If salt and pepper are all you are using to put some zip in your food, you are not only missing out on adding flavor to your meals, but maybe opportunities for a healthier, longer life. While spices may have begun as a way to enhance the taste of otherwise bland meats and vegetables (boiled mutton only went so far, we’re guessing), the ancients in China and the Far East used many of the spices medicinally for centuries. And it seems they were on to something.
"There have been many recent studies validating the historic habit of using spices for health benefits,'' Donna Tainter, author of Spices and Seasonings: A Food Technology Handbook, told the website SixWise.com. Modern science has indeed shown that many of the spices in your kitchen are beneficial to your health and potent disease fighters. A study released this past summer in BMJ, which studied almost 500,000 people in China over a four-year period, concluded that people who spiced up their food reduced their risk of premature death by 14% versus those who ate non-spicy food.
Here are nine ingredients in your kitchen cabinet that can improve your health.
Oregano is good for a lot more than sprinkling on your slice of pizza. Rich in phytonutrients, it packs more antioxidant power per gram than oranges, apples or blueberries. Oregano also contains two compounds, thymol and carvacrol, that have strong antibacterial activity. A study in Mexico found oregano to be more effective against an intestinal parasite than the commonly prescribed drug tinidazol. Other studies have shown oregano to have effective anti-inflammatory properties, and ointments made from oregano decrease bacterial infection and help post-surgical wounds heal faster.
2. Red hot chili peppers (including cayenne pepper).
Hot peppers contain the ingredient capsaicin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that helps reduce pain. The hotter the pepper, the more the capsaicin. In addition to pain relief, hot peppers have been shown to help clear nose and lungs of excess mucus, making them an effective treatment for colds and other respiratory illnesses. Interestingly, while consuming hot peppers might be thought to worsen the condition of anyone suffering from stomach ulcers, the opposite is true. Because of their anti-bacterial properties and mucus thinning abilities, hot peppers actually help heal gastric ulcers (which are actually caused by a bacteria the peppers help eradicate). For anyone looking to lose a little weight, a research study at Purdue University found that when capsaicin reaches the gut level, it curbs the appetite and increases the core temperature, resulting in calories being burned faster.
Not only is cinnamon a powerful antioxidant, its anti-microbial activity can also stop the proliferation of bacteria, fungi and yeast. This tasty spice can prevent blood clots and maybe even cardiovascular disease. A 2003 study showed that one to six grams of cinnamon a day can help control blood sugar in type 2 diabetes sufferers, while also lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and overall cholesterol levels. A 2004 study indicated that cinnamon might also prevent insulin resistance, even in a high-fructose diet.
The next time you’re feeling nauseated, you might want to reach for some ginger. Its active compound, gingerol, in addition to relieving motion sickness, morning sickness from pregnancy and nausea, also relaxes blood vessels, stimulates blood flow and relieves pain. In use for over 2000 years as a medicinal, ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidant activity.
If there is a “super” spice in this group, turmeric might take the title. The active ingredient in the spice, curcumin, which gives it its bright yellow color, has been found to be as effective an anti-inflammatory as drugs like hydrocortisone or Motrin. Turmeric can be helpful in battling Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and maybe even cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sage is not just for turkey stuffing anymore. It is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and may be effective in battling rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma and other inflammatory diseases. Further, in a 2003 study, subjects given sage oil had improved memory versus placebo subjects.
Another powerful antioxidant, parsley also appears to have anti-cancer properties, due to a compound in it called myristicin. In animal studies, parsley has been shown to inhibit the formation of cancerous tumors, particularly lung tumors. It also appears to be effective in neutralizing the effects of cigarette smoke and smoke from charcoal grills. Throw in vital nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A and folic acid, and it is clear that parsley is useful for much more than plate decoration. And if that’s not enough, the chlorophyll in parsley will deodorize bad breath.
People with type 2 diabetes might consider adding coriander to their spice rack. A study in 2011 showed that the spice may help regulate blood sugar and cholesterol. Coriander has additionally been shown to have anti-anxiety properties, making it an excellent sleep aid for anxiety sufferers.
What a fortunate coincidence that one of most loved spices also happens to be one of our healthiest. Perhaps the most popular medicinal spice in the world, garlic and its main active ingredient, allicin, has been shown to be an effective combatant against heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Not only that, its antimicrobial properties make it nature’s antibiotic. To top it all off, garlic may be effective in warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.