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Just Add Spice

November 23, 2009

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I have a very big collection of herbs and spices in my pantry. I adore herbs and spices, and I like playing around with different flavour combinations in dishes. But it seems that I always come back to the same ones, because for some reason I just can’t get enough of them: cinnamon, cumin, red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, and rosemary. Those are my standbys: if I feel that I need a little something extra to jazz up a dish, I’ll toss in one or a combination of the above, and voila! Problem solved.

When we tend to gravitate towards the same kinds of foods, it’s usually because that food contains something our body really needs. We can learn something about what might be missing from what we can’t seem to get enough of. In Chinese medicine, it has to do with warming/cooling foods and the effect that these things have on the body. I was curious about the health benefits from the spices that I mentioned above, and what that might mean about what my body is lacking and therefore requires from external sources. This is an overview of what I found:

Cinnamon:

- 1 tsp of cinnamon contains the same amount of antioxidants as 1 cup pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup blueberries

- Contains polyphenols, which act like insulin and thus regulate blood sugar levels (diabetics, rejoice!)

- Has anti-inflammatory properties to prevent blood clots

- Boosts metabolism and aids digestion

- Protects against fungi diseases and can help with the healing process when you have the flu

Cumin:

- Helps with digestion and insomnia

- Boosts immune system

- Detoxifies and prevents against cancer

- Improves health of skin and skin disorders

- Combats respiratory disorders

Red Pepper Flakes:

- Rich in antioxidants

- Increases satiety, making us feel full faster and thus helps to control our appetites

- Boosts metabolism

- Kills bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and stomach cancer

- Clears congestion

Oregano:

- 1 tsp of oregano contains as many antioxidants as 3 oz of almonds and 1/2 cup chopped asparagus; gram for gram, it is 4 times as potent as blueberries when it comes to antioxidants

- Inhibits bacteria and parasite growth

- Very good source of nutrients such as fibre and iron

- Ancient Greeks and Romans used oregano as a symbol for happiness (aww!)

- Excellent source of vitamin K

Basil:

- Excellent source of vitamin K (I find that oregano and basil often go very well together, so it makes sense that they would have a similar nutrition profile)

- Very good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin A

- Good source of magnesium and potassium

- Blocks an enzyme in the body that causes swelling, thus helping people who have arthritis

- Contains flavanoids which prevent cell structure from being damaged by radiation and oxygen

Rosemary:

- Stimulates the immune system and increases circulation

- Improves digestion

- Contains anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce the severity of asthma

- Increases blood flow to the brain, thus improving concentration

- Fresh rosemary has 25% more manganese than its dried counterpart, but it also has 40% less calcium and iron than when it’s dried, so it’s good to use both interchangeably to reap all of the benefits

The Universal Food Rating System is as follows:

Excellent Source: the food provides more than 75% of your recommended daily value of that nutrient per serving

Very Good Source: the food provides more than 50% of your recommended daily value of that nutrient per serving

Good Source: the food provides more than 25% of your recommended daily value of that nutrient per serving

Spices for Health

I find it really interesting that so many of these herbs and spices have the same kinds of health benefits. And all of them are things which I know that my body really does need help with. I found the notes about digestion and insomnia particularly interesting for myself, personally. I’m looking forward to bringing this up with my nutritionist to hear what she has to say about all of it. It could be that my body needs extra help with all of those antioxidants, too.

How about you? What herbs and spices do you find yourself using repeatedly? Do you think that it might be partly because your body needs the properties and nutrients contained within those herbs and spices?

The above information about herbs and spices can be found in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, World’s Healthiest Foods, and Organic Facts.

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45 comments

  1. my favorite spice is cinnamon for sweet dish, peppers, chili sauce, curry for savory dishes. I’m glad that they’re good for health too! I don’t know if I like them because my body craves those flavors or just because I like the taste. But I do find that lately I crave more spicy food, maybe because it’s getting cold and my body needs extra heat? :D


    • You never know, maybe that IS what your body needs! I think that when we crave certain flavours and like specific tastes, it’s because it does something good for our body.


  2. I never cease to be amazed at the health benefits of herbs. My standby herbs are cinnamon, which I use a lot, cayenne pepper, which I also use a lot, and purple basil, which I typically use on my eggs. I also have others available, but these are the standyby herbs.


    • I’ve never heard of purple basil! But I love using the regular kind on my eggs, too. Is purple basil different from the regular kind other than in colour?


  3. I always use a lot of cinnamon and red pepper flakes. I find if something is spicy I will eat a little less!


    • I find the same thing! I’ve recently discovered the joys of hot sauce and I find that I am satisfied much faster when I eat food topped with it.


  4. My top three (the ones I go through the fastest) are oregano, red pepper flakes and cumin. But we have an overflowing spice cupboard, plus a drawer which is also full. I think my dream house would have a walk in spice pantry. :)


    • Walk-in spice pantry? *swoons* that would be fantastic! I think I’m adding that to my wish list on my dream home, too ;)


  5. Crushed red pepper has become my “go-to” spice. It’s helped me ease up on the salt shaker and fired up my taste buds.


    • That’s what I REALLY love about herbs and spices- when we use them, we don’t seem to need the salt at all. I’m firmly convinced that in just about every dish, salt can be replaced with a much more flavourful herb or spice. It’s my mission in life to eliminate the need of the salt shaker :)


  6. Mmmm, what a tasty and aromatic post! :) I’m all about oregano these days. I sprinkle it on salads, sandwiches, and chicken. I also love cinnamon, but I love it best when coupled with sugar. So you can guess how often I have it. :)


    • The cinnamon/sugar combo is so tasty. When I was little, my mum used to make batches of pancakes and she’d make “pancake sandwiches” for me- a pancake spread with butter and a mixture of cinnamon/sugar with another pancake on top. That is a HEAVENLY sandwich!

      My favourite way of nixing the need for sugar is in oatmeal- use vanilla milk and a browning banana with cinnamon in the oatmeal, and it’s so deliciously sweet that adding sugar would just be overkill.


  7. I’m not sure I agree with the ‘body needs’ theory. In some cases, yes, but many people with less-than-healthy diets crave salts and sugars that their body doesn’t need. I often crave muffins. Like, a mountain of chocolate chip muffins. I have uncontrollable muffin cravings sometimes, actually. So perhaps it’s not the most reliable guide?


    • Ah, but I have an explanation for that, too: when you’re craving the chocolate chip muffins, it’s because your blood sugar levels are low, so you need something of the sweet variety. Not necessarily CHOCOLATE, but something that can help regulate your blood sugar levels. Similarly, with the salt, it could be that yes there’s the addiction to it, but there could also be an imbalance in electrolytes or in the amount of fluids in our body etc. It’s just figuring out where the imbalance is that’s the trick!

      I also have a theory- and my nutritionist has a similar one, interestingly enough- that we tend to crave sweet things when we’re lacking the “sweet” in our lives. It could be just stress and all that, but I find that my problems with overeating stem from trying to fill a void, for example. If people don’t treat me well, it makes me feel sad and I almost immediately turn to food to fill that void.

      …case and point: I haven’t really overeaten or had any major food issues in the past three and a halfish weeks :)


  8. I love crushed red pepper – next to Tabasco, it’s my go to seasoning! :D

    Thanks for the info!


    • Not going to lie, Biz, I thought of you as I was writing about the crushed red pepper! By the way, I now have a TOTAL addiction to hot sauce. I thought you’d appreciate that :D


  9. so interesting :) a good reason to spice it up!


  10. Those are pretty much the ones I use a lot too, with the addition of cayenne pepper and ginger.


  11. I use basil and rosemary the most because I have a huge rosemary plant in my garden and a basil plant on my dining room table. And I love the flavor of both… Basil goes so well with tomatoes and pasta dishes, and I love to add rosemary to potato dishes.


    • I LOVE rosemary with potatoes. It’s fantastic! I used to have a really wonderful little herb garden and it was so nice to use them all the time. I miss it. I should really get one going in my apartment…


  12. Wow! I’m amazed at some of the super powers of these spices. I love reading up on this kind of stuff!


  13. Very interesting! It’s nice to know that I’m doing something good for my body as I spice up my food!


  14. Wow. I never really knew how nutritious spices are! I love spice…these days I’m addicted to this Soul Food seasoning…not exactly sure what that is, but it has garlic powder, paprika, and the works!
    My fave is still cinnamon though!


  15. Are these numbers for dried or fresh?

    Very interesting! I douse everything in cinnamon, so this made me a happy bunny.

    Garlic’s an amazing herb too.

    I adore cumin. Strangely, it goes very well with cinnamon.

    I also love basil and sage. Oh, and coriander and tumeric! Tumeric’s my current “holy crap never knew it existed!” spice. So good!

    Cloves are great for meat…and toothaches! Seriously, if you have a sore tooth, pack cloves around it until you can get it looked at. The cloves have a numbing effect.


    • I think the numbers are for dried spices. Ooh I adore garlic, I go through that like nothing else!

      Interesting about the cloves! Learn something new everyday :)


  16. Fun to see the list of properties, & some of the ‘as much as’
    I’ve had an herb garden for years, & have both culinary (inc. a true bay) & some medicinals. Kelp is a standard – so many minerals, I put Kombu in most dishes – helps with the digestion as well.
    I enjoy several combos – Italian blend, (prefering marjoram to oregano) & Provance (has lavender as well), curry powder & paste, GARLIC, Garam Masala with extra cinnamon is a current favorite (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin & corriander) whole nutmegs (scrap a bit into a dish) Have tarragon & oregon tea (rel. to the savories) on my porch. I also have a true Tea (Camellia sinensis) & a Meyer lemon in pots.
    Lalitha Thomas ’10 essential herbs’ & Susun Weed’s ‘healing wise’ are two of my favorite ‘common herb’ books. Yarrow, nettles & ginger are some my favorite winter herbs, & fresh lemon balm is a fav. for year round teas.
    Another reason for chocolate cravings can be a lack of magnesium – which > 80% of folks in the US lack! So think leafy greens if you’re craving chocolate :)


    • I adore herbs de Provence. Garam masala is SUCH a gem as well. I’m quite jealous of your herb garden :)

      Thanks for the book recommendations! And you make a GREAT point about the magnesium- I think that’s true for a lot of the food that we crave (not necessarily magnesium, but SOME kind of nutrient is lacking!).


  17. It’s so funny…but for some reason, I never tend to think of spices as having health benefits. Wow, I was wrong! I LOVE cumin and cinnamon – good to know I have an extra incentive to add more to my meals. :-)


    • It’s such a bonus. We get these great tasting flavours, AND they’re good for us. Who knew!


  18. I lean towards crushed red pepper flakes and cinnamon. Thanks for the info on the health benefits!


  19. I really like this post, Sagan!! I use many spices in my cooking, but was unaware of all these specific, useful things they did! I knew some of it, but not to this extent, thanks!


  20. I’m using cinnamon in my Thanksgiving Day apple crisp! We’re going to have some serious anti-inflammation going on!


    • Mmmmmmm apple crisp is so fantastic. Cinnamon MAKES that dish :D


  21. i have fresh rosemary in my fridge – sometimes I just take it out and sniff it, it smells so yummy!


    • *swoons* delicious.


  22. Turmeric to help with inflammation is my favorite!


  23. I use a lot of cinnamon and hot spices like cayenne (or just hot sauce, haha).

    I love reading this kind of stuff because it reminds me that spices can do soo much good AND they make the food tasty.


    • It’s such a win-win situation!


  24. Lots of fellow spice fans here – I love it! I’d also add cayenne to the list. Plus I couldn’t live without my pantry of indian spices: coriander, fennel, mustard seed, etc. And I love caraway and celery seed.


  25. ..]other must read source of information on this topicis ,livinghealthyintherealworld.wordpress.com,..]


  26. I love using spices! It’s amazing how healing herbs and spices can be while adding flavor to otherwise bland dishes!


  27. Amazing Article Post.I appreciate your unique way of expressing thoughts.You always write posts in a perfect manner.

    Good article, read with great interest. A large number of good links in comments:)


  28. The only caution you should take with spices is you being allergic to them. Apart from that though they are awesome.


  29. I had no knowledge that spices offered health benefits as well as being tasty! I love cinnamon as well. It makes everything more delicious. I will definitely be looking into what the health benefits of each spice I use are! This is wonderful, thank you!


  30. These are all great spices. What about Turmeric (curcumin)? This is one of the most beneficial spices you can consume. But like many spices their bio-availability/absorption is not that great. If you are looking at these for therapeutic purposes its better to supplement with extracts. I would never discourage anyone from consuming them. But again, if pure health is the goal…then other options are preferred.



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