For thousands of years, spices have been sought after for their flavor, medicinal qualities, status, and novelty. And while spices no longer inspire the kind of exploration, trade, and wars they did in the 15th Century, researchers are now finding a different kind of value in these substances. Many spices and herbs, from cinnamon to oregano, cumin to turmeric, have high nutritional value and pack an antioxidant punch.
When we talk about “spices,” we’re talking about a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetable-derived substance used for flavoring, coloring, or preserving food. “Herbs” are parts of leafy green plants used to flavor food, and sometimes to garnish a dish. Herbs have their own nutritional advantages.
Each spice or herb has its own nutritional profile, but in general, herbs and spices are remarkable for just how rich in nutrients they are. In other words, a small amount of most varieties packs a big punch; amounts commonly used in cooking actually can have important health benefits. However, if you generally use only very small amounts in your cooking, you may want to try increasing the quantity if there is no negative impact on the flavor of the dish.
Who knew that the abundant amount of spices that give Indian and Mexican cuisines their characteristic flavors can contribute as much to our health as they do to our palates?
Here’s a rundown of the benefits of some common herbs and spices and some delicious recipes to use them.
Basil: A half-cup serving of fresh basil has less than 5 calories and offers up to 97 percent of the daily recommended intake (DRI) of vitamin K, essential for blood clot formation; about 37 percent of the DRI for vitamin A, critical for vision and a host of bodily functions; and smaller quantities of manganese, copper, and vitamin C. Basil has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and DNA-protective properties. Half a cup is easy to consume if you like pesto! Try using it in Winter Squash Veggie Salad.
Black Pepper: Two teaspoons of whole peppercorns pack 37 percent of the DRI for Manganese, an essential component of enzymes involved in antioxidant activity, and 10.5 percent of the DRI for vitamin K. All this, along with some copper, fiber, and iron is in a 15-calorie serving. Black pepper also fosters digestive health by stimulating hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, necessary for the breakdown of proteins by the body. Herb-Roasted Rutabaga features a generous dose of these spicy dried fruits
Cinnamon: Cinnamon is the bark of a tree native to Asia and is one of the oldest known spices; it’s referred to in the Old Testament. Two teaspoons of cinnamon offer 45.5 percent of the DRI for Manganese, 11 percent for fiber, and 5.2 percent for calcium. The spice contains essential oils that research has confirmed have anti-clotting and anti microbial properties. Cinnamon’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels in diabetics and improve insulin activity is well-documented. In addition, cinnamon is a strong antioxidant, meaning it can deactivate free radicals that damage our cells. For a twist on a traditional apple dessert, try some cinnamon in Apple Turnip Crisp.
Cumin: About 16 calories, two teaspoons of cumin offer about 15 percent of the DRI for iron, necessary for red blood cells to carry oxygen, and 7 percent of the DRI for manganese. In addition to helping maintain healthy blood, cumin contributes to a robust immune system, good digestion, and may have cancer prevention qualities. Cumin adds Mexican flavor notes to Vegetarian Grilled Fajitas.
Ginger: Ginger’s health benefits come from gingerols, compounds with strong anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have confirmed that fresh ginger consumption reduces the pain and swelling associated with arthritis in a large majority of patients. Preliminary studies show that ginger protects against and even kills ovarian and colorectal cancer cells. This potent rhizome reduces symptoms associated with motion sickness, including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and cold sweating, and it’s a safe and effective way to prevent nausea and vomiting in pregnant women. Roasted Shallot and Buttercup Squash Soup has a nice dose of it.
Oregano: Native to northern Europe and used since ancient times, the Greeks and Romans considered oregano a symbol of joy and happiness. With more antioxidants than blueberries, it is easy to see why oregano made them happy! Along with antibacterial properties thought to be more effective against the waterborne Giardia amoeba than a common prescription drug, two teaspoons of oregano contain about 14 percent of the DRI for vitamin K, 5 percent for manganese, and 4 percent for iron. Surprisingly, oregano only became widely known and available in the U.S. after WWII, when GIs returning from combat wanted the flavor on pizza and other dishes they had tried in Italy. Greek Stuffed Peppers is a delicious way to showcase its flavor.
Parsley: Two tablespoons of fresh parsley offer around a whopping 138 percent of the DRI for vitamin K, along with up to 21 percent of vitamin A, 13 percent of vitamin C, and lesser amounts of iron and folate. Research in animals shows that a compound in parsley, myristicin, can inhibit tumor formation in the lungs. If you find the common curly parsley too bitter, try Italian flat-leaf parsley, which has a sweeter flavor. Chimichurri-Citrus Sauce uses a full cup of the green stuff.
Turmeric: With an impressive array of potential health benefits, turmeric has long been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. A potent anti-inflammatory due to its pigment curcumin, recent research has found turmeric has cancer-preventing and cancer-inhibiting properties, and decreases symptoms in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. Animal studies show that turmeric may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It lends an exotic flavor and gorgeous color to Spicy Roasted Cauliflower with Nectarines.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based writer, teacher, and yoga instructor.