Now would be a good time to stock up your spice rack. Research has shown that spices are not only the flavor of life, but also a key to prolonging it.
“History and scientific literature is replete with evidence of the beneficial impact of spices and herbs on health and wellness,” says Dr. Kantha Shelke, a principal at Chicago-based Corvus Blue LLC, a food science and research company that aims to make healthful ingredients better understood and more accepted by the food trade and consumers. “Studies consistently show spices and herbs have a significant role in improving health by helping reduce intake of calories, fat, and sodium while making healthy eating more appealing.”
In addition, spices also have a lineup of active ingredients that can be utilized for health benefits. “Nature has healing powers,” says Judy Fulop, N.D. As a researcher in naturopathic oncology and practitioner at Northwestern’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, she has spent a good number of years in the fields of botanical medicine and nutrition, and guides her patients through the use of herbs and spices as supplements.
“The trend now is really to combine the use of traditional medicine and natural herbs,” Fulop says. “In our culture, we have a lot of chronic diseases and problems and they’re not all solved by just taking a pill.” While the field of naturopathic medicine goes back to the 1800s when herbalists were in high demand, Fulop says modernized mechanisms of eating, such as fast foods and commercialized products full of additives, led people astray from eating healthy. “But now we are coming full-circle with many realizing the benefits of how our ancestors used to eat, and more people also interested into cooking.”
While the Food and Drug Administration has strict regulations on labeling foods as “healing” or “curing,” Shelke says, “there has been a prominent trend in the food industry of the use of certain ingredients for their benefits to health.”
That’s where restaurants like True Food Kitchen come in. Opened in November in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the dining venue is the brainchild of noted integrative doctor Dr. Andrew Weil (who has created his own food pyramid for an anti-inflammatory diet) and James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Sam Fox. “They built a concept that focuses on Weil’s diet but also contemporary cuisine,” says executive chef Michael Sullivan, who adds that spices are a large component of True Food’s dishes to attain nutritive benefits and also flavor meals. “Some may think healthy food is bland but that’s really not the case.”
If you’re interested in getting cooking, here’s Fulop’s list of the top 10 spices to use on a regular basis (also echoed by Shelke), along with Sullivan’s tips on how to use them correctly to get the maximum benefits.
TURMERIC — Active ingredient: Curcumin
Used for: Quelling inflammation and for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. “It’s considered Indian Gold,” says Fulop who notes studies have shown it’s more effective than store-bought aspirin and ibuoprofen, and has also historically been used for wound healing. “Studies are also underway for its potential in managing heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” adds Shelke.
Cooking tips: Always combine with some black pepper. “A little pepper sets it off and everything you can get out of it,” says Sullivan. He recommends juicing turmeric raw or adding to protein shakes. True Food Kitchen also adds turmeric to housemade sodas and ancient grain bowls.
GARLIC — Active ingredient: Diallyl sulfide
Used for: Lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol and artery plaque. “It’s one of the best spices for its antimicrobial effects,” says Fulop. That includes sulfur compounds that help with detoxification.
Cooking tips: Sullivan says the restaurant uses it in pizza sauce, purees, and raw dressings. “When you cut garlic, always let it sit for 10-15 minutes,” he recommends; this allows its active compounds time to fire up.
CINNAMON — Active ingredient: Cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid
Used for: Control of blood sugar. “Cinnamon has been shown to help people with blood risk factors like glucose and insulin resistance,” says Shelke. “The anti-diabetic effect of cinnamon may be experienced in about three months with a daily intake of one gram.”
Cooking tips: Focus on desserts. This will cut down on your need for sugar since cinnamon is naturally sweet. True Food Kitchen uses it in squash pie and a Goji apple crisp. “It’s also a great source of fiber,” says Sullivan.
GINGER — Active ingredient: 6-Gingerol
Used for: Nausea and indigestion. “It helps to stimulate your immune system and is also good for settling your stomach,” says Fulop who gives it to patients suffering from nausea after chemotherapy or for those with motion sickness.
Cooking tips: Buy it raw and use within two weeks. Also when juicing, keep its exterior (rather than peeling it) for extra benefits. Sullivan also says ginger is great in Asian-influenced dishes, like curry and teriyaki bowls.
ROSEMARY — Active ingredient: Rosmarinic acid
Used for: Brain health. “It’s traditionally an herb that helps increase blood flow to the brain, which helps with memory and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says Fulop.
Cooking tips: It’s great for meats. “We infuse it into our roasted chicken au jus,” says Sullivan. Adding a sprinkle to hamburgers can also reduce the amount of toxins that come from high heat cooking.
COCOA — Active ingredient: Theobromine
Used for: Heart health. Decreasing bad cholesterol and blood pressure and stimulating circulation are all benefits of the flavonoids found in pure cocoa, says Fulop, which can have an impact on reduced risk of stroke.
Cooking tips: Don’t go digging for a chocolate bar. To get the most benefits, look for pure cocoa powder. Though it will be more bitter, Fulop likes to add to meaty stews to help bring out the flavors.
THYME — Active ingredient: Thymol
Used for: Fighting bacterial infections. “The antimicrobial effects help with infections, and cooking with it can be helpful in colds and flu season,” says Fulop.
Cooking tips: Buy it as needed rather than let it sit around, says Sullivan. Also buy herbs like thyme from a local source. Poultry and pork are preferred ways to season with thyme, as are pasta sauces.
SAGE — Active ingredient: Ursolic acid
Used for: The mind-body connection. “Sage blocks the action of cholinesterase, which destroys important neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Fulop. This not only keeps you sharp but also calm. Sage has also proven effective for hot flashes in this way.
Cooking tips: Like thyme, buy local and only when you are ready to cook with it, says Sullivan. “The closer the herb is to its natural state when in the ground, the more active its nutrients are.” Sage is great for pan-frying meats and adding flavor to vegetables.
BLACK PEPPER — Active ingredient: Peperine
Used for: Better digestion. “It stimulates the digestive enzymes of the pancreas, enhances digestive capacity and reduces GI transit time, meaning it moves food through quicker,” says Fulop.
Cooking tips: As discussed above, add to any recipe (like curry) that uses turmeric to get a one-two punch. Sullivan also suggests buying whole peppercorn and only “crush as needed.”
Fennel — Active ingredient: Trans-anethole
Used for: Menstrual cramps. “A study in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics found that treating some high school students with moderate to severe cramps with extracts of fennel relieved the pain just as well as an NSAID,” says Fulop. It has similar digestive properties to pepper and ginger and has been used for those with colitis and babies with colic.
Cooking tips: Fennel tastes great on salads, but True Food Kitchen also uses it in a doshi mushroom stock for a “broth with powerful antioxidants,” says Sullivan.
Shelke advises to experiment with all of the above (and also suggests cayenne pepper, cumin, mint and coriander seeds to add to the list) to see what fits your individual taste. “Each of them has a distinct flavor and aroma, which is often further enhanced by roasting or frying,” she says. “A little bit goes a long way for health and the culinary effects are remarkable.”
NOTE: Always consult your doctor before adding new spices/ingredients to your diet. You can also check with your pharmacist about possible interactions with medications you are taking.
Here’s one recipe utlizing turmeric you might want to try:
Dr. Shelke’s Turmeric Shake
Turmeric is still one of the most popular areas of research for health benefits. Here’s one way to get a dose of it every morning.
-2 pieces of fresh turmeric, each about 1-inch long
– 1 banana, or ½ cup of mango, orange, or berries
– 1 ½ cup of regular milk (or 2/3 cup yogurt plus 2/3 cup water or 1 ½ cup of almond or any other plant-based milk)
Blend and enjoy.
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.