I know that it may sound like a little bit of hyperbole but I think by the time you finish reading this, you will agree that these are probably some of the most under-rated substances in the entire world. They’re gorgeous, easy to use and the amount of health benefits that accrue to them is just so under-appreciated. In fact, I call spices stealth health foods because of all the benefits that have been found to accrue. I’ve selected the following seven.
- Let’s start with Turmeric; the spice that makes Indian food yellow. The active ingredient in turmeric is a group of compounds known as curcuminoids or collectively as curcumin. It’s really what gives turmeric its superstar status in the spice world. Research on curcumin shows its effects on regulatory mechanisms and the preventer of cancer, neurological, inflammatory diseases. We’re going to be talking a lot about inflammatory diseases because actually every disease is in a certain way an inflammatory disease. Andrew Wile, America’s integrative medical authority says three reasons to incorporate Turmeric to your diet are to prevent Alzheimer’s, arthritis and cancer. How do you get turmeric in your diet? You can sprinkle it on scrambled eggs or make a turmeric tea? I take turmeric as a supplement largely because as great as it is, it’s not well absorbed.
- Ginger has the deserved reputation as being a wonderful calming substance for the stomach. Research has been done on ginger as a cancer preventative. I’ve written a number of books in which I talk about four things that age the body and promote every disease and they are inflammation (top of the list), oxidation, stress and sugar in the diet. Inflammation is involved in diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease and every degenerative disease. Anything we can do to lower inflammation is extremely important for our health. Oxidation: the damage done by free radicals that are found in oxygen. It’s kind of a rusting. Oxidative stress is a major part of aging and just about every degenerative disease you can imagine. Antioxidants help fight the damage done by these marauding free radicals.
- A study by the American Chemical Society found oregano to have the highest ranking antioxidants of any herb. It appears to contain some diabetes fighting compounds as well. I prefer the oil of oregano, not really the spice itself. Oregano oil is anti-microbial. WebMD says it should be taken by mouth for parasites, allergies, a cold, the flu and fatigue.
- The main beneficial compound in hot chili peppers is capsaicin. During the 2008 Democratic campaign, when she was running against Obama for the nomination Hillary Clinton was asked how she kept up through that grueling campaign and she attributed much of her endurance and energy to red hot peppers! Red peppers are easy to eat, easy to find, inexpensive, and have great health benefits.
- Garlic is probably the number one medicinal food in the world. It goes back thousands of years. It’s been found to be helpful for the heart, for the immune system, helps kill parasites, it’s a natural antibiotic and it’s great for blood pressure. Matthew Boudoff, a cardiologist at the UCLA David Geffin School of Medicine, has done a lot of research on garlic. He found that it actually reduced plaque. Aged garlic extract was shown to inhibit the progression of atherosclerosis to lower blood pressure, improve oxidative stress and enhance circulation. Garlic has to be chopped up and broken down in order for two compounds to mix together and create allicin. There are studies showing the anti-cancer mechanism of sulfur-containing compounds of which garlic and onions are two prime examples.
- Cinnamon. A 2004 study showed that cinnamon actually improves blood sugar, glucose and lipids of people with type two diabetes. In the eleven years since this study was done, not all studies have duplicated this. Some have shown great results with cinnamon, some have not. However, there’s just no downside to using it and there’s potentially lots of upsides. There’s a meta-analysis of all the studies of cinnamon use in type two diabetes, and on the whole, they’re very positive. Here again the effect of cinnamon tea on postprandial, just means after eating, postprandial glucose simply means your blood sugar after you eat and cinnamon has a nice muting effect on that. Here again, more experimental evidence, more reviews and here once again, big surprise, turns out that cinnamon may also have some anti-cancer properties which is a very nice little side benefit so if you’re taking it for blood sugar oh look at this, it may also have some effects on cancer cells, not a bad side effect.
- Sage is an anti-oxidant and a powerful anti-inflammatory. It seems to have a great effect on memory in both younger people and in older. An interesting article shows that sage actually improved glycemic control and lipid profile in type 2 diabetics. In a study, they gave sage to a test group and they found that it lowered their fasting glucose; it brought down blood sugar. It lowered triglycerides which I consider to be a serious risk factor, far more important than cholesterol, and finally sage increased HDL cholesterol which is generally thought to be the good cholesterol; a list of great effects from a simple spice like sage.
I hope I’ve begun to open your eyes to what’s available in the spice world and the health benefits of these spices. There are spices for weight loss and they include the cayenne pepper because of its effect on energy balance and metabolism in general. There are the cancer fighting spices: garlic and ginger and cayenne pepper and turmeric. My new book, Smart Fat, has several principals: eating more fat, eating more fiber and the third one is about flavor and it’s in there for two reasons. One is when you use these spices it makes your food taste better and let’s face it, if health food tastes like straw and sawdust, nobody is going to eat it. The second stealth benefit of those flavors is all the anti-inflammatory and the antioxidant fire power that these spices have. So begin to use them, make friends with them, try them in every different kind of way. Ask your kids to be part of the whole cooking process and get friendly with these spices. Most of us have a spice rack in our kitchen that hasn’t been used. Get nice new fresh spices and start using them on everything. See what they taste like, get to know them, see how they mix and match with other flavors and you really will be opening up a whole world of flavor and a world of health.
By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS aka “The Nutrition Myth Buster”™