Spices can add much more than flavor, color and variety to your favorite foods; many also have unique health-promoting properties. So if salt and pepper are the only spices in your kitchen, you're missing out on a host of interesting flavors and some potentially potent health benefits.
"There have been many recent studies validating the historic habit of using spices for health benefits," says Donna Tainter, a food technologist and author of "Spices and Seasonings, A Food Technology Handbook."
If you're looking for the most health bang for your buck, these seven spices top the list in terms of taste and disease-fighting capabilities.
Health Benefits: The active ingredient in ginger is gingerol, a compound that's thought to relax blood vessels, stimulate blood flow and relieve pain. It's commonly used as a digestive aid and contains compounds that ease motion sickness and nausea and inhibit vomiting. This makes it a helpful spice for morning sickness or for people suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy.
Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory, which means it may be useful in fighting heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and arthritis. Plus, it's high in antioxidants that fight all kinds of diseases.
How it's Used: Ginger can be used freshly ground from the root (see picture) in Asian dishes, as well as in any type of meat, seafood or vegetable dish. Ginger is commonly served along with sushi. Dried ground ginger is typically used in desserts and baking (gingerbread cookies, etc.), and it's also available candied and pickled. Fresh ginger root can also be used to make a soothing ginger tea.
Interesting Tidbit: The health benefits of ginger were documented over 2,000 years ago!
Health Benefits: Two of oregano's compounds, thymol and carvacrol, have potent antibacterial properties. In fact, a study in Mexico found that oregano was more effective against an amoeba than a common prescription drug called tinidazol.
Oregano is also a potent antioxidant, rich in phytonutrients. On a per gram basis, fresh oregano has:
- 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples
- 30 times more than potatoes
- 12 times more than oranges
- 4 times more than blueberries
How it's Used: Fresh or dried oregano can be added to Italian dishes, salad dressings, egg dishes, vegetables, meats and more.
Interesting Tidbit: Oregano means "mountain joy" and is sometimes called wild marjoram in Europe. It's closely related to the herb sweet marjoram.
Health Benefits: Cinnamon is an antimicrobial food that can stop the growth of bacteria, fungi and yeast. A study in the August 2003 International Journal of Food Microbiology also found that a few drops of cinnamon essential oil added to carrot broth was able to effectively preserve the food and fight pathogenic organisms-all while improving the flavor of the broth.
It also has anti-clotting and anti-inflammatory properties, which help prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets. And, it may help boost brain function.
People with diabetes should also take note that cinnamon is a useful tool to help control blood sugar. A study in the December 2003 Diabetes Care found that eating one to six grams of cinnamon daily significantly reduced blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, it also reduced their triglyceride levels, LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. (The most effective cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka).
Plus, a study in the February 2004 Hormone Metabolism Research found that this tasty spice appears to prevent insulin resistance even in animals eating a high-fructose diet.
And that's not all. Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant. A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that out of all spices, cinnamon is one of the richest sources of disease-fighting antioxidants.
How it's Used: Cinnamon comes ground and in sticks, and can be used in Mexican, Middle Eastern and other ethnic dishes, curries, vegetables, tea, beverages, and of course, desserts.
Interesting Tidbit: In traditional Chinese medicine, cinnamon is used in a tea along with ginger to fight the onset of colds and flu.
Health Benefits: Curcumin, which gives turmeric its bright yellow color, is thought to be the active ingredient in this spice. It's a potent anti-inflammatory that studies have found is just as effective as drugs like hydrocortisone, phenylbutazone and Motrin. This spice has been found to be helpful in fighting inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. It's also shown promise in offering cardiovascular and liver protection.
How it's Used: Turmeric powder can be added to rice dishes, egg salad, salad dressings, curries, beans and sauces. It has a warm, peppery flavor similar to ginger and orange.
Interesting Tidbit: Turmeric is the spice commonly used in curries that gives them their yellow color. It's also what makes traditional mustard yellow!
Health Benefits: Sage is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It contains flavonoids, phenolic acids and oxygen-handling enzymes, all of which give it a unique ability to prevent oxygen-based damage to cells. Sage may be useful in fighting rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, bronchial asthma and atherosclerosis.
Sage also appears to promote better brain function. A study in the June 2003 Pharmacological Biochemical Behavior found that people given sage essential oil extracts had significantly improved recall abilities compared to those given a placebo.
How it's Used: Sage's subtle, sweet flavor makes it a very versatile herb. It can be added to soups, sauces, salad dressings, meat dishes, casseroles, vegetables, eggs, salads and more.
Interesting Tidbit: Sage means "to be saved." Because sage is so effective in protecting oxygen-based damage, several companies have been conducting experiments using sage as a natural additive to cooking oils to extend shelf life and prevent the oils from going rancid.
Red Chili Peppers
Health Benefits: These peppers, which include the popular cayenne pepper, contain capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory compound that helps with pain relief. Chili peppers have been found to help:
- Clear congestion by clearing mucus from the lungs and nose
- Boost immunity
- Prevent stomach ulcers by killing bacteria
- Help with weight loss
- Reduce blood cholesterol, triglyceride levels and platelet aggregation
- Prevent cancers, including stomach cancer
- Relieve pain
How it's Used: Chili peppers are, of course, great in Mexican dishes, but that's not all. Try them with other vegetables, tuna salad, chili, corn bread, dips, curries, soups, sauces and more.
Interesting Tidbit: The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. Some of the hottest chili peppers out there are the habaero, Scotch bonnet, and jalapeo peppers.
Health Benefits: Chief among parsley's beneficial properties is its ability to fight cancer. Animal studies have shown that it can inhibit tumor formation, particularly in the lungs. It's also known to neutralize carcinogens including those found in cigarette smoke and charcoal grill smoke.
Parsley is also a rich source of antioxidants and heart-protective nutrients including vitamin C, beta-carotene and folic acid.
How it's Used: Parsley comes in two popular varieties, curly and flat leaf. Fresh parsley is more flavorful than the dried variety. The curly version tends to have a more intense flavor than the flat-leaf variety. Use it in soups, salads and casseroles, or to top fish, meat, potatoes, vegetables and more.
Interesting Tidbit: Parsley is a great breath freshener at the end of a meal.