Rob Hobson Healthspan Head of Nutrition takes a look at how adding a little spice to you life can boost your health
Spices have been used for both their culinary and medicinal properties for centuries as favoured by Chinese and Ayurvedic practices, which both share a strong belief that spices can help to heal and protect the body from disease. Many spices were celebrated for their medicinal properties long before being used in cooking and now research is beginning to unveil the science behind the potential health benefits of these foods.
Spices such as turmeric have anti-oxidant capacities as a result of the plant compounds found within them, meaning they are able to help protect the body from damage caused by excess free radicals that can accumulate as a result of both environmental and lifestyle factors. Research has shown that turmeric in particular has compounds that can boost the activity of the body’s own anti-oxidant enzymes offering a double-sided effect.
Many spices, such as turmeric, are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is now believed that low-level inflammation plays a major role in almost every chronic, Western disease. This includes heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and various degenerative conditions, which has sparked research into the potential role of spices such as turmeric in helping to protect against the development of these diseases.
All spices are a good source of iron, which is required for the production of healthy red blood cells. Adding spices regularly to food is a good habit to get into for people with low iron stores or those at risk of deficiency, which includes vegans and 23% of women in the UK shown to have low intakes.
Spices enhance the flavour of food and can help to reduce the amount of salt used in cooking, which is good for people with high blood pressure. Adding spices to food is also a good way to ‘tantalise the taste buds’ and pack a flavour punch. This can be useful for people with a reduced sense of taste and appetite such as older people in care.
Some people find that using plenty of sweet spices can be a useful way to help cut down on the amount of sugar they include in their diet, which in turn may help to form part of their weight loss strategy. These spices include cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, which work well in drinks and breakfast foods such as porridge.
Is it a herb or a spice?
Spices are usually defined as an aromatic part of a tropical plant, whether that is a root, bark, flower or seed and with the exception of vanilla, chilli and allspice, nearly all of them are of Asian origin. Herbs are defined as not having a woody stem and dying at the end of each growing season.
Spices can be categorised botanically according to their source of plant part:
- Leaves of aromatic plants (bay, thyme and rosemary)
- Fruits and seeds (fennel, caraway, nutmeg, coriander, black pepper)
- Roots and bulbs (garlic, turmeric, galangal, ginger)
- Bark (cinnamon)
Exploring the wide range of spices available and experimenting by adding them into your everyday food and drinks can be an easy way to add both appeal and flavours
Top tips to adding spices into you daily diet
- Get into the habit of always having spices to hand. Start with a simple collection of spices such as cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, curry powder and turmeric.
- Explore the use of spices by creating herbal drinks such as turmeric and ginger or chia tea. Some of these blends may help with digestive complaints e.g. fennel and mint (bloating) or ginger and lemon (nausea).
- Turn leftovers into a whole new dish by adding a spice mix such as Ras el hanout (Moroccan) or garam masala (indian).
- Creating your own spice rubs to marinade meats and fish is a healthy way to add interest to lean proteins when grilled or baked.
- Try adding spices to pre-prepared sauces to add an interesting twist. If all you have left in the cupboard is a jar of tomato sauce, then why not add smoked paprika and white beans for a Spanish inspired meal made with chicken and rice.
Culinary use of spices
Spices vary in flavour from pungent to aromatic and their tastes can be both peppery or bitter. They are often added during the cooking process so that they can heat up and release their flavoursome oils but many recipes also add spices at the end of the cooking process such as garam masala, which is a blend of spices used in many Indian dishes.
Partnering spices together can also be a good way to add an extra flavour dimension to your dish but in some cases can also encourage the absorption of certain compounds.
Why good for your health?
This pungent root has aromatic citrus notes and a peppery flavour, which is reflected in the powdered spice. Ginger has been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which are a result of the active compounds called gingerols. Traditionally ginger has been used to treat nausea, which is consistently shown in many studies that include sickness caused by pregnancy, chemotherapy and sea sickness. Ginger is also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and a small study showed a reduction in pain from exercise induced injury.
Pair it with: Anything Asian. This cuisine uses a lot of ginger as a base with onions and garlic. Ginger also works well in sweet puddings with chocolate.
Top Tip: Try using ground ginger with lemon to make a very refreshing, spicy tea. Using the ground spice over the fresh root gives this tea a much spicier kick!
Why good for your health?
Turmeric has been shown to contain a compound called curcumin that acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory in the body. Research has drawn similarities to the effects of neurofen on joint pain in people with osteoarthritis and ongoing research is exploring the potential positive effect of turmeric on conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. If you fancy exploring the potential health benefits of turmeric, then opt for a supplement such as Healthspan Opti-Turmeric that has a high level of curcumin and a good levels of absorption in the body http://www.healthspan.co.uk 60 capsules £15.95.
Pair it with: Black pepper helps the body to absorb the active ingredient called curcumin when cooking.
Top tip: Go easy when using turmeric. It adds a lovely rich golden colour to dishes but of you add to much it will leave everything tasting bitter.
Why is it good for your health?
These sweet anise-flavoured seeds are popular in cuisines such as those found in the Mediterranean. This seed is traditionally used to help relieve bloating and flatulence, whilst aiding digestion. Fennel seeds contain flavonoid antioxidants including kaempferol and quercetin that help to fight the damage caused by excess free-radicals. Fennel seeds are also a good source of iron and calcium.
Pair it with: Mint and caraway seeds, which can be used to make a digestive tea to help relieve bloating after eating.
Top tip: Try chewing fennel seeds to help freshen your breath after eating, which is something traditionally practiced in India and often served in restaurants (Mukhwas are brightly coloured, sugar coated fennel seeds).
Why is it good for you?
These seeds are very pungent and can be found whole or ground and sometimes go by the name ‘Methi’. The flavour of fenugreek is tangy and butter with a burnt-sugar aftertaste and you can also find a fresh herb that is grown from the same plant. Of all the spices, this one is particularly high in iron, which helps to maintain healthy red blood cell function and immune system. There is some research to suggest that fenugreek may help to control blood sugar levels, with at least 1g of this spice shown to lower levels, particularly in diabetics (although this is not conclusive).
Pair it with: Other traditional Indian spices such as mustard seeds or fresh curry leaves.
Top tip: To get the best flavour out of tough Fenugreek seeds you should dry-fry them or grind them into a powder.
Spices can easily be added to all foods served at any time of the day. Incorporating spices into your daily diet can turn even the simplest of dishes into something truly delicious, whilst also helping to maintain and protect your long-term heath so reach for the kitchen cupboards as a way to spice up your life.