For centuries, spices have been prized for their culinary and medicinal properties. These little powerhouses of flavour not only help preserve food and make it delicious, but they also may help protect against a range of health conditions.
Packed with the good stuff
Spices are the dried seed, fruit, root, bark or flower of different types of plants. They are used in small quantities to flavour, colour and preserve food.
In addition, spices are a good source of phytochemicals – natural compounds found in plants that have been shown to have positive health effects. These include vitamins, minerals, sulphur-containing compounds, tannins, alkaloids and flavonoids.
Phytochemicals in spices have been shown in preclinical and clinical trials to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties for various health conditions.
Spices contain polyphenols, which are important phytochemicals, in levels higher than other foods like broccoli, dark chocolate, berries, grapes, and onions. This is a good thing as spices tend to be eaten in such small amounts.
What’s so special about polyphenols? They can work in our bodies to help prevent or improve chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, arthritis, and neurodegeneration. They do this by targeting specific receptors or enzymes involved in regulating inflammation and immune responses in the body.
The healthiest flavour booster
Salt, sugar, and fat are commonly added to food to enhance flavour. They are all good things in moderation but overused in highly processed fast foods. Too much may contribute to health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. This is where spices come to the rescue!
Spices are powerful flavour enhancers; just a few teaspoons in a meal go a long way. Healthy foods like vegetables and legumes can be made more delicious with a bit of spice while reducing the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in your cooking and curbing your cravings for unhealthy foods.
Spice it up every day
Including spices in your meals, every day is the best way to reap the health benefits. Studies have shown people who eat spices in their food frequently and consistently benefit most.
Studies have shown that eating spices regularly may lower your chance of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease. One recent study in China found that people who eat spicy food almost daily have a lower risk of death than those who consume spicy food less frequently, and women seemed to benefit even more than men.
But it’s not just about the risk of death; people who enjoy spices regularly tend to have a lower salt intake and blood pressure. In fact, a study found that eating spicy foods can change how the brain processes salty tastes, leading to a lower preference for salt, a lower daily salt intake, and lower blood pressure.
How you cook with spices can also impact their health benefits. For example, simmering and stewing (hello curry!) can help release greater amounts of phytochemicals from spices, making them easier for our bodies to absorb. On the other hand browning foods with dry heat methods like grilling and frying can decrease antioxidant levels.
Tips for getting more spice into your meals:
- Explore spice-rich cuisines such as Indian, South East Asian and Middle Eastern
- Swap spices for salt, sugar and fat in your cooking
- If you like heat, add chilli or black pepper to your meal before you add more salt
- Add fragrant “sweet spices” such as cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise to porridge, yoghurt, smoothies and baking
It’s wonderful to think that something as simple as a pinch of spice can positively impact our health! Now, over to you. How are you going to add a bit extra spice to your day?
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Jiang, T.A., 2019. Health Benefits of Culinary Herbs and Spices. Journal of AOAC International 102, 395–411.
Opara, E.I., 2019. Culinary herbs and spices: what can human studies tell us about their role in the prevention of chronic non‐communicable diseases? Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 99, 4511–4517.
Opara, E., Chohan, M., 2014. Culinary Herbs and Spices: Their Bioactive Properties, the Contribution of Polyphenols and the Challenges in Deducing Their True Health Benefits. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 15, 19183–19202.
Vázquez-Fresno, R., Rosana, A.R.R., Sajed, T., Onookome-Okome, T., Wishart, N.A., Wishart, D.S., 2019. Herbs and Spices- Biomarkers of Intake Based on Human Intervention Studies – A Systematic Review. Genes & Nutrition 14.