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Add Some Spice to Your Life

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Cooking with herbs and spices is an easy way to add flavor, color and fragrance to foods.  But beyond the flavor enhancing power of spices, they are also loaded with vitamins and minerals and have important medicinal benefits.

Long before their culinary use, spices were used in many cultures for their antimicrobial properties, and to stimulate the immune system to help reduce illness.  Spices have also been used for centuries to reduce inflammation.  The anti-inflammatory benefits of spices are significant because chronic low grade inflammation in the body can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs and lead to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, arthritis and depression.

I love to experiment with new and different spices in my cooking to change the flavor profile of my favorite recipes.  And using fresh or dried herbs and spices is a great way to reduce the sodium content of meals without sacrificing flavor.  A dash of this or a pinch of that can make all the difference between a ho-hum meal and one that makes your taste buds sing.  Here is a list of just some of the healthy spices and ways you can use them to your benefit.

Cinnamon is a medicinal superstar.  It contains antioxidants that fight inflammation and studies have shown that cinnamon can help reduce cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood stream.  But the prized effect of cinnamon is how it positively impacts blood sugar levels.  Research has shown that cinnamon slows the breakdown of carbohydrates and improves the body’s response to insulin. Cinnamon also reduces fasting blood sugar levels in diabetic patients by 10-29%. How to use:  Include ½ tsp to 2 teaspoons of cinnamon a day in your meals. Add it to oatmeal, yogurt, tea, smoothies or cooked fruit.  Try my favorite: add a teaspoon of cinnamon to a pot of chili!

Ginger is loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that can help prevent cell damage and prevent chronic disease.  The anti-inflammatory benefits of ginger have been shown to help with pain management in arthritis in the same way that aspirin and ibuprofen can.  Ginger may also protect against cancer.  Additionally ginger has been shown to treat nausea caused by morning sickness, motion sickness and chemotherapy. How to use: Make ginger tea.  Add a few fresh slices ginger to hot water and allow to steep for 10 minutes.  Ginger is also the perfect spice for stir fries, rice, or lentils.  Try my favorite: sauté a few teaspoons of fresh grated ginger and add it to chicken soup!

Black Pepper has anti-bacterial properties as well as anti-oxidant properties that can help prevent cell damage caused by free radicals to aid in the fight against cancer.  It’s also an anti-inflammatory agent as well.  In addition, black pepper has been shown to improve cholesterol, blood glucose levels, gut function and brain function.  Black pepper also enhances the absorption of another super spice, turmeric. How to use: sprinkle black pepper on cooked meats, chicken, eggs, vegetables and grains.  Try my favorite: add fresh ground pepper to olive oil for dipping bread.

Turmeric contains the active compound curcumin, which provides the yellow hue found in curry powder.   Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight oxidative stress that can cause diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, as well as high blood pressure and stroke.  It’s anti-inflammatory and studies have shown that it can help reduce pain and joint inflammation associated with arthritis.  Curcumin has also been shown to improve brain function, inhibit the growth of cancerous stem cells in breast cancer, and help reduce heart disease. How to use:  Add 1 teaspoon of turmeric to soups, stews, lentils and other legumes.  Add ½ tsp to the cooking water when making rice, sprinkle it over hummus, or add 1 tsp to your smoothie. Try my favorite: Make golden milk.  Heat ½ cup of milk or unsweetened milk substitute of your choice over medium heat in a pan on the stovetop, add 1 tsp of turmeric powder, a slice of fresh ginger along with ½ tsp of cinnamon, and  a pinch of black pepper; stir until heated through.  Strain the milk mixture through a through a sieve into a mug.    

Garlic provides a good source of manganese, vitamin B6 and vitamin C.  But the real benefit comes from the compound allicin that each bulb contains.  This compound has been shown to improve heart health, reduce blood pressure and improve LDL cholesterol.  Garlic also contains antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress that contributes disease risk and the aging process   Garlic also helps to boost immune function; studies have shown that it can reduce the number of colds as well as the length of cold symptoms. How to use: Sauté garlic to add to soups, stews, stir fry and sauces. Try my favorite: Whole roasted garlic.  With the bulb intact, remove some of the loose outer layers around the head, leaving the cloves intact. Trim about ¼ inch of the top of the head of garlic.  Place on a sheet of foil and drizzle the bulb with 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil.  Wrap foil and place on a baking sheet in the middle rack of the oven and roast at 400 for about 40 minutes until garlic is soft.  Use it as a spread on bread or add to marinara sauce.

Cayenne Pepper is used in many spicy dishes.  It contains a powerful antioxidant called capsaicin.  This compound has been shown to reduce appetite and boost fat burning.  Early animal studies have shown that capsaicin halted the growth of prostate cancer cells.   Additional studies are needed to see if this will translate to humans. How to use: add a pinch of cayenne to soups, chili, in dips or sprinkled over hummus.  Try my favorite: sprinkle cayenne pepper on fresh popped popcorn.

Oregano is a popular herb used to flavor many Italian dishes. It contains important vitamins such as A, C, E and K, and minerals like calcium, potassium and folate.  It’s also a good source of antioxidants that help to reduce disease risk, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation.  Fresh oregano also works as an antibacterial force, thanks to the phytonutrients it contains that can fight infections such as staph. How to use:  Add fresh or dried oregano to soup, stews, and pasta dishes.  Try my favorite:  Add fresh chopped oregano at the end of cooking, on roasted cauliflower. 

Content submitted by Janyce Gately MS, RD, LDN, HC