The Diet Detective
Flavorful seasonings that spice up health benefits
Spices are a wonderful way to add flair and improve taste when taking on new eating habits and cooking healthier. Not only that, but they...
Spices are a wonderful way to add flair and improve taste when taking on new eating habits and cooking healthier. Not only that, but they have a long history of medicinal use. "There have been many recent studies validating the historic habit of using spices for health benefits," says Donna Tainter, a food technologist and author of "Spices and Seasonings: A Food Technology Handbook."
Although the amounts we consume in any given meal are tiny, spices can add up to health gains. Their key health benefits lie in their pigments, which may help stabilize damage to our cells. "However, their potency rapidly declines when ground. Plus, we still don't know what would be considered an effective dose," warns Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science at the University of Maine.
Nonetheless, one of the clearest benefits spices provide is flavor, which allows you to use less butter, oil and other fattening extras.
Which spices are healthiest, tastiest and simplest to add to foods? Here are a few that are particularly noteworthy.
Background: Cinnamon comes from the dried brown bark of the cinnamon tree. There are more than 100 varieties of this fragrant, somewhat sweet spice.
Purported health perks:
• Anti-clotting action: It decreases unwanted clumping of blood platelets.
• Anti-microbial activity: It stops the growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the yeast Candida.
• Blood-sugar control: In December 2003, a study in the journal Diabetes Care suggested that 1 to 6 grams of cinnamon a day significantly reduced blood-sugar levels in patients with type-2 diabetes. In addition, the study showed cinnamon reduced triglyceride, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. A number of studies suggest that as little as half a teaspoon a day can improve the insulin response of individuals with type-2 diabetes. And a recent study suggests cinnamon may stabilize blood sugar even when eating foods high in sugar.
• Antioxidant activity: Of all the spices, cinnamon is among those with the most anti-aging, disease-fighting antioxidants, according to a Norwegian study in the Journal of Nutrition.
• Brain-boosting function: It may improve cognitive processing.
Nutrients: Manganese, dietary fiber and iron — all typically lacking in our diets. Two teaspoons have about 12 calories.
Uses: Sprinkle on cappuccino, coffee or toast, or, for an interesting twist, on chicken or mix into ground meat.
Background: The capsicum family includes red and green chilies that add "heat" to all kinds of foods. Paprika is a ground form of capsicum.
Purported health perks:
• Antioxidant activity: Capsicum has beta carotene, which is beneficial to the mucous membranes, eyes and skin and wards off infection. It also has antioxidant properties that neutralize the free radicals that damage tissue and cells, and it promotes cardiovascular health by cutting blood pressure.
• Anti-inflammatory action: Topical creams with capsaicin (the "heat-producing" property of capsicum) may reduce joint pain. Capsaicin also helps treat eczema topically by drawing blood to the skin, and it is in many over-the-counter heat patches.
Nutrients: Great source of vitamin A and beta carotene. Two teaspoons of dried red chili peppers have 25 calories; dried cayenne pepper contains 11 calories in 2 teaspoons.
Uses: Common in Mexican, South American and Asian cuisines to flavor meats, poultry and vegetables.
Background: This yellow spice has been called the poor person's saffron and is the main ingredient in curry powder. It has a warm, slightly bitter, spicy taste.
Purported health perks: It contains high concentrations of the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory curcumin, which has been said to inhibit tumor growth and help treat rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. In addition, curcumin has been associated with reduced risk of childhood leukemia and improved liver function.
• Antioxidant activity: High levels of curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, inhibit cancer cell growth. It has been shown to slow the growth of prostate cancer and prevent the activation of genes that cause cancer. "Curcumin shuts off the master switch which controls tumorigenesis (tumor growth); it specifically works against skin and breast-cancer metastasis," says Bharat B. Aggarwal, a professor of cancer medicine at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
• Anti-inflammatory activity: The antioxidants in turmeric fight the free radicals responsible for joint inflammation and damage.
• Alzheimer's disease: Recent research at UCLA indicates that eating food with low doses of curcumin slashed the accumulation of Alzheimer's-like plaque in the brains of mice by 50 percent.
Nutrients: Turmeric contains calcium, magnesium, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, iron, potassium and manganese. Two teaspoons have 16 calories.
Uses: Enhances the flavor of chicken, rice, meat and lentils.
Background: Popular Asian spice
Purported Health Perks:
• Gastrointestinal relief: Certain properties in ginger seem to ease motion sickness. It has been shown to inhibit vomiting. Its nausea-fighting properties can be helpful for people suffering the side effects of chemotherapy.
• Anti-inflammatory activity: Inflammation is believed to be a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and arthritis. Like aspirin, gingerols — compounds found in ginger — are said to thin the blood and help reduce pain.
• Antioxidant activity: Ginger is high in disease-fighting antioxidants.
Nutrients: Potassium. One ounce of ginger root has 20 calories.
Uses: Minced fresh ginger is great with all kinds of meat, poultry, vegetables, sushi and, of course, many desserts. It's also used in tea.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller, "Breaking the Pattern" (Plume, 2005) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Copyright 2005 by Charles Stuart Platkin. Write to email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.