Nutritionists and health-conscious chefs recommend cooking with dried herbs and spices as a way to add flavor to foods without adding extra fat, salt or sugar. In addition to their sodium and calorie-free flavor-boosting powers, most spices also have tremendous health benefits, including weight control, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer prevention.
Ancient Medicine Was Right
Spices have been used throughout history for their medicinal and health-enhancing benefits. Researchers now have determined that many spices are antioxidant powerhouses, providing as many disease-fighting health benefits as a full serving of many fruits and vegetables. In addition to their antioxidant power, some spices also have antibiotic properties, and they can reduce inflammation in the body. The good news is that some of the healthiest spices are in most kitchen cabinets.
Three spices in particular have been shown to strengthen the immune system by fighting infections, and reducing inflammation that can potentially lead to cancer and other diseases. Compounds found in garlic can kill microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, viruses, and even some cancer cells in test tubes. There is also evidence that eating raw garlic daily may help prevent the common cold. To eat it raw, try adding fresh minced garlic to salad dressings.
The slight lemon scent of thyme leaves complements most fish, chicken or vegetables dishes, and even a small amount of thyme leaves offer health benefits. Like garlic, this native Mediterranean herb also has antiseptic, antibiotic and antioxidant properties.
Ginger has long been a superstar in Chinese medicine for its immune-boosting properties. It has been used throughout history, to treat everything from the common cold, to gastrointestinal ailments including morning sickness. Add ground ginger to foods for spiciness, or steep whole peeled ginger in teas.
Best Spices for Antioxidants
Because they are dried and concentrated, most spices are extremely high in antioxidants. Researchers in Spain have reported that clove ranks highest as a natural antioxidant because of its phenolic compounds that are responsible for its strong fragrance. One-half teaspoon of clove contains more disease-fighting antioxidants than one-half cup of blueberries.
Widely used in Mediterranean and Mexican cooking, oregano packs another powerful antioxidant punch, and can possibly protect against several types of cancer. Recent research suggests a link between regular oregano consumption and a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
Another Mediterranean native, rosemary's pine-needle-like leaves are high in antioxidants, which can help improve memory and concentration, as well as fight free-radical damage in the brain. Use this herb to add rich flavor to meats and stews.
Turmeric contains the powerful antioxidant curcumin, which has been intensively researched for use in treating or preventing several types of cancer, including breast, prostate and colon. Turmeric gives foods like mustard and curry their bright yellow color. It has a mildly spicy flavor and you can add it to vegetables, soups or stews.
Helpful for Blood Sugar and Weight Loss
The warming spices cinnamon and cayenne pepper are beneficial for blood-sugar control and weight loss. Diabetes researchers have determined that a teaspoon of cinnamon, when added to foods like cereal, helps control blood-sugar levels. Several studies have shown that capsaicin, the active compound in cayenne or other hot peppers, can boost metabolism, suppress appetite and play a small role in weight management.