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-
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.
Sidebar: Spice Rack Basics: Selection, Storage and Culinary Uses
Make the most of your herbs and spices by following this advice on how to select, store and use them in the kitchen.
Selection. Select fresh ginger that is bruise-free and light-brown to cream in color.
Storage. Fresh ginger should be kept at room temperature. “Wait to peel until you are ready to use, as its natural skin protects it and keeps it from going bad,” advises Chef Ryan Hutmacher, a partner in Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago.
Culinary Uses. “Saut├® in olive or sesame oil, like you would garlic, and add fresh spinach, kale or a mix of Asian vegetables,” suggests Chef Michelle Dudash, RD, president and founder of Chef Dudash Nutrition in Gilbert, Arizona.
Selection. Pick basil that has bright-green leaves and no yellow spots.
Storage. Basil keeps for only a few days in the refrigerator. To extend its life, Hutmacher recommends these simple storage techniques: “The more humidity, the faster it will wilt. Take a paper towel, and sprinkle a couple of drops of water on it. (It should not be dripping wet.) Gently bundle the herbs inside the towel. Place the wrapped bundle into a transparent container in the fridge, and replace the damp paper towel every 3-4 days.”
Culinary Uses. Tradition┬¡ally, basil is a key ingredient in Italian cookery, such as pesto and marinara sauces. However, it can also enhance salad dressings, pizza, fish/shrimp and chicken dishes. Dudash recommends tossing a few freshly cut basil leaves into pastas and over vegetables right before serving. “Dried basil is great, too, in the same types of dishes, but add during cooking,” she advises.
Selection. Be sure to smell cinnamon, as it is freshest when it smells sweet.
Storage. Ground cinnamon lasts about 6 months, whereas cinnamon sticks can be kept for up to 1 year before they lose their luster. Store all cinnamon in a dark place in an airtight container.
Culinary Uses. Cinnamon is used in both sweet and savory dishes, such as rice pudding, pies, soups, salad dressings and rice dishes. “Add a whole cinnamon stick into soups like carrot, pumpkin or butternut squash; when making your own curry spice blend, adding cinnamon is a must,” suggests Dudash. Hutmacher uses cinnamon in combination with cayenne and ground coriander when making regional Mexican dishes.
Selection. Typically sold as a whole dried seed, coriander can be found in powdered form. Grind only what you need, since it can quickly lose flavor.
Storage. Keep in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. For best flavor, use whole seeds within 6 months.
Culinary Uses. Coriander is used in meat rubs, seasonings and sausage products; it is the main spice in Indian curries. Toasting the coriander seeds before use imparts the most flavor.
Selection. While dried or oil forms are available, fresh rosemary is the most potent and is typically preferred by cooks.
Storage. Fresh rosemary must be kept in the refrigerator.
Culinary Uses. Rosemary is used mainly in savory dishes, such as roasted potatoes, marinades, chicken and turkey dishes.
Selection. Look for vivid, deep colors and firm, taut skin without black spots. The stems should look fresh.
Storage. Unwashed fresh peppers can last for 1 week in a paper bag or paper towel in the refrigerator. Never put peppers in plastic bags, as moisture may cause premature spoilage. Powders should be kept in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place.
Culinary Uses. Add to soups and sauces; saut├® with vegetables; add to yogurt to make a dip; or use in curry, meat, fish or poultry dishes.
Del Baño, M.J., et al. 2006. Radioprotective-antimutagenic effects of rosemary phenolics against chromosomal damage induced in human lymphocytes by g-rays. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 54 (6), 2064–68.
Ebo, D.G., et al. 2006. Coriander anaphylaxis in a spice grinder with undetected occupational allergy. Acta Clinica Belgica, 61 (3), 152–56.
El-Abhar, H.S., Hammad, L.N., & Gawad, H.S. 2008. Modulating effect of ginger extract on rats with ulcerative colitis. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 118 (3), 367–72.
Grotto, D. 2008. 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life. New York: Bantam.
Hashmi Dawakhana. 2007. Coriander: Cure From the Kitchen. www.hashmi.com/coriander.html; retrieved July 15, 2008.
Kahn, A., et al., 2003. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 26 (12), 3215–18.
Kong, L.D., et al. 2000. Inhibition of xanthine oxidase by some Chinese medicinal plants used to treat gout. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 73 (1–2), 199–207.
Mang, B., et al. 2006. Effects of a cinnamon extract on plasma glucose, HbA1c, and serum lipids in diabetes mellitus type 2. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 36 (5), 340–44.
Medline Plus. 2008. www.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/
natural/patient-ginger.html; retrieved July 17, 2008.
Moss, M., et al. 2003. Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience, 113 (1), 15–38.
Opalchenova, G., & Obreshkova, D. 2003. Comparative studies on the activity of basil—an essential oil from Ocimum basilicum L.—against multidrug resistant clinical isolates of the genera Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Pseudomonas by using different test methods. Journal of Microbiological Methods, 54, 105–10.
Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association. 2008. Herbs for the Prairies: Coriander. 2008. http://paridss.usask
.ca/specialcrop/commodity/herb_spice/tour/coriander.html; retrieved July 17, 2008.
Whole Foods. 2008. http://whfoods.com/genpage.php
?tname=foodspice&dbid=29; retrieved July 17, 2008.
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