Healing Spices

by Megy Karydes | Nov 19, 2014
Many people who reach for their spice cabinet while cooking are seeking to add flavor to their dishes. However, they may not realize the health benefits of including certain spices in their daily diet. Study after study shows that spices can help prevent several types of cancer, relieve pains by reducing inflammation, and provide many other benefits.

Many herbs and spices contain medicinal properties, says Syeda Farid, a registered dietitian at Swedish Covenant Hospital and Galter LifeCenter. “Several cultures have been using them for their healing properties for generations."

Used on a consistent basis, microquantities of spices and herbs can assist in improving one’s health and wellness. “Another benefit is that by using these natural antioxidants, it helps us consume less sugar, salt and fat by improving the flavor of food.”

Research is ongoing when it comes to health, healing and the nutritional benefits of herbs and spices, but there is considerable evidence in support of the overall benefits of adding some spice to your diet.

Healthier alternatives
Highly processed and ready-to-eat foods tend to be higher in sodium. Cooking at home more often, and even adding herbs and spices to convenience foods, can improve your health. “When recipes asked you to add salt in boiling water, add some cumin powder or lemon juice instead,” Farid recommends.

Another great herb is fresh cilantro. “Fresh cilantro contains high levels of antioxidants which acts as a digestive aid and helps prevent urinary tract infections,” says Farid. 

Another of Farid’s go-to spices? Cinnamon. “Cinnamon is delicious in taste and naturally reduces the desire for sweets,” she adds. “It’s a good alternative to sugar in a recipe and it also improves digestion and may lower blood pressure. Regular use of a small amount of cinnamon helps lower glucose levels and, thus, assists with better diabetes control.”

A few added benefits of cinnamon: making a tea with cinammon, ginger and lemon can help you tackle a common cold, and it’s a great way to reduce the sugar in holiday recipes. “Cinnamon can be considered a spice for life,” Farid jokes. 

Remove this, add that
According to a study released earlier this year by the American Heart Association, adults consumed less sodium compared to others who tried to reduce their intake on their own when they’re taught how to incorporate herbs and spices in their daily diets.

"Salt is abundant in the food supply and the average sodium level for Americans is very high — much higher than what is recommended for healthy living," says Cheryl A. M. Anderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California San Diego. "Given the challenges of lowering salt in the American diet, we need a public health approach aimed at making it possible for consumers to adhere to an eating pattern with less salt. This intervention using education and tasty alternatives to sodium could be one solution."

Training our taste buds to avoid craving salt isn’t easy, admits Farid, but it’s necessary. In addition to giving the taste buds time to adjust, there are easy ways to replace salt but still give dishes flavor.

Balsamic and other flavored vinegars, dill, oregano, basil, garlic, ginger, black pepper and citrus juices are just a handful of healthy salt substitutes, recommends Farid. Turmeric and cumin are other strong and flavorful contenders, depending on your dish.
Drying and storing herbs and spices isn’t bad, as long as you use them frequently.
Before use, crush them into your palm to release the essential oils in them.

Garlic is a great source of vitamin C and E; to reap the benefits of the antioxidant boost, Farid recommends consistently adding freshly minced garlic into your diet. 

Farid suggests buying fresh in season and in bulk to save money and drying whatever you don’t use immediately. “Just remember not to make a powder at the time of storage; keep in natural leafy form and crush it between your palms when you’re ready to use it,” she says.

Where to buy spices
Farid is a fan of Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square because the retailer sells smaller packages of spices so you only buy what you need. She also says she appreciates the knowledgeable staff.

When shopping for spices, your sense of smell is just as important as taste. "If the
spices smell fresh and flavorful, they’re likely fresh,” according to Farid. Don’t buy spices if they don’t smell like they’re fresh because they might have been sitting on the shelves for a long time and at that point, they’ve lost their health benefits.

Get creative with recipes
Farid directs clients and friends to eatright.org, powered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for recipes. The evidence-based material shared on the site also makes its content easy to follow.

At the end of the day, though, Farid strongly recommends experimentation. "Instead of cooking the same old way, try replacing some ingredients with spices and herbs and see what you like," she says. Trying new flavor may help skip salt cravings. Make your own favorite spice and herb mix /rub. The staff at the Savory Spice Shop or your local spice shop can help you create your own version. Or, check out Peterson Garden Project’s class schedules as there are classes designed to help you incorporate various spices into your dishes.

It takes time to find the spices that will work for you and your family, but Farid reminds her clients that consistency and commitment will bear healthy rewards. 

One of her colleagues shared that she’s been adding turmeric in everything from yogurt to bread and sautéed meat, and she is convinced that it’s giving her more energy, improved her cognitive function and reduced her arthritic joint pain. 

Farid can’t say whether it’s the turmeric or other factors that are causing the positive results. What she can point to, however, is that when people begin thinking about their overall health and making changes, even incrementally, they will see results. 

Eating more spices and herbs is one step in the right direction.