Food Revolution Network) contains a potent absorption- boosting breakthrough and is available at turmeric4health.com. You'll get better curcumin absorption if you combine turmeric with some black pepper and/or a bit of (healthy) fat.
Garlic can be chopped, minced, blended, or eaten as a powder. It's delicious in pasta sauces, soups, and almost any savory dish. People at the annual garlic festival in Gilroy, California, have even been known to make garlic ice cream, though I can't say I recommend it!
Garlic is known for helping to ward off the bad guys. But instead of hanging it over your doorway to scare away vampires, you can eat it to fight off certain cancers.
Researchers studied 41,387 Iowa women, tracking their consumption of 127 foods over a five-year period. The food found to be most highly associated with a statistically significant decrease in colon cancer was garlic. Women with the highest amounts of garlic in their diets had a 50 percent lower risk of certain colon cancers than women who ate the least.
Another study of 5,000 men and women, conducted in China over a five-year period, found that a garlic extract was linked to a 52 percent reduction in stomach cancer rates, compared to a placebo.
Garlic has been rumored to help fight cold and flu. But is this folklore backed up by real-world science? A team of researchers studied 146 participants, giving half of them a garlic tablet and half a placebo tablet every day for three months. The people who took the placebo reported cumulatively catching 65 colds. The people who took the garlic reported only 24. And for those garlic-takers who did catch a cold, the symptoms ended 20 percent sooner.
Ginger is one of my favorite spices. It has a refreshing, clean, invigorating flavor. I love it in soups, stir-fries, casseroles, salad dressings, smoothies, stews, and desserts. If you like, you can mix ginger powder or ginger tea with sparkling water and stevia for a healthy homemade ginger ale.
Ginger can be used to treat stomach problems, including motion sickness, morning sickness, colic, upset stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, diarrhea, nausea, and loss of appetite. It has potent anti-inflammatory properties, and some people find it very effective in relieving pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and menstrual cramps.
As if all that weren't enough, ginger has also been found to be extraordinarily effective in the treatment of migraines.
If you've ever suffered from a migraine, you know that it's way more than a headache. Migraines make normal activities impossible for an estimated 1 billion people worldwide. And migraines are responsible for billions of dollars in health care costs.
But could a natural remedy like ginger really work as well as drugs, with fewer side effects?
In 2014, a double-blind randomized controlled clinical trial was published in Phytotherapy Research. Researchers studied 100 people experiencing moderate to severe pain from migraines. Half the study participants were given one-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger, and half were given a standard dose of sumatriptan, also known as Imitrex—one of the top-selling, billion-dollar drugs in the treatment of migraines.
The results? Both worked equally fast. Most participants started out with moderate or severe pain. After taking either the drug or ginger, they were either in mild pain or completely pain-free. The same proportion of migraine sufferers reported satisfaction with the results, whether they took sumatriptan or ginger. But with ginger, there were substantially fewer negative side effects. With sumatriptan, some people reported dizziness, a sedative effect, vertigo, and heartburn. The only adverse side effect for ginger was that two of the ginger-taking participants reported an upset stomach.
If you want to try the natural remedy, mix 1/8 teaspoon powdered ginger in water at the first sign of a migraine. Drink it, and see if your migraine lessens or goes away within half an hour.
Compared to sumatriptan, ginger not only spares you side effects—it also comes at about 1/3,000th the price. And it just might do the job.
Cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the world. It's made from the inner bark of a genus of tree called cinnamomum. When strips of it dry, they curl into rolls, called cinnamon sticks. The sticks can also be ground to form a powder. This mild-mannered, delectable spice can flavor drinks, baked goods, oatmeal, stir-fries, and dishes both savory and sweet.
For thousands of years, cinnamon has also been prized for its potent medicinal properties. It's loaded with polyphenols and other antioxidants. Cinnamon is an anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer, lipid-lowering, and cardiovascular-disease-lowering superstar.
Whoever knew that such a sweet spice could be so potent a healing force!
Hot peppers look a lot like bell peppers but with one major difference. They contain a compound known as capsaicin, which is colorless and odorless—but definitely not flavorless! Capsaicin is so intensely spicy that many people can tolerate hot peppers only in small amounts.
The capsaicin that brings peppers their heat, it turns out, is also a powerful medicine. Chili peppers aid digestion by promoting salivation, boosting the stomach's defense against infections, increasing digestive fluid production, and helping to deliver enzymes to the stomach.
In a 2017 study conducted on mice, researchers found that the capsaicin in hot peppers was able to alter the composition of gut bacteria, promoting more beneficial strains. This in turn led to lower levels of chronic inflammation and obesity.
In another study, 16,179 human participants were tracked for an average of more than 15 years. After factoring out demographic, lifestyle, and clinical characteristics, the people who consumed hot peppers had a 13 percent lower rate of mortality over the course of the study. Put in plain English, that means people who ate more hot peppers were more likely to live longer.
There are many varieties of hot peppers, and their level of capsaicin ranges from mild to intense. Some people love the spiciness, but others, especially children, may not. Instead of mixing hot pepper into a whole dish, you can arrange it on top or serve it separately. A word to the wise: When you chop hot peppers, be careful to wash your knife, cutting board, and hands with soap afterward, and be sure not to touch your eyes before you've washed your hands. I've learned from personal experience that capsaicin can burn eyes (and other sensitive parts of the body!).
There are so many more.
Turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and hot peppers barely scratch the surface in the wonderful world of spices. Your spice cabinet is a virtual pharmacy of medicinal compounds. Nutmeg, cloves, basil, dill, oregano, thyme, sage, parsley, fennel, and many other herbs and spices contain substances that could help fight cancer and heart disease, reduce inflammation, stabilize your blood sugar, fend off dementia, and add culinary delight to your menu.
- Option 1: Enjoy at least one herb or spice that isn't normally in your repertoire.
- Option 2: For one day, try using little or no sugar, salt, or added fats in your foods—season them with spices instead.
- Option 3: Open up your spice rack and smell or taste every spice in it. Get rid of any that are old or that you don't care for. Put new ones on your shopping list, and find recipes that incorporate any new spices you'd like to try.
Caroline Muggia has a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College. She received her E-RYT with Yoga Works and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. A writer and environmental advocate, she is passionate about helping people live healthier and more sustainable lives. You can usually find her drinking matcha or spending time by the ocean.