Spice It Up! Boosting Your Health with Spices and Herbs (Part 1)

I just finished writing an article on dietary supplements and diabetes, and it got me thinking about how certain spices and herbs (including those that we frequently use in cooking) can play a role in our health.

I never really gave much thought to the containers of ginger, cinnamon, or basil that are ingredients in some of my recipes. I’d often counsel patients to use various spices and herbs to flavor foods while cutting back on calories, fat, and sodium. But using the seasonings lurking in your cupboard may do a whole lot more than just make your food tasty.

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Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a spice as the following:

1. any of various aromatic vegetable products (as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods
2. a small portion, quantity or admixture: dash b. something that gives zest or relish

And this is how it defines an herb:

1. a seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season
2. a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities

Spices tend to originate from tropical regions and usually have a stronger flavor than herbs. The use of spices in the U.S. has grown over the years. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps tabs on spices and herbs produced in the U.S., and according to its estimates, spice and herb consumption increased from 1.2 to 3.3 pounds per person per year from 1966 to 2006. We Americans do like our food “spicy” — one study showed that Americans use 3.9 spices, on average, per recipe; by comparison, Norwegians use just 1.6.

Using spices and herbs for health and medicinal purposes is nothing new. The ancient Egyptians used a variety of spices, including coriander, fennel, cumin, and garlic. The ancient Greeks and Romans used hundreds of herbs and spices, as documented by Hippocrates. Of course, back in ancient times, there were no medicines like the ones we have today. But as the saying goes, what goes around comes around — meaning that today, scientists are taking a closer look at what we use to season our food, and learning that those little jars and pots of herbs may actually have health and healing properties.

Cinnamon
I’ve written before about the use of cinnamon for improving diabetes control. Cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices and a favorite of many to this day. This spice was used by ancient Egyptians for embalming, while people in North Africa, Asia, and Mexico used it for cooking. There are two main types of cinnamon: cassia (the kind most commonly used in this country) and Ceylon, which is more difficult to find. Cinnamon contains essential oils which are comprised of three substances: cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol. Here are a few ways in which cinnamon can be good for our health:

  • Cinnamaldehyde has anti-inflammatory properties and can prevent platelets (a type of blood cell) from clumping together.
  • Cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties, blocking the growth of bacteria, fungi, and yeast.
  • Worried about an upcoming test? Want to stay sharp and alert? Sniff some cinnamon or chew cinnamon gum. Researchers have discovered that the smell of cinnamon helps boost memory and cognition, and they are hoping to learn how this tasty spice may play a role in preventing age-related cognitive decline.
  • Cinnamon is a source of manganese, fiber, iron, and calcium — essential nutrients needed for bone and digestive health.
  • The jury is still out on whether cinnamon can lower blood glucose; some studies indicate that it’s helpful (and may also lower lipids) while other studies have not found the same results.

How to Add More Cinnamon to Your Diet
Unless you dislike cinnamon, it’s pretty easy to fit this spice into your eating plan. It can be sprinkled on or mixed in to just about anything: hot and cold cereal, toast, bread or muffin batter, fruit, rice pudding… Other ways to try cinnamon include the following:

  • Sprinkling it on sweet potatoes or winter squash
  • Adding it while cooking lamb or pork chops
  • Stirring it into hot chocolate to make “Mexican-style” hot chocolate
  • Throwing a couple of cinnamon sticks into a mug of warm milk or soymilk

How do you use cinnamon?

More spices next week!

  • Sally Smart

    I add it to my coffee, If I make coffee for myself I add it to the grinds and if the pot is for others I put a little in my cup after it is brewed but it leaves a grainy bit in the bottom of your cup. Whole wheat toast with a little butter and a light sprinkle of cinnamon and I put lots in a bowl of cereal or hot oatmeal. Also add it to a jug of green iced tes.

  • Al

    My favorite (and the old time standby): Sprinkle (or if you’re like me, flood) it on your toast.

  • Lori

    I like cinnamon but always forget to put it on food. I was at the vitamin shoppe the other day and saw the capsules not I take them daily. I take them at the same time I take my meds and therefore I never forget it. For those of you who don’t like cinnamon this might be an alternative.

  • Raymond Zembrzycki

    I’m on a diet & use shakes to lose weight, I found out by using cinnamon mixed in my shakes adds great taste & helps the pounds come off faster, plus it lowers my blood sugar… And then I drink green tea with cinnamon, at bed time, also great tasting.. I’ve lost 35 Lbs. over three months just using cinnamon more often..

  • Jeanne Eaton

    I purchased a shaker of cinnamon sugar in grocery store. Threw away contents and refilled with half cinnamon and half sucralose. I can sprinkle it on many foods/drinks, plus it brings me some warm and fuzzy feelings because in my house while growing up we had a shaker of cinnamon sugar!

  • VERNA SMITH

    I SPRINKLE CINNAMON ON—WAFFLES, PANCAKES, FRENCH TOAST, RICE PUDDONG & TAPIOCA. ALSO GOOD ON APPLE SAUCE & TOAST. I ALSO TAKE CINNAMON CAPSULES TWICE A DAY —TO HOPEFULKLY LOWER MY BLOOD SUGAR & A SUGAR-BLOCKER TAB TWICE A DAY.

  • VERNA

    I sprinkle cinnamon on waffles, toast, pancakes, apple sauce & tapioca for a special flavoring.

  • acampbell

    Great ideas! I especially like Jeanne’s suggestion of mixing cinnamon with sucralose (or sweetener of your choice). It reminds me of the cinnamon-sugar I used to sprinkle on my toast as a child! Thanks everyone.

  • Timothy Miller

    I have been a type-2 diabetic for 15v yrs. Up and down sugars are common among diabetics. However since I have been taking cinnamon capsules. My sugars have been in control. After about 3 weeks I noticed a difference. Has to be the right kind of Cinnamon though. I take 2 caps daily one in the a.m. and one in the p.m.

  • cnoble

    If you are “sprinkling” cinnamon on food or adding to drinks, how much is needed for there to be a benefit?

  • acampbell

    Hi,

    About half of a teaspoon of cinnamon is what some studies have shown to be beneficial.

  • EARL OWENS

    I JUST STARTED USING UBERIAL TEAS TO GET THE YUKKE
    TASTE OUT OF ONE’S MOUTH AFTER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME. THE SPICE KNOWN AS CIMMAROM IS SUPPOSE TO HELP. I HAD JUST 2 TEA SPOONS WORTH SO FAR!!

    THIS MY FIRST POST ON THIS BLOG.

  • Fran Clemmer

    I have been using cinnamon for several years. I am taking 1,000 mgs. twice and my HbA1C has definitely been lower. I am a real believer that it helps. It comes in capsules. I don’t think I could eat that much every day on food but this works for me.

  • cindy older

    I SLICE AN APPLE,THEN SHAKE A LITTLE CINNIMON ON,PUT IN THE MICROWAVE FOR ABOUT 15 SECONDS TO WARM THE APPLE SLICES, WHAT A TREAT

  • Still too fat

    I was interested in the information about cinnamon as an antiseptic. If one is taking a digestive probiotic (lactobacillus acidophilus, for example)would taking a cinnamon supplement at the same time kill the beneficial bacteria?

  • Norma P

    I take cinnimon capsules twice a day, 1.000mg each one… plus sprinkle cinnimon on foods to eat.
    It truly does help keep levels down for me.
    What a great spice to use.
    My A1C’s are sure lower.

  • airborne mom

    I also grew up with a cinnamon and sugar shaker. I put cinnamon and splenda together in my shaker. I love whole wheat toast with peanut butter and cinnamon/splenda. One of my favorite sandwiches is pb with cinnamon/splenda. I also add splenda and cinnamon to my cottage cheese when I want a sweet treat. I also add to it to sugar free apple sauce.

  • David G.

    Unless I missed it I did not see any mention of using cinnamon in oatmeal. I always have a bowl of oatmeal before going to the gym in the morning.
    I never use the instant,always cook the old fashioned kind. My sugar is always within range after a 2-1/2hr workout.
    The type of cinnamon that I use is “cinela molida” Did not see it in your list. Does anyone know if this is a true cinnamon?
    Incidentlly, I’m 74 years young and have been type 2 for half of my life.

  • roberta

    Every morning I sprinkle 1/2 tsp. of cinnamon on my cereal. I’ve been doing this for about a year now and realize it does help to keep my glucose numbers down. My A1c is 6.2 for a while now.

    Also, I use cinnamon in the mixture of mild/egg
    to make french toast. Yummy!!

  • acampbell

    Hi David,

    I agree — the old-fashioned form of oatmeal is definitely the best and tastes great with cinnamon sprinkled on top. Also, canela molida, sometimes called Mexican cinnamon, is the same as cassia cinnamon (which is a type of “real” cinnamon).

  • Karen

    I love cinnamon so I was using cinnamon capsules for a while and realized that I was getting awful heartburn (1 capsule in the morning, switched to one in the evening). Never related the two until I read something more and stopped the cinnamon. Heartburn subsided! Just a coincidence?? Anyone have something that neutralizes that other than also popping Tums all day?

  • Teresa

    An old time family remedy. If you have an upset stomach or bad indigestion, take 2 or 3 sticks of cinnamon to 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cool and pour into a cup with a small amount of non-sweetner. Drink like a warm cup of tea. This should settle your stomach.

  • Glenn Stairs

    My indian friends in southern Mexico serve us cinnimon tea and it is refreshingly good. Of course they sweeten it with panela (native brown suger); but now that I know how it may help keep my blood suger in better control,(and may even help lose some pounds!) I’ll sweeten it with Stevia.

  • RoseMarie Brown

    Been taking cinnamon capsules for a year now and my A1C test is steady at 6.1…take one in morning and 1 in evening…even have been able to eliminate one of my diabetic meds.

  • VERNA SMITH

    TO: KAREN.

    FOR HEARTBURN, TAKE A ZANTAC 150 EVERY MORNING. ALSO PREVENTS & RELIEVES ACID INDIGESTION & SOUR STOMACH.

  • acampbell

    Hi Karen,

    Unfortunately, cinnamon and other spices can trigger heartburn in some people. You might try taking the capsule in the middle of the day, with a meal. You shouldn’t lie down for a few hours after taking cinnamon, either (which is why it’s not a good idea to take it at night when you’ll likely be going to bed soon).

  • yelrekt

    I use cinnamon in my oatmeal to feed me
    and my 17 month old.

  • Dian

    Karen, I suffer from heartburn usually it flares if I eat much bread or sweet rolls or cake, which has pretty much gone by the wayside now. I take Prilosec daily, Dr orders. It has pretty much stopped the heartburn. It’s inexpensive at both Costco and WAlmart

  • Julia

    I’ve been told to watch cinnamon intake because it can cause heart arrythmias.  Since I have them already, and take medications to prevent them, using cinnamon seems a little counterintuitive.It is interesting how many of the meds we take can affect blood glucose levels.  Degrees in pharmacy seem warranted sometimes.  Wow, managing one chronic condition is tricky enough.  Imagine handling the two or three many of us are stuck with.

  • acampbell

    Hi Still Too Fat,

    You ask a very good question about cinnamon and probiotics. Unfortunately, I don’t have a straight answer to your question. From what I’ve read, cinnamon may be beneficial in helping to kill off harmful bacteria, but I haven’t come across any literature on how it might interact with probiotics, which is the “good” bacteria. If I do find out any information, I’ll let you know.

  • Mark Ritchie

    For many of my breakfasts, I mash a banana and put it in toast with a liberal amount of cinnamon powder sprinkled on it. I also use cinnamon in curries and coffee. I’m SO pleased that it is good for me!

  • Mary Lynch

    I love cinnamon in stewed tomatoes and in spinach. I also add nutmeg to the spinach. I was told by Colonial Williamsburg staff that when spices became available the colonists used them in many dishes. I had never tried spicing up spinach before..tastes great..

  • Vicki Evans

    I’m so glad I learned about cinnamon benefits on this. Something pleasant for a change to decrease mny blood sugars. For years I have been putting cottage cheese sprinkled with sweetener & cinnamon on whole grain toast in order to get a quick protein packed healthy breakfast. Little did I know I was giving myself a bonus with the cinnamon. I shall start using it more !!!

  • Tienscv

    I’m on diet from march 2008 until today, and I laways Cinnamon capsules for my lose weight, and it’s good my diet…I’m so glad to learn more and more about Cinnamon, thanks so much

  • Edward

    I’m new at this, stumbled across the values of cinnamon when I asked the internet how it is grown. So I hope someone can will answer a few dumb questions for me.
    1. The difference between Canela Molida and Cassie cinnamon? I read that one of them could be bad for your kidneys if taken for extended time.
    2. I have also read that taking cinnamon with honey is especial good, any one know about this.

  • Andrea

    Cinnamon is one of my favorite spices! I use it in almost everything sweet, and sometimes even in meat.