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The World of Spices—When Flavor and Nutrition Unite

by Wendy on October 20, 2013

(First published in Tastings–The Magazine of the Food and Culinary Professionals group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.) 

The Story of Spices

Image about Wendy with spices | BazilianRemember learning in elementary school how on his original mission Christopher Columbus sought a shorter passage to the Far East by sailing west to find the riches of the silk and spice trades?  Well, the spice history in America tells a story that actually began much earlier than these famous voyages. Herbs and spices have been an important part of all cultures including the Americas starting back in recorded history as early as 5,000 years ago, with evidence that many spices date back much further still.

Archaeological findings suggest that chili peppers were used as far back as 10,000 years ago in South and Central America and spices and flavorings specifically including peppers, chocolate, allspice and vanilla originated in the Americas well before they were introduced to rest of the world. Worldwide—and still today—spices were regarded as precious items, used in ancient times for preserving foods, as religious offerings and for burials, as perfume and incense, as well as flavoring for foods and as medicine.  Could they be the original functional foods?

But the contemporary story in America becomes even more interesting—as a prized value of monetary trade and luxury for centuries, today spices and herbs are even more treasured for how they enhance the flavor on our plates and for the potential they offer as health-promoting ingredients in our modern cuisine and diet.  By the 18th and 19th centuries, North Americans had brought a wide variety of spices from ginger to cinnamon from around the world to our country and established major ports in New York, San Francisco and Baltimore—ports that continue to welcome the flavors of the world to this day.  And today in a time when consumers are seeking ‘better for you’ foods and ingredients on their plates, the herbs and spices are experiencing a renaissance of sorts due to the interest in flavorful and healthful foods which happens to coincide with an explosion of science pointing to active compounds in them that may help protect and enhance human health.

Today, spices and herbs are used primarily to enhance the flavor of our foods, but a growing body of modern research shows they have powerful antioxidants and play important roles in promoting health in a number of ways. Just one teaspoon of cinnamon has the antioxidant ORAC value equivalent to one cup of pomegranate juice. And a half-teaspoon of dried oregano has the antioxidants of three cups of fresh spinach. Botanically classified as fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices in both fresh and dried forms are being recognized today for their phytonutrient properties.

Health Benefits of Spices and Herbs

Researchers at prominent institutions and universities in the U.S. and internationally are investigating the active compounds like carotenoids, flavonoids, phenolics and others along with the roles that the herbs and spices may play in health promotion and disease risk reduction. Here are a few of the standout areas that are receiving the greatest attention today on some of our most common spices and herbs sitting right in our cupboards.

Cinnamon has been shown to contain polyphenols that exhibit insulin-like properties activating insulin receptors on the cells. While not all research has demonstrated an effect, a growing number of studies in animals and humans has shown that cinnamon may help lower blood sugar levels as well as play a role in the regulation of blood pressure with regularly consuming an equivalent of 1/4-1/2 teaspoon per day.

Ginger has been used for centuries as a digestive aid around the world, and science today increasingly supports this role in easing digestive discomfort, nausea and even pain. One of its active compounds, gingerol, appears to work as an anti-inflammatory agent similar to common pain killers like aspirin and ibuprofen. Research presented at the 2009 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting showed regularly consuming ginger may attenuate post-workout muscle pain and inflammation. Ginger has long been used to help alleviate symptoms of nausea associated with everything from morning sickness to motion sickness and also post-chemotherapy associated nausea. Recent research from the University of Rochester Medical Center with over 600 patients undergoing chemotherapy showed that as little as 1/4-1/2 teaspoon equivalent of ginger could significantly reduce the symptoms of nausea associated with chemotherapy.

Research looking at red pepper and its active compound capsaicin has shown that consuming this flavorful and colorful spice may stimulate the metabolism and help individuals eat fewer calories at a meal. Capsaicin is found in the spicy cayenne pepper, chili powder and crushed red pepper flakes, as well as the much milder regular and smoky paprika. A growing number of studies have also shown an increase in diet-induced thermogenesis at mealtime as well as stimulating fat oxidation, suggesting a potential role as an aid in the field of weight management.

Turmeric, the golden spice that imparts its color and antioxidants to yellow curry, has gained attention for the emerging evidence that it may help prevent age-related cognitive decline and preserve brain health. Interestingly, areas of India with the highest regular consumption of turmeric also have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease, a topic that has not gone unnoticed by nutrition scientists. Curcumin, the active compound, in turmeric exhibits strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson recently observed antitumor effects of curcumin in human subjects with pancreatic cancer. Scientists around the world are looking at this spice and its potential multidimensional roles in disease prevention.

Oregano is a standout having one of the highest antioxidants levels among the dried herbs. Scientists have discovered that oregano has potent antimicrobial and antibacterial properties and some studies suggest oregano may play a role in improving vascular complications related to diabetes as well as support a healthy immune system.

These represent just a sampling of the diverse research looking at various herbs and spices in such areas as inflammation, cognition and behavior, antioxidant/phytonutrient capacity, weight management, and disease prevention. Rosemary, for example, has shown to have anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties—a number of studies showing its strong antioxidant role in reducing HCAs generated during grilling meats when used in a marinade. Thyme is being researched for its role in aiding with chest and respiratory issues, among other antioxidant functions. And importantly, the beneficial results with the herbs and spices are being seen through consuming reasonable culinary doses, not extreme amounts.

 Image of dried spices and herbs | Bazilian

Flavoring with Herbs and Spices 

Using herbs and spices is certainly not a new concept in cooking, especially when you know your way around the kitchen and how to both execute and develop flavorful recipes. But when it comes to our clients, the majority of consumers are today in a state of ‘reintroduction’ to the kitchen, having stepped out for a period of time in favor of ready-made meals, restaurant dining and fast foods. But the flavor and health connection make herbs and spices inviting, especially with a more globalized palate reflecting a bit of adventure with the diverse seasonings of many different ethnic cuisines in the U.S. today.  Herb and spice use has literally exploded in the last three decades, the industry seeing a 300% increase in per capita usage.

According to the 2013 IFIC Food and Health survey, taste is still the number one factor driving purchasing today followed next by price, healthfulness and convenience.  At the same time that nearly 3/4 of individuals believe food and nutrition play an important role in overall health, consumer research has shown that the most health involved consumers are not the most cooking involved. As a result, dietitians need to use a broad and creative approach providing simple tips and easy-to-execute recipes.  Flavoring with the herbs and spices has never provided such varied opportunities—appealing to the health-interested through simple strategies for adding them to the existing diet, the cooking-novice with simple but tasty recipes, to more sophisticated applications with diverse ethnic flavorings and more complex recipe development and meal planning.

Here are just a few of the simple everyday uses to add a little more spice to your life: 

  • Shake cinnamon onto your coffee grounds before brewing or stir into your morning oatmeal.
  • Sprinkle paprika or cayenne pepper on ready made hummus, cream cheese filled celery, avocados and guacamole—or to season air-popped popcorn.
  • Add a dash of warm flavor with ginger to winter squash or sweet potatoes, combine with a low-sugar peach preserve to spoon over pork or chicken, or combine with hoisin sauce for a gingery Asian-inspired marinade for salmon.
  • Scramble some thyme into your eggs or sauté with mushrooms to top baked chicken.
  • Add 1/2 teaspoon oregano per cup of pasta sauce or sprinkle onto a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich or onto a garden salad.
  • Add a sprinkle of yellow curry to a healthy chicken salad or into rice dishes along with some pine nuts and raisins or dried cherries.

Whether the kitchen cupboard will ultimately become the ‘new medicine cabinet’—that story is yet to be told. But ancient wisdom, centuries of practical use in cuisines around the globe, and contemporary science are uniting when it comes to the world of spices today. And a healthy and flavorful diet is one we can all wrap our brains (and mouths) around.

 

Image about Spices paprika oregano cinnamon | Bazilian

Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian and freelance writer in San Diego. She is an American College of Sports Medicine-certified Health and Fitness Specialist and was the Nutrition Advisor at the Golden Door fitness resort and spa for more than a decade. Dr. Wendy is a consultant to McCormick, Inc. and  is author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale).

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