Spices have played a role in everything from cooking, to cosmetics, to global exploration, but it’s often forgotten that for thousands of years spices have been used for healing purposes as well. Did you know that spices are being studied for their positive affects on a long list of diseases including cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s? Spices are easy to use and a treat to your tongue, so sort through your pantry and start using those spices! Your health will thank you later.
THE YOURWELLNESS GUIDE TO SPICES
To help guide you through the hundreds of spices used in cooking, the yourwellness team has chosen a representative group we think are the great to cook with on a regular basis to reap the many health rewards spices have to offer. Whoever said, “variety is the spice of life” was right… try to include as many of these spices in your diet as possible!
The Spice Superstars
Turmeric is probably most known as one of the spices used in curry that gives many Indian foods their distinct flavor. Curcumin, the compound that gives turmeric is yellow color, is thought to be the active ingredient in this spice. Turmeric may provide a “1-2 punch” of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, and is being studied as a therapeutic aid in a variety of clinical settings including cancer, autoimmune disease and Alzheimer’s.
In the Kitchen: Turmeric is delicious when added to beans, rice, curries, sauces, egg or chicken salad and salad dressings. It is often paired in recipes with dried fruits and nuts.
Ginger has been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes for over 2000 years! You may have heard that ginger can be used to help relieve motion sickness or nausea, but did you know this fragrant spice is also being studied for its benefits to joint health? Ginger appears to offer anti-inflammatory actions that may help relieve joint discomfort in certain instances, and even relieve some stomach complaints.
Fresh ginger comes from the root of the plant and contains more active ingredients than the dried spice, and may provide the most health benefits. It can be found in the produce section of your local Harris Teeter and should be stored in the refrigerator. If you’re using a pre-packaged product, make sure ginger is listed as the first ingredient. In the kitchen: Ginger can be freshly ground from the root and added to fish, chicken or vegetarian dishes. It can also be added to boiling water to make a ginger tea. Dried ginger is most often used in baking.
Ah, cinnamon… The lovely aroma reminds us of holiday treats and delicious baked goods. But did you know that this commonly used spice could also help you stay healthy? Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have long used it to fight colds and flu, and the list of possible health benefits of cinnamon is quickly growing! Cinnamon may help relieve intestinal gas, aid digestion, decrease inflammation, and perhaps even help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In addition, cinnamon possesses potent antioxidant potential.
In the kitchen: Cinnamon comes ground and in sticks, and can be used in all types of recipes – not just baked goods. Middle Eastern and Latin American dishes, as well as curries often include cinnamon. Add a cinnamon stick to steeping hot tea for an extra kick.
The health benefits of garlic are widely known and well-documented. Part of the Allium plant family (onions belong as well), garlic is best known for it’s possible cardiovascular benefits, particularly its mildly positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. It is also believed to help relax blood vessels, potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and through its antioxidant activity may help lower the risk of some forms of cancer.
Garlic reduces the pain and inflammation associated with some forms of arthritis and has proven to be helpful in battling colds and flu.
In the kitchen: It’s best to use fresh garlic instead of garlic powder or salt. Store fresh garlic uncovered in a cool, dry place (it doesn’t have to be refrigerated). Crush or chop garlic and cook lightly (no more than 5 minutes) in extra-virgin olive oil for maximum health benefits. Garlic can be used in marinades, dressings, soups and sauces, and adds wonderful flavor to roasted vegetables and stir fry.
Capsaicin appears to be the active ingredient in chili peppers that makes them both hot and healthy. Chili peppers come in many different varieties and when eating them for health, the hotter the better (but keep a glass of cold water nearby)! Scotch bonnets and habaneros are the hottest type and have the most capsaicin. Chili peppers may reduce inflammation in the body and even help lower blood pressure. When prescription capsaicin is applied to the skin directly overlying an arthritic joint it may help relieve pain.
In the kitchen: It’s important to be careful when handling chili peppers, as the juice can burn skin and eyes. Wearing thin gloves is a smart protective measure. If you do feel the fire of the chili pepper, applying cold milk will counteract some of the burn. Chili pepper, which is traditionally used in South American cuisine, is delicious in corn bread, beans, chili, soups, dips and curry dishes.
Spices will loose their potency and flavor if not bought, stored and used properly. Follow these helpful tips to keep your spices fresh:
- Buy smaller amounts of spices, buying more when you run out.
- Buy spices whole, when possible, and grind them as needed (a coffee grinder works well).
- Store in a dry place, away from heat and light in a tightly covered container.
- Write the date of purchase on your spices and make sure they don’t get too old. Ground spices last about 6 months – 1 year, and whole spices up to 2 years.
- Ground, dried spices are better when cooked less than 30 minutes, whole spices can stand longer cooking.
- Add fresh herbs and spices near the end of cooking to maximize flavor and aroma.
- When possible use fresh herbs and spices in place of dried due to their higher antioxidant activity.