Most countries and cultures use a range of wonderful spices to enhance the flavor and nutrition of their traditional foods. Oregano and chilies star in Mexican dishes. Turmeric, cumin, and cardamom take center stage in Indian dishes. Rosemary, mint, and coriander enhance Middle Eastern dishes. But for many typical American dishes, the spice drawer stays shut. Our most common additives — sugar and salt with mayo and ketchup on the side — are not spices.
It’s time to spice up American cooking for our health and well-being! In addition to adding lots of interesting flavor to food, spices are good for our whole body. Like other plant-based foods, they have phytonutrients, natural plant compounds that can reduce chronic inflammation, prevent cell damage, and support body functions. There are thousands of different phytonutrients in plants, some of which are only found in spices. Spices can also help keep our bowels running more smoothly and often. These are just a few reasons why spices can be good for our taste buds and our health.
The idea that spices are good for the body isn’t new. Many cultures have a long tradition of using spices to heal. Now scientists have started to do research looking at how spices affect the body.
There’s no precise definition for what a spice is and is not, but generally, spices come from some part of a plant and are edible, aromatic, and dried. Some, like basil, also can be used fresh. It’s very important to know that the research done so far is too limited or inconclusive to recommend eating specific spices in a specific amount for a specific kind of disease prevention or treatment. But there’s no doubt that adding more spice to our everyday diet is a good thing. It helps ensure we get the diverse nutrients we need — plus spices make food taste good! This double bonus is a great inspiration to try new recipes in the kitchen.
Below is more information about six particularly tasty spices with known health benefits:
All chili peppers (but not bell peppers) have the phytonutrient capsaicin, which gives them their heat. Studies show that capsaicin can relieve pain and possibly reduce cancer risk.
- Cancer: In some small studies, capsaicin appeared to stop cancer cells from growing in laboratory test tubes. The research is still very limited, and hasn’t been done in people. More studies are needed to learn if capsaicin has anti-cancer potential.
- Pain: Capsaicin is thought to reduce pain by enhancing and then decreasing pain intensity. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a capsaicin pain-relieving cream that’s used to treat a wide range of conditions, including shingles, headaches, arthritis, psoriasis, post-surgical pain, and mouth sores from chemotherapy. The cream is available over-the-counter at most drug stores and a stronger version is available by prescription.
- Other conditions: Animal studies also suggest that capsaicin can prevent insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes by making the body more sensitive to insulin. Since capsaicin slightly increases how quickly your body burns energy and stored fat, it also can aid in weight management.
- How to eat more chili peppers: Slice mild fresh chilies raw into salads or serve them alongside dips. Sauté peppers with onions and garlic as a flavor base for soups or sauces. Be sure to taste your peppers before adding them to any dish, though. You might want to use just a few small slices if you have very spicy ones!
- Keep in mind: In general, the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. Some of the smallest peppers, such as the habanero and Scotch Bonnet, pack the most heat. Dried, fresh, and powdered chilies all contain capsaicin. If your mouth gets too hot from eating chilies, milk or yogurt will ease the heat faster than water. Be careful not to rub your eyes or touch your face when cutting chili peppers or after eating an extremely hot pepper.
Black pepper gets its zip from the phytonutrient piperine. The benefits of piperine may include less cell damage, better gut functioning, and fewer infections.
- Cancer: Animal studies have found piperine may protect against lung cancer and reduce the risk of colon cancer. Both cell and animal studies suggest that piperine has the ability to suppress tumor growth in breast cancer. Again, these benefits haven’t been shown in people.
- Other conditions: Black pepper has long been used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhea. Recent studies have found it can improve digestion by stimulating the pancreas to make more digestive enzymes. Other animal studies have shown that piperine is anti-inflammatory and may protect against arthritis.
- How to eat more black pepper: Use your pepper grinder liberally. Almost all savory foods are improved with a good sprinkling of black pepper. I like to pat lots of fresh-ground pepper on tuna steaks before I grill them.
- Keep in mind: Don’t buy pepper that’s already ground since peppercorns start to lose piperine once they’re crushed. Instead buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself. Piperine is in all peppercorns, but black pepper has the most. Be aware that black pepper can affect how your body reacts to medicines, so if you’re planning to increase how much black pepper you eat, talk to your doctor first.
Rosemary, a perennial herb grown in many backyards, has the highest natural antioxidant activity of any plant species. Antioxidants can help prevent damage to cells. It contains rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and nervous system protective effects. Rosemary also contains other antioxidants, including carnosic acid and carnosol. These antioxidants make rosemary a particularly good spice choice for your health.
- Cancer: In cell studies in a laboratory, carnosol blocked the formation of various types of cancer cells, including prostate, breast, skin, blood, and colon cancer cells.
- Other conditions: Small studies in humans have found that inhaling the scent of rosemary can improve memory and concentration, as well as making people feel alert and invigorated. Other studies in humans found rosmarinic acid can reduce skin irritation from dermatitis and reduce seasonal allergies.
- How to eat more rosemary: Plant rosemary in your yard — it’s easy to grow and you’ll use more of it if it’s easily available. Rosemary is commonly used to flavor roasted meats and potatoes. It plays a starring role in a white bean soup I like to make. I also like a salad that tops chopped vegetables and cooked barley with a mixture of vinegar, olive oil, and some freshly chopped rosemary.
- Keep in mind: Use it in moderation, or rosemary’s strong taste will overwhelm your food.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree. It’s a common ingredient in many fall treats, from oatmeal cookies to hot apple cider and pumpkin pie. I love that that something that smells and tastes so good is also good for you!
- Cancer: Cinnamon is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Tests done in a laboratory found that cinnamon extract could help to stop cancer from growing. However much more research is needed to fully understand its potential.
- Diabetes: Studies investigating the effects of cinnamon on people with diabetes have had mixed results, but some found that that cassia cinnamon (the kind used in most American kitchens) does lower blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance.
- Other conditions: Some studies have found that cinnamon lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels, suggesting it might be beneficial for the heart. Studies also have found that cinnamon lowers blood pressure in some people.
- How to eat more cinnamon: In the United States, we tend to use cinnamon only in sweet foods, but many other cultures use it in savory dishes, too. Cinnamon is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern meat dishes, Indian curries, and Vietnamese soups. I habitually sprinkle cinnamon on top of my breakfast oatmeal, but I’ve also had success adding it to dinnertime rice dishes. To make your morning coffee fancier, sprinkle some cinnamon on top. Be aware that a little goes a long way. Too much cinnamon can taste metallic. Follow a recipe to get started.
- Keep in mind: No adverse effects from eating cinnamon have been reported, but you should talk to your doctor before significantly increasing how much you eat. Keep in mind that there’s not enough evidence to support using cinnamon to treat cancer or diabetes.
The root of the ginger plant contains active compounds including gingerol, a relative of capsaicin and piperine, as well as paradol and shogaol, antioxidants that add to ginger’s spicy flavor.
In traditional medicine, ginger is used to treat a range of health problems, including colds, fever, sore throats, vomiting, nausea, motion sickness, indigestion, constipation, arthritis, muscle aches, high blood pressure, and infectious diseases. Studies are now producing results that support some of these traditional uses.
- Cancer: In early animal studies, ginger appeared to slow or prevent the start of cancer. It’s too early in the research process to say whether ginger will have the same effect in humans.
- Nausea and pain: A number of studies have found that ginger can safely prevent nausea from pregnancy, surgery, chemotherapy, and motion sickness. More limited research suggests that ginger also may help reduce pain from osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain.
- How to eat more ginger: Ginger gives dishes a bright, warm spiciness. I love to make a dressing that includes garlic, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and lots of freshly grated ginger. It jazzes up BBQ sauce and tastes delicious on everything from green salad to chicken or noodles. Freshly baked gingerbread cookies are also hard to pass up! You also can make ginger tea by steeping a small piece of fresh ginger root in hot water.
- Keep in mind: Fresh and dried ginger flavor foods differently, so when you’re cooking you should use whichever the recipe calls for. Fresh ginger keeps in the refrigerator peeled and sealed for about 2 weeks. If you like ginger ale or chai drinks, make sure that they contain real ginger (not just ginger flavoring) and make sure the drinks don’t contain a lot of sugar.
Turmeric comes from the roots of a tropical plant in the ginger family. The golden yellow spice with a slightly bitter taste is commonly used in many South Asian dishes including curries. It’s rarely used in most home cooking in the United States, but you might be eating it without out knowing it: It’s added to many foods — including yellow mustard — as a natural coloring agent.
The most active plant compound in turmeric is curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and possibly anti-cancer properties. Traditional Indian and Chinese medicine practitioners use turmeric to treat infections and skin conditions. Studies are looking at the protective effects of turmeric on a range of other conditions.
- Cancer: Curcumin inhibits the growth of several types of cancer cells in test tube studies in the lab and slows the growth and spread of some cancers in some animal studies. Clinical trials are underway to find out whether curcumin affects cancer in humans.
- Other conditions: Curcumin may help reduce the process of brain degeneration. Animal studies suggest that curcumin helps block the plaques and proteins that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and studies in humans are underway to explore the results in people.
- How to eat more turmeric: Add turmeric to stir fries, meat, poultry, fish, egg dishes, and lentils. It’s also good in soup, chili, and dishes that use coconut milk. Try stirring turmeric into melted butter and then drizzling the mixture over vegetables. You can add more yellow mustard to sandwiches and snacks.
- Keep in mind: Eating black pepper with turmeric improves the body’s ability to absorb curcumin. Curcumin is NOT related to cumin, a spice made from the seeds of a different plant. If you’re significantly increasing how much turmeric you eat, let your doctor know. High doses of curcumin might interact with medicines you’re taking.
In addition to these six spices, many others look promising for helping the body heal and preventing disease. Many books have information and recipes on beneficial spices.
One good source for information is Healing Spices, a book by biochemist Bharat B. Aggarwal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, who studies the science behind traditional medicines, including spices. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website also offers science-based information about various herbs, botanicals, and supplements. The American Cancer Society’s website also has information on herbs and spices and diet and nutrition.
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer or another disease, spices shouldn’t be considered a substitute for seeing a doctor and following your treatment plan. Remember that most of what we know about how spices affect the body is limited and comes from very early research. If you want to take supplements containing large amounts of particular spices, talk to your doctor first, especially if you’re being treated for cancer.
Spices give us the chance to be more adventurous in our eating and cooking. Buy new spices at the grocery store and keep them on the kitchen counter so you don’t forget about them. If you don’t know how to use a particular spice, look for recipes online or check out a cookbook from the library. Try a new restaurant that uses spices you haven’t tried before.
What are your favorite spices? Do you have suggestions for using them? I’d love to hear from you!