The latest studies say that every time you flavor your meal with herbs and spices, you are not only making it more delectable but also more healthful Adding herbs and spices to your food may do more than make a meal tasty, it may keep you healthy. Potent plant compounds in herbs like cinnamon and rosemary have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial actions that scientists suggest might help do everything from normalize blood glucose levels and protect the heart to improve mood and boost brain function even repel cancer cells.
Much of the research is preliminary and in rodents, but it expands our thinking of what flavoring food can do. Here, Health & Nutrition updates you on the latest research
Chilli Powder Though it seems odd that capsaicin, the substance that gives green chillies and chilli power their fiery heat, would act as a pain reliever, it has indeed been used for years as a topical cream to help people with arthritis, shingles and psoriasis, Experts suspect capsaicin works by first stimulating pain receptors via the skin ad then shutting them down.
Now, scientists think this principle can help inside the body too. By combining the local anesthesia lidocaine with capsaicin, Harvard scientists were able to block pain receptors, yet leave tough and motor sensors intact, causing controlled numbness. Though tested only on rats so far, researchers are confident the finding could eventually transform the way surgery is performed. In laboratory studies, capsaicin has also been shown to kill prostate cancer cells.
Cinnamon ___ In addition to antioxidant and antimicrobial activity, cinnamon is now hailed for its power to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood glucose levels. It’s also been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels.
Unfortunately, the data have been inconsistent. Nevertheless, even small amounts of cinnamon may be effective. One study showed that the equivalent of just one half teaspoon of cinnamon powder twice daily before meals lowered glucose and cholesterol levels lowered glucose and cholesterol levels. Another found that the equivalent of a teaspoon a day lowed fasting glucose in people with diabetes.
Turmeric___The current flurry around curry powder aka gram masala centers on its primary ingredients, turmeric and cumin, which contain curcumin, a powerful polyphenol with antioxidant properties. Curcumin lends these spices their distinctive flavor and vivid yellow color.
In a study in Endocrinology in July, Columbia University researchers reported that curcuumin reduced inflammation and lessened the chances that obese mice would develop type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, in the mice that did get the disease, curcumin still lessened insulin resistance, improved blood sugar levels, decreased body fat and increased muscle mass.
More exciting studies target heart disease and cancer. Canadian scientists gave curcumin to mice with enlarged hearts. Not only did it lower that incidence of heart failure (a common outcome of an enlarged heart), but it reversed the condition, restoring heart function. Curcumin also has the ability to stop tumor growth and promote tumor cell breakdown, particularly in colorectal cancer cells.
Earlier animal research suggests curcumin may help prevent rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. Its extract blocks, bone breakdown, reducing the risk for osteoporosis. Now, scientists are looking at curcumin and Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s a leap from mice to men, of course, but it’s an exciting new avenue of research. Currently, 10 studies are underway in humans.
Garlic___Garlic has been the focus of much research a lot of it relating to heart disease, cancer and immunity. It’s the bulb’s phytonutrients sulfur-containing compounds including allicin and allin that are thought to impart significant health benefits. These are the same compounds that deserve credit (some say blame) for garlic’s distinctive aroma. Numerous studies suggest that eating garlic regularly improves blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, lessens the “stickiness” of platelets and may inhibit plaque and calcification of arteries.
A recent review of eight studies categorized men and women by garlic intake; those who ate the most had significantly less risk of certain cancers (oral/esophageal, prostate and kidney) compared to those who ate the least. Garlic has also been found to contain compounds that inhibit enzymes that cause inflammation and may be helpful in reducing the pain of arthritis.
Ginger___This root has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. It has a reputation for preventing and soothing the nausea associated with motion sickness, pregnancy and chemotherapy. Its most active and pungent compounds, called gingerols, are touted as potential cancer and inflammation fighters but, experts are awaiting more evidence on this before giving the final word.
Oregano__The spice that makes you drool at the mere sight and smell of a pizza is noted for it supreme antioxidant abilities. Oregano has up to 20 times the antioxidant activity of other herbs, and gram-for-gram beats apples and oranges. Now this herb has been found to be a potent anti-inflammatory agent too. That’s what German and Swiss researchers discovered recently when they gave oregano’s active ingredient to mice with swollen paws. The swelling subsided in up to 70% of the mice.
Rosemary ___Rosemary is a robust herb that adds oomph to dishes, but can it crack down on cancer? Scientists think so, at least a concentrated extract of the herb might. Some research believe oregano can block dangerous carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines ( HCA) from forming during cooking.
A Kansas State university food scientist, motivated by a study showing that marinades made with rosemary, theme and other spices could cut HCA in grilled steak by 87% tried rosemary extract alone. Bingo. The rosemary wiped out any trace of HCA in the cooked beef patties, and without a strong rosemary taste. Researchers credit phenols with protective antioxidant, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects.
Saffron___This spice is what turns Basmati rice yellow in biryani. Both the petal and sought-after stamen of saffron have shown potent antidepressant effects in several studies. In fact, a few studies found that 30 miligrams of saffron was just as effective as commonly prescribed fluoxetine (fludace) and imipramine for treating mild-to-moderate depression. Other research suggests saffron has anticarcinogenic properties.
Sage and Thyme ___Both sage oil and thyme oil are thought to help maintain and protect brain function. Early research on rats suggests thyme oil works as a brain antioxidant, protecting polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation as the brain ages. Sage oil’s antioxidant powers may improve cognitive function in mild-to-moderate cases of dementia. In healthy adults, sage oil has been chain to improve mood and performance on simple tasks.
The Bottom Line. Ancient cultures have been using herbs and spices to prevent and treat illnesses for thousands of years, but only recently have Western scientists begun to substantiate some of these claims as well as discover new benefits.
Keep in mind, however, that much of the research has been on animals so for, and many supplements in amounts impossible to consume, fresh or dried. So researchers need to study these herbs and spices in humans in everyday amounts before recommendations can be made.
Nonetheless, it’s becoming clear that there benefits to be had from enjoying a healthful and flavorful dose of herbs and spices in your food. Bon appetite!