As a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor at EatingWell Magazine, I know that herbs and spices
do more than simply add flavor to food. They let you cut down on some
less-healthy ingredients, such as salt, added sugars and saturated fat,
and some have inherent health benefits, many of which Joyce Hendley
reported on for EatingWell Magazine.
"We're now starting to see a scientific basis for why people have been
using spices medicinally for thousands of years," says Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and author of Healing Spices (Sterling, 2011).
have long been low. But when Indians move away and adopt more
Westernized eating patterns, their rates of those diseases rise. While
researchers usually blame the meatier, fattier nature of Western diets,
Aggarwal and other experts believe that herbs and spices-or more
precisely, the lack of them-are also an important piece of the dietary
puzzle. "When Indians eat more Westernized foods, they're getting much
fewer spices than their traditional diet contains," he explains. "They
lose the protection those spices are conveying."
compelling evidence that several may help manage some chronic conditions
(though it's always smart to talk with your doctor). What's not to
love? Here we've gathered eight of the healthiest spices and herbs
enjoyed around the world.
May help: Boost metabolism.
Chile peppers add a much-appreciated heat to chilly-weather dishes, and
they can also give a boost to your metabolism. Thank capsaicin, the
compound that gives fresh chiles, and spices including cayenne and
chipotle, their kick. Studies show that capsaicin can increase the
body's metabolic rate (causing one to burn more calories) and may
stimulate brain chemicals that help us feel less hungry. In fact, one
study found that people ate 16 percent fewer calories at a meal if
they'd sipped a hot-pepper-spiked tomato juice (vs. plain tomato juice)
half an hour earlier. Recent research found that capsinoids, similar but
gentler chemicals found in milder chile hybrids, have the same
effects-so even tamer sweet paprika packs a healthy punch. Capsaicin may
also lower risk of ulcers by boosting the ability of stomach cells to
resist infection by ulcer-causing bacteria and help the heart by keeping
"bad" LDL cholesterol from turning into a more lethal, artery-clogging
May help: Soothe an upset stomach, fight arthritis pain.
Ginger has a well-deserved reputation for relieving an unsettled
stomach. Studies show ginger extracts can help reduce nausea caused by
morning sickness or following surgery or chemotherapy, though it's less
effective for motion sickness. But ginger is also packed with
inflammation-fighting compounds, such as gingerols, which some experts
believe may hold promise in fighting some cancers and may reduce the
aches of osteoarthritis and soothe sore muscles. In a recent study,
people who took ginger capsules daily for 11 days reported 25 percent
less muscle pain when they performed exercises designed to strain their
muscles (compared with a similar group taking placebo capsules). Another
study found that ginger-extract injections helped relieve
osteoarthritis pain of the knee.
May help: Stabilize blood sugar.
A few studies suggest that adding cinnamon to food-up to a teaspoon a
day, usually given in capsule form-might help people with type 2
diabetes better control their blood sugar, by lowering post-meal
blood-sugar spikes. Other studies suggest the effects are limited at
May help: Quell inflammation, inhibit tumors.
Turmeric, the goldenrod-colored spice, is used in India to help wounds
heal (it's applied as a paste); it's also made into a tea to relieve
colds and respiratory problems. Modern medicine confirms some solid-gold
health benefits as well; most are associated with curcumin, a compound
in turmeric that has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
properties. Curcumin has been shown to help relieve pain of arthritis,
injuries and dental procedures; it's also being studied for its
potential in managing heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
Researcher Bharat Aggarwal is bullish on curcumin's potential as a
cancer treatment, particularly in colon, prostate and breast cancers;
preliminary studies have found that curcumin can inhibit tumor cell
growth and suppress enzymes that activate carcinogens.
May help: Lift your mood.
Saffron has long been used in traditional Persian medicine as a mood
lifter, usually steeped into a medicinal tea or used to prepare rice.
Research from Iran's Roozbeh Psychiatric Hospital at Tehran University
of Medical Sciences has found that saffron may help to relieve symptoms
of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and depression. In one study, 75% of
women with PMS who were given saffron capsules daily reported that their
PMS symptoms (such as mood swings and depression) declined by at least
half, compared with only 8 percent of women who didn't take saffron.
May help: Inhibit breast cancer-cell growth.
University of Missouri scientists found that this herb can actually
inhibit breast cancer-cell growth, reported Holly Pevzner in the
September/October 2011 issue of EatingWell Magazine. In the study,
animals that were given apigenin, a compound abundant in parsley (and in
celery), boosted their resistance to developing cancerous tumors.
Experts recommend adding a couple pinches of minced fresh parsley to
your dishes daily.
May help: Preserve memory, soothe sore throats.
Herbalists recommend sipping sage tea for upset stomachs and sore
throats, a remedy supported by one study that found spraying sore
throats with a sage solution gave effective pain relief. And preliminary
research suggests the herb may improve some symptoms of early
Alzheimer's disease by preventing a key enzyme from destroying
acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory and learning. In
another study, college students who took sage extracts in capsule form
performed significantly better on memory tests, and their moods
May help: Enhance mental focus, fight foodborne bacteria.
One recent study found that people performed better on memory and
alertness tests when mists of aromatic rosemary oil were piped into
their study cubicles. Rosemary is often used in marinades for meats and
poultry, and there's scientific wisdom behind that tradition: rosmarinic
acid and other antioxidant compounds in the herb fight bacteria and
prevent meat from spoiling, and may even make cooked meats healthier. In
March 2010, Kansas State University researchers reported that adding
rosemary extracts to ground beef helped prevent the formation of
heterocyclic amines (HCAs)-cancer-causing compounds produced when meats
are grilled, broiled or fried.