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

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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.

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.

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!

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