While we’ve always used spices to finesse the flavors in our food, it’s become more widely known lately that fresh spices, just like whole grains and vegetables, offer many health benefits.
While herbs are generally the green leaves of fragrant plants, spices are derived from a variety of sources, including the seeds, bark, stems or roots of pungent plants. Herbs and spices have long been used medicinally and to aid in digestion, and science continues to verify the beneficial effects. Here are a few examples:
Cinnamon is a tree bark that is sold in a variety of forms, from tightly rolled sticks to cinnamon powder. Recent research has shown that a teaspoon of cinnamon a day helps to manage blood sugar levels. Cinnamon works well sprinkled in hot cereal, but can also be added to warm beverages, yogurts, smoothies, toast or fruit.
- Turmeric adds a brilliant golden hue to foods and is often an ingredient in Indian cuisine and curry powders. Turmeric contains a yellow pigment, curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Ginger has long been known to reduce nausea. Effective for individuals who experience car-sickness or for pregnant women with morning sickness, ginger can be consumed as a tea or in a candied or dried form. Fresh, peeled, chopped ginger is an excellent addition to stir-fries, while powdered ginger can be added to bean dishes, soups or vegetables.
- Dried chili pepper flakes provide a concentrated source of antioxidants. Their use in pasta dishes, stir-fries or in vegetable dishes ignites the palate and provides an effective alternative for those reducing their sodium but longing for robust flavor.
Anise is a licorice-flavored spice that contains phytoestrogens and has also been noted to aid digestion. It is most often used to flavor baked goods, such as biscotti, but can also be added to soups and stews.
Buying spices from bulk sources allows you to buy small quantities so that you can experiment with your flavor preferences. It also allows you to keep a fresher-quality product on hand. Spices should always be stored in a cool, dry place. They will stay fresh for up to two years if purchased whole and up to one year if purchased ground.
So next time you set out to create a satisfying meal, use spices strategically — not just to stimulate your palate, but also to enhance your health!
By Debra Boutin, MS, RD, Clinic Nutrition Coordinator, Bastyr Center for Natural Health