A spice is defined as an aromatic substance that is used to flavor food. Given their aromatic and sometimes pungent aroma, they are hardly ever used as the main ingredient in any kind of dish.
By definition itself, spice is the seasoning that makes food worth savoring.
Spices are made from dried seeds, bark, roots, berries, or twigs. For example, the cinnamon spice comes from the bark of the tree and the cardamom spice is a seed while cloves are flower buds that have been dried.
The health benefits of spices are being talked about a lot. Look at any book written on healthy eating and you are sure to find various quotes associated with the curative properties of these spices.
David Heber, MD, PhD and director UCLA Center for Human Nutrition said in his interview to WebMD, “Studies show that many different herbs and spices offer health benefits. Most of the evidence exists for cinnamon, chili peppers, turmeric, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary.”
The plant compounds most applauded in these spices are called polyphenols. While they are also found in various fruits and vegetables, it is the concentration of polyphenols in spices that gives them the curative properties.
Chronic ailments such as cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation and others have been treated and abated with spices. Spices have also been a focus area for nutritionists since they allow for reduction in salt, sugar and fat in recipes without losing flavor.
However, the claims made by nutritionists and scientists with regards to the curative properties of spices are often contested by traditional medicine men. This is because no scientific studies exist to prove the efficacy of these spices in resolving medical conditions.
Blame it on the slow acting process of the natural ‘drug’ or the lack of funding available to carry out scientific experiments with these ingredients. But the lack of evidence leaves ample room for skeptics to question the claims.
At the end of the day, it boils down to a simple thought – when we know that spices have healthy ingredients like polyphenols and help in reducing sugar or salt intake while adding to the flavor of food, what harm can there be in consuming them?
History of Spices
Spices have had a place in history for many years. It might surprise you to know that the ground black pepper that we so easily crush into our food was once as expensive as gold. Nutmeg has actually been the reason for a war waged by England that ended with England gaining authority over Long Island.
A pound of nutmeg was worth seven fat oxen in Germany at one point in time. The British Rule in India started mainly due to the lure of the various spices available in the land.
Spices have been mentioned in the Bhagwad Gita (an epic religious book of the Hindu’s), the Old Testament and the Epic of Gilgamaesh. They have been discovered in Egyptian tombs and in pictures on the walls of the palace of Knossos, Crete. The Ebers Papyrus is a document dating back to 1550 B.C that details the use of various spices in medicine and even surgery. And a large number of these spices are ones that we use in our kitchens every day.
While the spices used in olden times were generally limited to the ones that grew in the area, man learnt to import them from across the seas as travel became easier. Today, we have access to spices from across the world to flavor our foods with. For those who want to add health and flavor to their lives, here is a list of the world’s healthiest spices.
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Origin and description - Grown and used extensively in the southern parts of Asia, turmeric is a dried root that is ground into a bright yellow powder for culinary use.
In all probability, this spice was developed in India where the temperatures and waterfall is just right for the plant to grow.
Health benefits of turmeric – Turmeric has been used in India as a paste for wounds and inflammations. It is also added to milk and consumed to get relief from cold and respiratory issues. This spice is a gold mine for antioxidants and has significant anti-inflammatory properties.
It has also been known to provide relief from arthritis, dental pain and more. It is currently under study as a cure for diabetes, heart diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. A recent study (published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry) showed how curcumin, the potent part of the spice, helps in augmenting the efficacy of chemotherapy.
Other studies suggest that it subdues the growth of breast cancer cells, colon cancer and stomach cancer as well.
Use – Turmeric pairs well with garlic, coriander, cumin and citrus flavor. While it is best added to curry dishes, you can add this spice to your marinade when roasting lamb or chicken too. Sprinkle it on an egg salad or add it to the water while cooking rice (note that your rice will turn out slightly yellow in color). It can also be added to sandwich spreads and yogurt dips.
Origin and description - Chili peppers were thought to have originated in India because Christopher Columbus who sailed the world sampled this plant, associated the flavor with clack pepper and assumed it came from India.
Later it was discovered that chili pepper originally came from somewhere in South America.
Pepper was brought back to Spain and then the Portuguese traders spread its use across Europe, America and Asia. Chili peppers come in various colors, shapes, flavor intensity and shapes too, each distinctive of the region they come from.
Today we know of cayenne pepper, Thai pepper, habanero pepper and many others. What is common is that all of these have a certain level of heat ranging from mild to intense.
Health benefits of chili pepper – Used in hot countries to kick off the body’s natural cooling system, chili peppers contain capsaicin that is known to increase metabolism and therefore helps in weight loss.
Contrary to common belief, it also aids in reducing the risk of ulcers by increasing resistance to ulcer causing bacteria.
The same active ingredient in chili peppers also restrains LDL from converting into a form that clogs arteries. Some other benefits of peppers that have been cited include hearth and prostrate health.
Use – A great flavor, peppers can be added to pasta dishes, beef and chicken dishes and are a great seasoning for soups too.
Origin and description – Used by the Greeks and Romans in ancient times, this spice was known for its positive effects on the digestive system.
It was also used by the Egyptians more than 2500 years ago. Sourced from the bark of various trees of a specific genus, this spice is used in savory and sweet dishes.
A study showed that consuming 2 grams of cinnamon every day over a period of 12 weeks significantly reduces HbA1c, an indicator of long term diabetes health.
Studies show that consumption of cinnamon can actually help in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart diseases in about 6 weeks. Nutritionists state that adding a few specks of ground cinnamon to your tea or coffee can help you avoid sugar or sugar substitutes too.
In ancient cultures it was also used as an expectorant to reduce phlegm and congestion. It is also suggested that this spice has the highest concentration of antioxidants.
Use – A highly versatile spice, cinnamon can be used in desserts and savory dishes too. It goes well with cloves, nutmeg, chocolate, fruits and nuts. Sprinkle it on your coffee, cocoa or cupcakes or add it liberally in your apple pies.
Origin and description – Stories about the popularity of nutmeg are many. The Dutch captured the island of Banda in the East Indies to ensure that production of nutmeg remains in their control.
This spice was brought to various parts of Asia by the British and also Grenada, where it was put on the national flag.
Health benefits of nutmeg – Despite being slightly sweet, nutmeg is used to fight bacteria that cause cavities. Macelignan, present in nutmeg reduces the formation of plaque by 50%. It also contains anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce the risk of tumors.
Nutmeg also helps regulate mood swings and keeps you calm. It has been used as an anti-depressant in various studies too.
Use – Ground nutmeg can be added to ground coffee to make it flavorful. It can be added to potato and meat dishes, soups and salads.
It can be used with vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, string beans and cauliflower. Nutmeg is also used in making various essential oils that are used for a soothing effect.
Origin and description – Cumin comes from the dried seeds of a plant of the parsley family. Cumin seeds have been found in Egyptian archaeological sites, the Syrian Tell ed-Der site and other ancient sites as well. It finds mention in the Old and New Testament too.
The spice has a nutty and peppery flavor that can add a different flavor note to Mexican, Indian and Middle East cuisine.
Health benefits of cumin – Cumin contains extremely high levels of iron that helps in strengthening the immune system and providing higher levels of energy. It stimulates specific digestive enzymes thereby helping in efficient nutrient assimilation.
Cumin helps in scavenging free radicals and therefore contributes to keeping cancer at bay.
Use – Dry roasting cumin lightly brings out the flavor of the spice. It is a good ingredient to add in legume and beans. It can be added to plain boiled rice or vegetables while sautéing. It is said that the combination of cumin, black pepper and honey makes a potent aphrodisiac.
Origin and description – Originally from Moluccas, the Spice Islands of Indonesia, cloves are dried flower buds. Traders from the Middle East brought cloves from Asia to Europe in the 4th century.
The flavor of cloves is sweet and fragrant and it has been used as a mouth freshener since 200 B.C in China.
Health benefits of Clove – The health benefits of clove come from the active compound eugenol. It prevents toxicity in blood and therefore prevents joint inflammations and digestive cancers.
The anti-bacterial and anesthetic properties of this spice have been harnessed in various dental products as well.
Clove oil is used in mouth wash products and OTC sore throat medicines as well. Cloves are also used to reduce bloating. The University of Oslo states that half a teaspoon of ground clove contains as much antioxidant as half a cup of berries.
Use – Ground clove can have a very strong smell. It is best to use a pinch of clove when using it. Adding cloves to a spice bag and dropping it in the cooking pot is the best way of using cloves. For soups you can stick a couple of cloves into an onion before adding it to the soup pot.
Origin and description – Used in the Middle East and Persia for centuries, saffron is probably the most expensive spice available across the world today. From here it spread to Asia, South East Asia and to Europe too.
In the 14th century, saffron was in extremely high demand since it was considered to have medicinal properties for plague victims. It is actually derived from the stigma of the saffron flower.
Health benefits of Saffron – Unlike most of the other herbs, health claims of saffron do not lie in the physical health arena. Saffron is said to be a mood elevator and a great spice to consume to curb effects of PMS.
Iran’s Roozbeh Psychiatric Hospital at Tehran University of Medical Sciences published a research that shows that saffron alleviates PMS symptoms.
Seventy five percent women who took saffron reported reduction in PMS symptoms as against 8% among those who did not.
Use – The flavor of saffron pairs well with tomatoes, garlic, onions and shellfish. It can be seeped into medicinal tea or added to rice while cooking.
Origin and description – Even before flax seeds were used for consumption, flax was used to create linen more than 10,000 years ago by the Turks. Romans, Greek and Egyptians have used it for flax seeds anti-inflammatory properties.
Health benefits of flax seeds – The reason why flax seeds are used across a large array of medical conditions across the world is the nutrients they contains Flax seeds contain some unique nutrients that provide an array of health benefits.
They are high in omega-3 fatty acids, the primary one being alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The stability of the seeds ensures that these nutrients are not lost while cooking too.
Another unique nutrient in these seeds is lignans which is a soluble fiber. The gum content of flax seeds allows for food to move from the stomach into the small intestines quickly. This helps in better absorption of the nutrients.
These unique ingredients provide health benefits related to the heart and digestive tract. They also help in cancer prevention and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Use – Just add a few flax seeds to flavor your water with and you will never have to drink boring old water. Add a handful to a cereal box, so you consume a good quantity each day.
Add flax seeds to mustard or mayo while making a sandwich or put it in smoothies before churning. Flax seeds can be added on top of almost any baked item too.
Maximize the Health Benefits of Spices
We tend to use very little of every spice in everyday cooking. This is why knowing how to buy and store them properly is a good idea. Here are some tips you can use.
- Spices are known to lose their flavor and therapeutic value once they are ground. It is therefore best to buy whole spices and grind them just before preparing the dish. Whole spices can retain their flavor and medicinal value up to 4 years and therefore you do not have to worry about them going bad.
- Store any ground spice in an airtight bottle. This helps keep in the aroma and the valuable ingredients.
- Label the small bottle on top so that you do not have to open it and take a whiff to identify the spice.
- Keep spice bottles away from sunlight. Putting them in a drawer is the best option.
If you have the time and patience, spices ground in a mortar and pestle have higher levels of flavor and goodness than those ground in a grinding machine.
Best of luck spicing it up!
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