I grew up on a traditional (aka bland) american diet. Our go-to seasonings were salt and pepper with sometimes a dash of garlic or onion powder. And of course the occasional sprinkle of cinnamon (and sugar) on toast or oatmeal. Sure we would go out to Mexican or Chinese food on occasion and be exposed to some additional layers of flavor but that was about it. When I started cooking for myself I had no idea what to do with the herbs and spices I found at the grocery store. It actually took many years for me to slowly expand my repertoire from first adding onions and garlic to things (not just the powder) to eventually playing with spices like turmeric, cumin, ginger, or chili pepper. But ever since I took the plunge into the world of spices I have never looked back. Spices don’t just make everything taste better (really, they do), they are our most powerful natural medicine.
I’ve talked before about the benefits of a colorful, plant-based diet. There are many foods that offer us health benefits and medicinal properties. What makes spices so special? Spices are interesting because they essentially concentrate all the disease fighting properties from plants into tiny little packages. Meaning you don’t have to eat enormous quantities of these foods to get the benefits and protection. Spices have been used for thousands of years both to add color and flavor but more importantly as a way to preserve food. That’s because all herbs and spices have strong anti-microbial properties. The trading of spices was a huge part of history and for good reason many were considered to be more valuable than gold. Let’s take a closer look at some of the amazing benefits of spices.
With their anti-microbial properties, spices can help the body fight off infection. They are also high in antioxidants, which boost the immune system, and are high in anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. Modulating inflammation is important in keeping the immune system working properly. These properties are why spices are used to ward off colds and flu, lower cancer risk, decrease allergies and arthritis symptoms, help to manage pain, as well as lower the risk of autoimmune disease and other inflammatory driven diseases.
Spices are also showing promising benefits in combating obesity. Extensive research over the last two decades has shown that obesity is a pro-inflammatory condition. By lowering inflammation spices can be a helpful adjunct in weight loss. Some spices have also shown the ability to raise metabolism and suppress appetite, which can further help in weight loss efforts.
Due to their ability to boost the immune system and lower inflammation you can see why they have a role in the prevention and/or management of many different diseases. Beyond cancer prevention, research is supporting their role in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s). With all these potential benefits, why wouldn’t you want to add more spice to your life. It’s a simple and tasty way to boost your health.
My Top 10 Favorite Spices and Herbs
There are literally hundred of herbs and spices to play with and according to the research it seems like most, if not all, of them have health benefits and medicinal properties. Start with the ones you know and like, use them more, and slowly add in some new ones to get the full range of benefit. These are my favorite spices and herbs that I use on a regular basis both because of their flavor profile and because of their health benefits.
Garlic is good at fighting off bacteria and viruses as well as lowering inflammation. This is why it is traditionally thought of as a go-to for cold and flu prevention. It is also beneficial for the heart, able to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Fresh garlic is much more potent than powdered. The whole allium family (onions, shallots, leeks) have similar properties, which is why garlic and/or another allium is at the base of almost every dish I cook. In order to get the most benefit from the properties in garlic, you want to prep it by pressing or chopping (to release the oils), let it sit for about 15 minutes before adding it to your dish, and ideally add it at the end of cooking so you just lightly cook it. The longer it cooks the less potent the oils will be.
Turmeric (which is responsible for the yellow color in curry) is probably the most well-researched of all spices. Turmeric contains several compounds with medicinal properties but the most well researched is curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, making it important in cancer prevention. Studies also suggest curcumin may help reduce pain, relieve arthritis, boost heart health, and fight Alzheimer’s. Turmeric can be used fresh or dried. Uses: I use fresh turmeric in my smoothies and powdered turmeric in much of my cooking (Moroccan, Indian, Middle Eastern). Many cuisines use turmeric in their recipes. You can also enjoy powdered turmeric in a hot drink such as this one, Tumeric Milk Latte.
Ginger is another popular spice used in many different cultures. Ginger is known for it’s anti-inflammatory properties as well as it’s ability to lessen nausea and improve digestion. Ginger is a heating spice, which means it can induce sweating and help to fight off infection and lower a fever. Ginger has also been shown to lower blood sugars and improve heart health. Ginger can be used fresh or dried. Uses: I like to add fresh ginger to my smoothies, curry dishes, and to my hot water to drink as a tea. Ginger is also an essential ingredient in my Medicinal Honey recipe. I also like to cook with the powdered form and is common in many Moroccan and Asian dishes.
Cinnamon is a popular spice, found in all sorts of recipes and commonly used in baking. Cinnamon has potent antioxidant activity as well as anti-inflammatory properties. It has been shown to lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugars. Cinnamon can slow down the breakdown of carbs in the digestive tract as well as improve insulin sensitivity. Cinnamon is used dried and the most potent variety is Ceylon. Ceylon is also lower in coumarin, which some folks may be sensitive to if eaten in high amounts. Uses: I like to add cinnamon to my smoothies, yogurt, and hot cereal. I also like to cook with cinnamon in savory Moroccan dishes.
Cayenne has been shown to increase circulation and improve heart health. The active ingredient in cayenne is capsaicin. Capsaicin has been shown to reduce appetite and increase fat burning, for this reason it is a common ingredient in weight loss aids. It seems to have the most benefit when people who don’t customarily eat cayenne start adding it to their regimen; apparently a tolerance can build up. It also has high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, making it helpful in pain reduction and possibly in cancer prevention. Cayenne is typically used dried but chili peppers can be used fresh as well. Uses: I use Cayenne (or chili peppper) when flavoring Mexican dishes and more commonly in my chili recipes.
Did you know that cumin is actually the second most used spice in the world, after black pepper? Cumin is also a great anti-inflammatory spice with high levels of antioxidants and can improve digestive function. More recent research also suggests that cumin can improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and triglycerides as well as improve weight loss by increasing fat burning. Uses: Cumin is commonly used in Mexican dishes and when combined with Cayenne can easily replace any pre-mixed taco, fajita, or guacamole seasoning. I also like to use cumin in my chili recipes and is an essential ingredient in all of my Moroccan dishes.
Fennel seeds have long been known to improve digestion and help regulate bowel function. They can also help reduce gas and I personally had great results using fennel water in treating my baby’s colic. Fennel seeds are also rich in antioxidants and are a concentrated source of many minerals. They may even have a benefit in increasing breast milk production for nursing mothers. Uses: I like to sprinkle fennel seeds on top of my roasted chicken and roasted veggies. I also like to drink it as a tea.
There are actually many different plants that technically fall under the mint family but I’m going to focus on peppermint and spearmint here. Mint is well known for improving digestion and alleviating nausea. The essential oil in mint has anti-microbial properties and peppermint oil in particular has been used to alleviate IBS symptoms. Mint can be used fresh or dried. Uses: Mint tea is my go-to digestive remedy in the summer months because it’s a cooling herb (I prefer ginger or fennel in the winter). Mint is also excellent added to smoothies and salads as well as a garnishment on more savory dishes.
Rosemary is another great anti-miccorbial; the essential oil can be used as a disinfectant. Rosemary is high in antioxidants and research shows it may have benefits in cancer prevention, improving digestion, and heart health. Rosemary has also been shown to suppress allergy symptoms and clear congestion. Uses: I like to add rosemary to my roast chicken (I stuff sprigs of it inside the chicken, along with thyme), soups, and roasted veggies.
For me, Basil is the quintessential summer herb and I add it to almost everything. Basil has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. It’s used to aid digestion and is being researched for its anti-cancer properties. Uses: I add basil to all kinds of things, salad, eggs, vegetables, and soup. There’s nothing better than fresh summer tomatoes layered with mozarella and basil for a Caprese Salad and of course freshly made pesto.
Tips for Using Spices
You really can’t go wrong with any spice or herb you choose to eat more of. As we’ve seen in this article, they’re all good for you. The important thing is to just start adding them in more. Because herbs and spices are often heavily sprayed with pesticides buy organic whenever possible. Buying in bulk is always more cost effective than buying them already jarred. Over time spices will lose both their flavor and potency. Buy small amounts at a time and use them up. You don’t want spices sitting around on your shelf for years and years. By the time you get to them there isn’t much left of their medicinal properties and they don’t taste as vivid. Be sure to store your spices in an air-tight container and keep them in a cool dark space; keeping them cool and dry extends their shelf life. As a general rule whole spices will stay fresh ~4 years, ground spices ~2 years, and dried herbs ~1 year. Begin with the tips above to start using more spices. And for further inspiration go to cookbooks that highlight cuisines that traditionally use a lot of spices: Moroccan, Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American. Here’s a delicious Moroccan Stew to try that includes many of the spices listed above: Harira. Explore more recipes in the blog to find other yummy and easy ways to use spices. And for more articles like this one delivered straight to your Inbox each week, Join The Tribe. (this article was first published on 1/19/17)