Herbs and spices not only enhance food’s flavor but may also bolster your health.
The culinary world would be lackluster without spices. Imagine tomato sauce without basil, hummus without garlic or sushi minus pickled ginger. Spices, like their botanical leafy counterparts, herbs, not only impart diverse flavors, colors and tastes to foods, but science is showing that they also offer a host of powerful phytonutrients that can enhance health and well-being. While culinary herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years, extensive research in the last two decades has shown the numerous health benefits of herbs and spices. In fact, they may prevent chronic illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious pulmonary, neurological and autoimmune conditions (Aggarwal et al. 2008).
“Spices are the easiest and least expensive way to enhance flavor without adding fat, calories, sodium, cholesterol or trans fats,” says Robin Plotkin, RD, a registered dietitian and culinary communications consultant based in Dallas. Drawing on sources from folklore to current literature, here are some of the health benefits of herbs and spices.
On first glance, ginger looks like nothing more than a knotty, thick root you’d step over in a forest. But this underground stem of the perennial plant Zingiber officinale has long been used to successfully treat gastrointestinal disorders, such as stomach aches, abdominal spasm, nausea or vomiting, in addition to other conditions, such as arthritis and motion sickness (El-Abhar, Hammad & Gawad 2008).
Ginger comes in a variety of forms: fresh, pickled, dried, powdered and/or crystallized—all of which are effective in promoting health. According to Dave Grotto, RD, LDN, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life (Bantam 2008), “Ginger has been a home remedy through many generations for treating a variety of conditions.” These conditions include nausea from pregnancy-related morning sickness and chemotherapy-induced delayed nausea.
There are very few side effects from ginger at low doses. The most commonly reported side effects involve the stomach and intestines. Irritation or bad taste in the mouth, heartburn, belching, bloating, gas and nausea have been reported, especially with powdered forms of ginger (Medline Plus 2008).
With origins that trace back to India nearly 4,000 years ago, basil leaves come in many sizes, shapes and colors. From a culinary perspective, the most commonly used varieties are large-leaf Italian sweet, tiny-leaf bush, lemon and African blue (Grotto 2008). “Basil is more recognized by the American palette as an essential in our love of Italian food,” notes Chef Ryan Hutmacher, a partner in Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago. However, basil leaves are used frequently in numerous types of cuisine.
Basil contains many different and powerful flavonoids, which protect against cell damage and have strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties (Grotto 2008). Studies have shown that basil contributes to heart health by improving circulation and reducing heart disease and acts as an antibacterial agent to even the more antibiotic-resistant types of bacteria, particularly those found in produce (Opalchenova & Obreshkova 2003).
Basil is a benign plant. Eat it up, as there are no reported side effects.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. Although this sweet spice comes in four types, two of them are more popular among chefs: Cinnamomum zeylanicum (also known as Ceylon cinnamon) and Cinnamomum cassia (also known as Chinese cassia or Indonesian cinnamon) (Grotto 2008). Of the two, Ceylon cinnamon is the sweeter and richer in taste; it also costs more than Cinnamomum cassia, which is more widely available in the United States (Grotto 2008).
Studies show that cinnamon can alleviate gout and arthritis flare-ups (Kong et al. 2000) and keep blood flowing smoothly by reducing blood lipids (Kahn et al. 2003). “Cinnamon, particularly Ceylon, is excellent for inflammation,” explains Grotto. Cinnamon may also lower blood sugar in individuals with type 2 diabetes (Mang et al. 2006). Nutritionally, cinnamon is an excellent source of manganese and a good source of calcium, iron and fiber.
Cinnamon is not known to be an allergenic food, so sprinkle or stir away!
In the United States, cooks call the seeds of the Coriandrum sativum plant “coriander,” while the leaves of the same plant are known as “cilantro.” The seeds, when crushed and ground, have a lemony, citrus flavor.
In traditional Indian medicine, the coriander plant is used as a diuretic (the seeds are boiled along with cumin and consumed as a beverage) (Hashmi Dawakhana 2007). Research has shown coriander can also aid in digestion (Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association 2008). Coriander has long been used to treat anxiety.
Be aware that coriander seeds have been shown to produce allergic reactions in some people (Ebo et al. 2006). People who are allergic to any medications (prescription or over-the-counter) should use coriander sparingly.
Rosemary has a distinct flavor and scent, which is no surprise since it is a member of the mint family. It typically grows by the sea, hence the name, which is derived from the Latin rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea.” The fragrant leaves of this plant look like tiny evergreen needles.
Rosemary is extremely high in iron, calcium and vitamin B6. It also contains a large number of polyphenolic compounds that can inhibit oxidation and bacterial growth (Grotto 2008). In cancer prevention studies, rosemary has been found to protect the blood against radiation exposure (Del Baño et al. 2006). It may even help with memory loss; a recent study found that when the scent of rosemary was pumped into workplace cubicles, people exhibited improved memory (Moss et al. 2003)
Used in moderate amounts when cooking, rosemary is quite safe. However, people prone to epileptic seizures should use caution; also, rosemary oil (used in a variety of nonfood items, such as shampoo) has been shown to cause seizures.
Cayenne is a red, hot chili pepper related to bell peppers and jalapeños; it is part of the Capsicum genus and nightshade family. In its ground form, it is known as the powdered spice “cayenne pepper.” According to Grotto, “Peppers contain vitamin C and are a good source of beta carotene and B vitamins. They also contain inflammation- reducing phytochemicals.”
Cayenne is known to relieve pain and itching and has been used for centuries as a topical and internal medicine. Research has shown it is effective for relieving gas, stomach aches, cramps, circulatory diseases, sore throats and body heat regulation conditions, such as cold feet (Whole Foods 2008).
Be careful when handling cayenne peppers, as the pungent seeds and white membranes can cause severe burning of the skin, lips and eyes. Rubber gloves are a good solution when using cayenne or any chili pepper. If no gloves are available, be sure to wash hands, knives and cutting boards thoroughly after use. When eating fiery dishes made with cayenne, drink milk, which can quickly put out the fire.