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11 Healthiest Spices (& How to Add Them to Your Meals)


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11 Healthiest Spices (& How to Add Them to Your Meals)
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Often people think that antioxidants come exclusively from fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate or red wine, but many herbs and spices also have an abundance of antioxidants. Spices can do much more than add a little flavor to your favorite meal. Some can provide protective benefits against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, inflammation and more. Read on for a look at 11 healthy spices with surprising benefits, plus some tips on how to add them to your favorite dishes.

1. Cinnamon
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Cinnamon is a nutritional powerhouse. “It contains iron, calcium and manganese and is loaded with antioxidants and health benefits,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE. Sheth says studies suggest that cinnamon may help control blood glucose and blood pressure in people with Type 2 diabetes. Enjoy cinnamon on oatmeal or add a little in your next smoothie to start reaping its benefits. Sprinkle it on toast, yogurt or cereal, and mix it into muffin recipes. Beyond breakfast time, try sprinkling cinnamon on veggies such as roasted carrots or sweet potatoes, Sheth suggests.

Related: Hidden Health Benefits of 14 Holiday Superfoods

2. Cardamom
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Cardamom has a long history as a stomach soother. According to Ayurvedic medicine, it counters acidity and makes fatty foods more digestible, Yoga Journal explains. Cardamom contains the phytochemical cineole, which has antiseptic properties. It also has a delicious, distinctive aromatic profile -- cardamom gives chai tea its characteristic flavor. To counter bad breath and help heal sore throats, add cardamom to tea, coffee, hot chocolate and hot milk. Also, try adding whole pods to the cooking liquid for rice to accompany Indian or Middle Eastern food. When you’re baking, you can add powdered cardamom to coffee cake, muffins and cookies.

Related: Cardamom Spice Makes Nice

3. Fennel
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Sweet fennel bulbs are a good source of vitamin C, says medical herbologist Kirsten Hartvig, author of “Healing Spices Cookbook.” She advocates regular consumption as a good way to support a healthy immune system. Fresh fennel is great in salads, soups and stews. Hartvig adds that dried fennel seeds -- the part of the plant you’ll find in your spice cupboard -- are traditionally used in fish dishes, particularly those made with oily fish, because the seeds enhance the flavor and aid digestion of fats. The leaves of the fennel plant are tasty, too. You can sprinkle fresh chopped leaves on yogurt, tofu or steamed vegetables.

Related: How to Cook with Fennel (VIDEO)

4. Cayenne Pepper
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The heat is on. Fiery cayenne pepper is known for its pain-relieving properties, but studies also suggest it may aid weight loss. In research published in the March 2011 issue of "Physiology and Behavior," participants who added half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper to their meals burned more calories. Medical herbologist Kirsten Hartvig recommends using cayenne pepper in sauces, casseroles and dips to add heat and sweetness. She advises restraint while adding cayenne to dishes. "Be careful not to use more than intended,” she says. “It’s hard to undo, although coconut milk, cream or sugar can sometimes help tone down the heat a little.”

Related: 15 Foods That Help You Peel Off the Pounds

5. Turmeric
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This bright orange-yellow spice contains the antioxidant curcumin. A study published in the December 2011 Journal of Biological Chemistry suggests that curcumin can suppress the gene implicated in the development and progression of breast cancer by improving the efficacy of chemotherapy medications and reducing drug resistance. When it comes to adding turmeric to your diet, don’t be intimidated, says registered dietitian nutritionist Vandana Sheth. “People often don’t know what to do with turmeric, but it can be added to any vegetable side dish for a little curry-like flavor,” Sheth says. “It is good to note that dried turmeric has a strong taste and is best cooked a bit before consumption.”

6. Cloves
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The clove is a powerful spice loaded with antioxidants, says registered dietitian Vandana Sheth. A 2010 study published in the Nutrition Journal ranked cloves highest in antioxidants compared to other common herbs and spices. The aromatic clove is versatile, but sometimes it's hard to know how to integrate it into meals and snacks. “Try adding ground cloves in place of cinnamon or ginger in baked goods or in your oatmeal,” suggests Sheth. Cloves can also be added to sweet baked goods like muffins, bread and cookies.

7. Ginger
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Call it the wonder spice. Ginger has many compounds, including gingerol, thought to provide health benefits, according to Vandana Sheth, RDN. “Ginger has been used for the treatment of colds, gastrointestinal problems and motion sickness. Animal studies have also shown that ginger may protect our tissues and organs from oxidative damage and prevent cancer growth,” Sheth explains. Ginger is a tasty addition to tea, smoothies, cereals and yogurt. Create a gingerbread-flavored breakfast treat by topping toasted bread with a bit of butter and honey and a sprinkle of ground, dried ginger. “Adding freshly grated ginger to sautéed vegetables, salad dressings and marinades adds an instant Asian twist to your dish,” says Sheth.

8. Nutmeg
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Nutmeg may help you make fewer trips to the dentist. Results from an in vitro test at Pavia University in Italy, published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology in 2011, showed that an antibacterial compound in the spice, called macelignan, cut plaque formation in half and eradicated cavity-producing microbes. In addition, nutmeg may relieve digestive problems such as indigestion and gas. Experts advise using nutmeg sparingly. So, for stomach troubles try sprinkling just a pinch on top of a fiber-rich cereal in the morning. You can also add a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg to ground coffee or add the same amount to chili prepared in a slow cooker.

Related: 2-Minute Paleo Pumpkin Microwave Muffins

9. Saffron
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This spice may be a natural antidepressant. Research on saffron, including a 2006 study that appeared in Phytomedicine, suggests that it offers mood-boosting effects and relief from PMS symptoms. The labor-intensive process of producing saffron (it takes from 70,000 to 250,000 purple saffron crocus flowers to produce 1 pound) makes it the most expensive spice in the world. A little goes a long way in the kitchen, says medical herbologist Kirsten Hartvig. “Only a pinch is needed to spice a whole dish, and the trick is to make sure it is evenly distributed during cooking.” Add saffron to Middle Eastern, African and European stews, soups and paellas.

10. Garlic
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A growing body of scientific research confirms garlic’s reputation for benefiting the cardiovascular system, lowering cholesterol, reducing blood clots and preventing platelet aggregation, says medical herbologist Kirsten Hartvig. Garlic has many culinary uses, she adds. “Crushing, cutting or chopping garlic brings out the quite strong, sharp flavor, which is so popular in cooking all over the world -- in dressings, sauces, pesto, purees, marinades and butters, for roasting, casseroles and stews.” Got a cold? Try steeping minced or chopped garlic in hot water to make a healing tea. Garlic is a traditional remedy for the common cold.

Related: 12 Not-So-Common Tips to Fend Off Cold and Flu

11. Cumin
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Cumin is a good source of iron and shows potential to lower blood glucose according to animal studies, says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and representative of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cumin has antibacterial properties, and has been found effective in killing bacteria linked with stomach ulcers, Sheth notes. Cumin is often found in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Mediterranean and Indian foods. To enhance their flavor, toss cumin seeds with vegetables and olive oil, and roast the mixture in the oven.

How Do You Spice Things Up?
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The health benefits of spices continue to be discovered. One area of promising research is adding herbs and spices to meats to reduce the harmful carcinogens that cooking produces, says Vadana Sheth, RD. Sheth points to research published in the May 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that adding a spice mixture to hamburger meat before cooking reduced the formation and absorption of a byproduct that can potentially cause changes to DNA and promote cancer. Which spices are your favorites and which dishes do you add them to? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Related: Reduced Carcinogens in Hamburger Meat

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