Throughout the ages, herbs and spices have enhanced food flavor. But ancient civilizations didn’t distinguish between the flavor benefits and medicinal benefits of plants. Today, science is coming to understand that most do indeed come packed with medicinal qualities. So get out your spice rack, and your pestle and mortar. We’re about to take a tour of the world’s healthiest herbs and spices.
Cinnamon is the spice champ of the moment. According to Time magazine, new research reveals that cinnamon is a “metabolic powerhouse”. It helps lower blood sugar levels, which makes it great for people with type 2 diabetes—but there’s more. Cinnamon could actually help you lose weight and live longer. The spice has phenols similar to an antioxidant in red wine. According to researcher Amy Stockert, cinnamon “could possibly be linked to anti-aging, antioxidant control, a lot of really important health benefits.” So, here’s to all the cinnamon toast your beautiful heart desires.
Bonus: Try this recipe for cinnamon and curry spiced chicken thighs for a double-punch of healthy spice deliciousness.
Turmeric is one of the primary ingredients in yellow curry and a member of the ginger family. One tablespoon of turmeric provides valuable manganese, iron, potassium and vitamin C. A staple of traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, this spice helps with digestion. But that’s just the tip of the spice-berg. Curcumin, an active substance in turmeric, is anti-inflammatory, which promotes heart health, and could help ward off cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
Cayenne gets a good rep because it’s tasty, not too spicy and has the magic ingredient you’ll find in chili peppers: capsaicin. Capsaicin is a thermogenic chemical that promotes weight loss by increasing metabolism and decreasing appetite. Moreover, it actually helps you burn calories. It’s gastroprotective, meaning it helps prevent and treat diseases related to the stomach and stomach lining, such as ulcers. Additionally, capsaicin helps lower blood pressure, promoting cardiovascular health.
Bonus: Try this recipe for cayenne hot chile pepper truffles if you’re in the mood for a heart-healthy aphrodisiac.
Although in America we normally think of mustard as a condiment, you can grind up its seeds and use them as a powerful spice. Mustard is a member of the brassica family, with cousins such as broccoli, radish and cabbage. In short, mustard may keep cancer from developing in your lungs, alimentary tract, gastrointestinal tract and colon. Enzymes in mustard seeds break down glucosinolates into isothiocyanates, which are cancer-fighting chemical compounds. Also, mustard is a good source of selenium. Think of selenium and isothiocyanates as superhero partners in the battle against cancer.
What healthy spice list would be complete without garlic? A culinary champ, the benefits of garlic are numerous. Several cloves of raw garlic a day will detox your bloodstream and chase away your common cold. Eating garlic daily helps lower cholesterol level and promotes heart health. It’s a natural antibiotic with antibacterial and antiparasitic properties, and can help prevent cancer. Applied topically, garlic promotes healthy skin. It can even help prevent hair loss. And garlic is downright delicious in dishes.
Bonus: Try this recipe for roasted garlic vegan street tacos for a healthy kick that conserves energy (keeps the heat low) in your kitchen.
Got seasonal allergies? A study found that rosemary’s active ingredient, rosmarinic acid, significantly relieves rhinoconjunctivitis—you know, that itchy, stuffed-up nose, all that sneezing, and those burning, red eyes that tear up. Basically, rosemary is an anti-inflammatory agent. In one study, the participants took an extract of perilla (sometimes called beefsteak plant), which belongs to the mint family. The extract, “enriched for rosmarinic acid”, helped suppress seasonal allergies; in another study, participants were supplemented with pure rosmarinic acid and it achieved the same effect.
There’s a reason why “sage” is also a term for wisdom: it enhances memory and promotes brain health. In a study, a group of “healthy young adults” got wise when they consumed essential oil extract of Spanish sage. Their “immediate word recall” improved significantly compared to participants who took a placebo. Too bad for those placebo folks. Other studies have shown that sage improves memory and attention for healthy older people, and it improves cognition for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Like turmeric, ginger is a digestive aid. But ginger doesn’t stop there. Medical News Today reports that ginger relieves nausea and is a good remedy for morning sickness. In one study involving people who work out regularly, ginger supplements reduced muscle pain by about 25 percent. And like turmeric, ginger is anti-inflammatory. It decreases colon inflammation, which results in a lower risk of colon cancer. So next time you go out for sushi, all that fresh ginger on the side is a bonus, not just a garnish.
Oh boy! Oregano is one of those household staples that’s great on a variety of savory foods. Also called wild marjoram, oregano provides vitamin K in abundance (which helps with bone health), as well as vitamin A, iron and manganese. It boosts the immune system, and helps treat colds and upset stomach. A gram of oregano has 42 times more antioxidants than an apple. Oregano oil has antifungal, antiseptic and antioxidant properties that make it a great face wash. In ground-up form, it defends against stomach flu and flavors a slice of pizza to perfection.
Bonus: Need some recipe ideas featuring oregano? Here’s five of them.
This licorice-flavored bulb is chock full of nutrients, including bone-building calcium, phosphate, potassium, iron and magnesium. Fennel backs up your bones with fresh nutrients while the potassium, magnesium and calcium help lower blood pressure. Fennel’s fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and its high levels of potassium aid in heart-health—according to Medical News Today, a study showed that people who took 4,069 mg of potassium a day had less risk of heart disease than those who took 1,793 mg. A super-spice, fennel increases immunity, decreases inflammation, promotes healthy weight and helps women reduce the effects of PMS.
You know basil is a key ingredient in delectable, fresh pesto, but did you know it competes with cinnamon as one of the spices that may fight aging? Holy basil, the kind they use in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, kills harmful molecules and prevents damage from free radicals in the brain, liver and heart. A pharmaceutical study reported in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology also showed that holy basil reduces swelling by 73 percent in 24 hours. That means it’s great for treating arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Basil is rich in antioxidants, and its many essential oils have antibacterial benefits.
This stuff is strong—as a precaution, if you have been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), don’t take it. Although it can help with skin irritation and itchiness, don’t apply the essential oil to your skin without a carrier oil. Other than that, peppermint is fantastic for its calming effect, which can help tame anxiety. Peppermint provides relief for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and indigestion. Perhaps one of the coolest things about peppermint is its ability to soothe a tension headache and reduce pain. Just dilute three to five drops of essential peppermint oil with one ounce of mineral oil, and apply.