Healthy Eating: Spice up your life

Spices do more than add flavor to food; find out how these 7 spices can improve your health and why it may be time to incorporate them into your daily life.

By KATHRYN RUBIN
June 29, 2011 10:19
Spices

Spices 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Spices are the perfect way to add flavor to your meal. However, by sprinkling spices on top of your food, you may be benefiting your health without knowing it. Each spice possesses its own unique aroma and flavor, but now it has been scientifically proven that many spices offer an array of health benefits too.

From reducing inflammation and alleviating chronic pain to decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol as well as lowering the risk of certain cancers, find out why it may be time to spice up your life.

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Black Pepper

Whether it be whole, cracked or ground, black pepper certainly adds a bit of zest to your meal. However, black pepper’s pungent flavor does more than just add a slight kick to your food; it also encourages the stomach to increase production of hydrochloric acid – an acid needed for the digestion of proteins and other food components – and therefore improves digestion.

Black pepper may also help the body maximize its ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, specifically Vitamin B12, magnesium, selenium and beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) – a beneficial property since black pepper is the most common spice added during cooking.

Moreover, like all plant food products, black pepper is rich in cancer fighting antioxidants. In fact, studies have shown that the phytochemical piperine, present in black pepper, may suppress tumor growth as it interferes with the signalling mechanisms between cancer cells. Finally, most of us have heard that honey and garlic act as antibiotics, but did you also know that black pepper does too?

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Research has shown that this spice may act as a natural antibiotic, fighting off invading bacteria that can make you sick. However, freshly ground black pepper contains more antibacterial agents than pre-ground pepper, so wait to grind it until you are just about ready to eat.

Cinnamon

While “a spoonfull of sugar makes the medicine go down”, a spoonfull of cinnamon may make cholesterol and blood pressure go down too. A study found that adding half a teaspoon of the spice to one’s daily diet lowers LDL cholesterol. While this property is still being researched, other studies have proven that cinnamon may indeed lower high blood pressure.

This spice also contains many potent antioxidant compounds, as well as possessing anti-microbial activity, and so may help to reduce the risk of food-borne diseases caused by bacteria. Moreover, cinnamaldehyde, the organic compound that gives cinnamon its flavor and odor, helps to prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets as well as acting as an anti-inflammatory.

Finally, the medicinal use of cinnamon gaining the most attention these days concerns blood sugar stabilization. Multiple studies have shown that cinnamon may help control and lower blood glucose levels, which is important for people who have type II diabetes or who are prone to the disease. While some studies have shown conflicting results, a spoonfull on cinnamon can really do no harm.

Powdered Cayenne Pepper

Derived from hot chili peppers, cayenne pepper certainly provides a potent kick to your meal, and for those that can handle the spiciness it offers a list of interesting health benefits.

Capsaicin, the substance responsible for the peppers zesty flavor, has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. While chronic inflammation is commonly associated with arthritis, in recent years, research has shown a strong correlation between inflammation and many other conditions, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, types of cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.

In fact, cultures consuming a large amount of cayenne pepper have a much lower rate of cardiovascular disease compared to cultures that don’t. Cayenne pepper’s “hot factor” also reduces swelling in the sinus cavities and as well as clearing mucus from a stuffed up nose due to a cold or seasonal allergies. In fact, capsaicin acts in a similar manner to the compounds found in most cold medicine as it helps to break up congestion - except that capsaicin works much faster and doesn’t have a long list of unwanted side effects!

While cayenne pepper offers many health benefits when ingested, it offers even more when applied as a topical preparation for pain relief. Studies have shown that topical capsaicin is an effective way to treat cluster headaches, osteoarthritis pain and rheumatoid arthritis.

Saffron

One of the most expensive spices in the world, saffron is native to Turkey and southern Europe. However, saffron does more than just add a yellowish tinge and an exotic flavor to foods; it can also be used to ward off and prevent a variety of ailments. Saffron receives its golden hue from carotenoids such as lycopene and beta-carotene, two anti-oxidants that fight off harmful free radicals that can cause heart disease and cancer.

However, saffron is also rich in crocetin, a carotenoid that has shown significant potential as an anti-tumor agent. Crocetin may also help improve memory and cognitive procession, and therefore may prove useful in treating neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.

Ginger

One of the oldest known spices, ginger has been used for centuries for flavouring food as well as to treat a wide range of health problems, including nausea, vomiting or upset stomach due to motion sickness (much like gravel does). Gingerol, the active constituent of fresh ginger, can help digestion as well as providing a number of other health benifits.

As a potent anti-inflammatory, gingerols are believed to reduce pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, as an anti-inflammatory, consumption of ginger tea also reduces symptoms brought on by a common cold or nasal rhinitis, such as congestion, sinusitis and even regular headaches as it reduces inflammation in the blood vessels.

Cardamon

A relative of the ginger family, cardamon is commonly found in curries, herbal teas, rice dishes and is the spice that is responsible for chai tea’s unique flavor.

While it is commonly used throughout Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, cardamon is also believed to possess many medicinal properties. Herbalists and practitioners of traditional Indian medicine have long valued the spice’s ability to facilitate digestion as well as to help cure common gastrointestinal problems. However, today more and more scientific studies have shown that consumption of cardamom may also help to lower high blood pressure as well as may help to prevent blood clots from forming. Moreover, cardamon is an excellent source of limonene – a compound typically found in the lemon peels as well as that of other citrus fruits. Studies have found that limonene has been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer (particularly squamous cell carcinomas) by almost 30 percent as it keeps the cancerous cell from growing and multiplying.

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