Next time you’re looking to stave off a cold, ease indigestion or clear a stuffy nose you might want to turn to your spice rack instead of the medicine cabinet.
Spices and herbs are some of the most powerful natural medicines; many were gathered for their healing properties long before culinary use. Today, using herbs and spices for more than flavoring is returning as part of the trend for “functional foods” – foods that do more.
“More people are interested and seeking a cleaner, whole foods-type diet,” says Andrea Hill, Nutrition Consultant for Kirk Market.” says Andrea Hill, Nutrition Consultant for Kirk Market. “There is generally more awareness over the health detriments of a processed diet versus simple, natural ingredients that not only impart taste and appeal, but health benefits as well.”
Few things are more natural than spices and herbs – spices come from the seeds, berries, bark or roots of plants, herbs from the leaves. They are the perfect way to add flavor and aroma to dishes.
Black pepper is the most ubiquitous spice. It is very versatile and, when added to foods, makes the absorption of vitamins and nutrients much easier. Peppercorns are derived from the berries on the pepper plant, which are dried until they turn dark brown/black in color.
Use: grind into salad dressing; rub onto poultry before roasting; make a pepper sauce.
Recent research suggests cinnamon helps regulate blood sugar. It works by decreasing the amount of glucose that enters the blood stream, improving insulin sensitivity. Because of its strong antioxidants, it is also believed to reduce the risk of heart disease. Cinnamon is made by cutting the stems of the cinnamomum tree and extracting the inner bark, which when dried forms strips that curl into rolls known as cinnamon sticks.
Use: sprinkle ground cinnamon onto oatmeal, lattes, buttered toast or over ground coffee before brewing.
Giving a general boost to overall health, cumin relieves stomach aches, improves digestion and relieves gas. Because of its dietary fiber content, cumin in a powdered form acts as a natural laxative. Cumin is the seed from a small plant in the parsley family.
Use: bake cumin seed bread; add to fajitas and taco seasoning; rub into carrots or squash before roasting.
A type of chili pepper, its active ingredient capsaicin is known to boost the body’s fat-burning compounds as well as providing the spice’s heat; it is a common ingredient in weight loss supplements.
Use: sprinkle into chili; mix with tomato juice; add to guacamole or hummus.
Cloves are the flower buds from an evergreen rainforest tree native to Indonesia. It contains the health-benefitting essential oil eugenol, which has anesthetic and antiseptic properties useful for curtailing dental pain. Clove is also good for bad breath and may ease stomach upsets. Its oil is good for massaging into sore muscles.
Use: blend in apple sauce; stud onion with several cloves and add when making homemade sauce, stock, broth or stew; stir ground cloves into poached fruits or pecan pie.
Despite its pungent aroma, garlic is great for heart health. It is known to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Its curative qualities were recognized over 3,000 years ago. Garlic’s vital compound is allicin, which contains sulfur; this is what gives garlic its strong flavor and peculiar smell. Allicin helps high blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels and preventing blood clots. To maximize its health benefits, crush garlic at room temperature and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes. This triggers a reaction that boosts the healthy compounds in the garlic.
Use: mix into mashed potatoes; roast and use as a dip; crush and spread with butter onto a sliced baguette before baking for homemade garlic bread.
Ginger improves digestion and alleviates nausea. It is one of the most important plants used in herbal medicine because when combined with other herbs and spices it enhances their taste and potency. Ground ginger is typically used in baking and is very different in taste to fresh ginger, which is more pungent.
Use: chop into stir-fry; make ginger lemonade; brew with hot water, honey and lemon; add to juiced carrots and apples.
Rosemary has been an essential part of an apothecary’s repertoire since the Renaissance. Its active ingredient is rosmarinic acid which suppresses allergic responses and nasal congestion. The essential oil can also block histamine, a chemical culprit of both asthma and allergies. Add to massage oil to ease the pain of arthritis and sore muscles, or put a few drops in bath water for a steam inhalation. Unlike milder herbs, rosemary can withstand longer cooking times so it lends itself to roasts and hearty stews. Even its twigs (stripped of leaves) can be used as kindling or an aromatic addition to BBQ fires.
Use: add dried crushed rosemary to mashed potatoes; mix into vegetable omelets; make rosemary-infused oil.
A staple of any herb garden, parsley helps digestion and works to prevent gas and bloating. The best way to get its medicinal benefits is to juice the fresh leaves. It also contains chlorophyll, which acts as a breath freshener – simply chew a fresh sprig for better breath.
Use: add chopped flat leaves to meatballs or meat loaf; mix with olive oil and lemon for salad dressing; use as garnish for any dish; make a salsa verde to accompany fish and meat.
Saffron is the most expensive spice due to the labor taken to harvest it; a member of the lily family, the plant’s stems must be collected by hand. Crocin is saffron’s main compound and gives it that golden color. Saffron is considered a mood enhancer, may increase vitality and is good in the treatment of stomach and gastrointestinal disorders.
Use: flavor rice or baking; use in fishcakes; add to coffee with cardamom for a Middle Eastern drink.
Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits are making turmeric the spice du jour. Responsible for the yellow color in curry, this root contains curcumin and curcuminoids that work to relieve everything from bloating to cardiovascular disease. A study by the Government Medical College in Bhavnagar, India even found curcumin supplementation to be as effective as Prozac at treating the symptoms of depression. It seems we’ve had gold dust in our spice racks all along.
Use: sprinkle on egg salad or Greek yogurt; add to water when cooking rice; mix with mayonnaise or hummus; blend into a smoothie with mango and banana.
By Sara Fiedelholtz