When you think of herbs and spices, you probably think of them as a great and way to enhance the flavor of your food while cutting back on your sugar, fat, salt and calorie intake. At least I hope so because they are. But did you realize the herbs and spices you already have in your pantry also have natural healing properties?
That’s right. Research has found herbs and spices have powerful phytochemical compounds which may:
• Reduce inflammation.
• Decrease the risk for cancer and heart disease.
• Fight infection.
• Sooth digestion.
Even though fresh herbs and spices contain higher levels of antioxidants than the dried versions, don’t be walking past the spice aisle. Researchers are currently exploring the possible therapeutic uses for a long list of herbs and spices and the following 5 should be included in everyone’s spice rack.
- Cayenne Pepper – The capsaicin in cayenne pepper is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effect. Cayenne pepper has been used as a supplement to help ease arthritis pain as well as relieve headaches. This fiery spice also appears to have chemopreventative activity and perhaps increases fat oxidation, allowing the body to better use fat as fuel. Cayenne is perfect for Mexican and Southwestern cooking, chili (I also add cumin, traditionally used for the treatment of sleep disorders, indigestion, and hypertension. It rounds out the flavor ever so nicely), soups (like black bean) and eggs (I sprinkle it on my scrambled eggs).
- Cinnamon – Loaded with antioxidants, cinnamon has been used for years for its medicinal properties. Research has found it to be an effective supplement for reducing inflammation while other research has found cassia cinnamon (the variety commonly sold in North America) possibly has a modest effect in lowering blood sugar in people with diabetes. Like most spices and herbs, there is no established daily dose recommendation, but it appears 1 tsp a day may prove effective. I say why not give it a shot? It’s not expensive and it could be beneficial. Merely using cinnamon in place of sugar may lower your risk of heart disease. Please note that very high doses can be toxic so if you do take it in pill form, please advise your healthcare team. Add a dash of cinnamon to your morning oatmeal, add some to your morning cup of coffee or tea to add flavor in place of sugar or mix with cottage cheese, apples, and almonds as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up snack.
- Turmeric – Used for centuries in Indian cooking, this spice is what gives Indian food its distinctive, bright yellow hue and is used to add color and flavor to not just curry but to pickles, relish, roasted cauliflower and rice/couscous dishes as well. Over the past 10 years much research has emerged due to its anti-inflammatory properties and potential to prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Sprinkle turmeric into your chicken salad or eggs (a great way to punch up the color of deviled eggs), add it to your favorite coconut curry chicken or seafood dish, or combine turmeric with lemon juice and olive oil for use as a salad dressing.
- Ginger – Historically, ginger has been used to treat everything from the common cold and motion sickness or nausea to easing sore muscles to possibly helping prevent cancer. Ginger may also help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders as well as support immune function. Ground ginger instantly adds an Asian flair to dishes or can be sprinkled on sweet potatoes in place of brown sugar or sprinkled on toast to make a quick and easy gingerbread toast. Fresh ginger root can be grated into fruit smoothies, cereals, yogurt or salad dressings.
- Basil – Basil is one of the medicinal plants widely used in several countries to reduce cholesterol levels. It may also be useful in treating arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Try sprinkling chopped fresh or dried to sandwiches (eg, grilled cheese) as well as casseroles and salad dressings. Fresh basil goes well with cheese so add fresh leaves to your grilled cheese or top your morning slice of whole grain toast with a slice of mozzarella and a sprinkle of chopped or whole leaf basil. Want a unique twist to scrambled eggs? Instead of adding cheese, mix in some vegetables such as mushrooms and baby Swiss chard with a hearty dash of basil.
While spices don’t go bad per se, they do lose their flavor over time. Whole seeds last around three to four years, while the ground version has a shelf life of two to three years. If a spice looks dull and has lost some of its original color, it’s time to toss it. Always date the bottle so as to keep tabs on when it’s time to buy new ones. Keep spices away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. Don’t hang a spice rack over the stove or oven — heat and moisture can negatively affect spice quality.
When sprinkling spices into a pot or frying pan, pour into the palm of your hand first before adding them to the dish. Shaking the jar directly over a steaming pot can cake up the contents in the bottle. Replace the lid immediately after use as a further way to preserve the spice. Important note: Research is quite limited on how the antioxidant content of herbs and spices translates into health benefits. We’re really just beginning to understand how they work in the body. Just like any other antioxidant rich food, the key with herbs and spices is eating a variety of them in a rainbow of colors.